Saturday, March 9, 2013

Helping Students Read Like Writers

“The sky finally lowered her silver shield and revealed the sun, cloaked in mist, looking large and red as blood. Its appearance fell on sterile hearts.” 

Isnt that a brilliant sentence? One of my 10th graders wrote it. Actually, its an original remixing of metaphors from Leo Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, Franz Kafka’s “The Bucket Rider,” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” And it was the result of my informal experiment of the last two weeks in helping students read like writers.

Heres how the experiment went: For 5 minutes at the beginning of the period, students took out the same sheet of paper and copied one cool sentence from yesterday’s reading. Then in their groups of 4-5, they shared the sentence they picked and why. At the end of the two weeks, they were to write at the bottom of that paper a sentence of their own using the sentences they’d copied. I did the exercise with them, showing them what I was doing on my computer hooked up to the data projector.

I can say the following:
  • The students seemed to enjoy it.
  • I overheard wonderful conversations articulating why they chose a particular sentence--from word choice to punctuation to tone.
  • A student came into class one morning asking, “Why does Kafka use so many semicolons?” 
  • I saw some daring sentence attempts, like the one above.
Several experiences coalesced to result in this exercise. I’d read about focused practice and the suggestion that writers start every day copying another writer whose style they admire. That made me wonder how much my writing had benefited from years of journaling that included copying out bits I liked--whether from the Bible, other devotional reading, or novels or poems I was enjoying. 

In my Japanese class I had to write a sentence on the model of a very long one which used most of the grammatical structures we’d learned in the unit. Wow, was it hard. And I thought, If I had to do this even once a day, I’d learn to use more sophisticated sentence structures. Then it hit me--so would my non-native speakers! 

Finally, I’d read about a writing class where the professor told students NOT to write anything original but to recombine words and phrases from other places. 

I love having an idea that works! 

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