A basketball player watches a professional athlete double pump and totally fake out the defense for a clear shot and a swish—then determines to try it himself the next time he’s on the court. That’s how I want my students to read as writers. It’s a phrase I’ve used for a long time, and I’m only slowly, slowly learning how to get traction on it, really show kids how to do it, and get them do it themselves.
This week we got off to a good start, reading Amy Tan’s short narrative essay “Fish Cheeks” and writing our own personal narrative about a time we learned a lesson. I asked students to read it once for enjoyment and once as a writer, looking for powerful verbs, specific details, dialogue, and anything else they found particularly effective. We shared what we’d noticed and why:
- Verbs like murmur, belch, grimace, stun, muster. (A word doesn’t have to be 5 syllables long to be effective!)
- Specific details like, “Robert grunted hello, and I pretended he was not worthy of existence.” (So much better than “I was so embarrassed”—you can actually feel the embarrassment yourself of these two fourteen-year-olds painfully negotiating the social pitfalls of adolescence.)
- Dialogue like the following: ”’It's a polite Chinese custom to show you are satisfied,’ explained my father to our astonished guests.”
After drafting and before peer revising, we went back to “Fish Cheeks” and reviewed the verbs, details, and dialogue we’d found effective. Then students read each other’s narratives looking for good examples of verbs, details, and dialogue, and suggesting places to incorporate even more.
At the end of that day, I asked them to share their Google Doc with me for my revising feedback before one more day of classwork for editing. I asked them to highlight one example each of where they’d tried to use a powerful verb, a specific detail, and dialogue.
It was delightful to see the result—how diligently students had worked to incorporate strategies, and how it really perked up a story when they did.
The final day for editing I used models, too:
- A student sample with too many adverbs—demonstrating how to use stronger verbs, or if the verb is already strong, let it stand on its own.
- “Fish Cheeks” once more to notice how professionals manage the conventions for using dashes and for punctuating dialogue.
I circulated to be available for questions as students did their final editing. And the questions I fielded were real writerly questions. Not “Do I need a comma here?” but “I really love this word aesthetic—did I use it correctly?” and “Do I have too many specific details in this series?” (Answer to the second question: That is an unusually long series, but you are writing from inside the head of a little girl going ga-ga over a Disney princess dress. It’s perfect.)
Confession: I’d hoped to write my own narrative along side the students, and I did not get that done. Still, I made progress on my goal of more intentionally using writing models. Better yet, as a result, the students made progress on reading like writers and writing like readers.
Goal: Do it again; do it better. Foster a community of learners who read like writers and write like readers.