Saturday, February 13, 2016

Reading Transition Like Writers

Where do you think this paragraph goes?

Transition. Not the most exciting topic, whether in life or in writing. But in life and in writing, doing it well can make all the difference.

Common student misunderstandings for writing include thinking that the 5-paragraph essay is an actual genre, that beginning every paragraph with a word like first/second/third or however and moreover is the gold standard, and that the final sentence of a paragraph must always both sum up the previous paragraph and set up the subsequent paragraph.

I can tell them that these understandings are not true. At least not categorically. I can tell them to write as many paragraphs as necessary to communicate their message. (And if they have one very long point, it should be broken, paragraph-wise, into subpoints. Moby Dick’s multi-page paragraphs would immediately disqualify it from best-seller status today.) I can tell them that there needs to be a logical development inherent in the way that they build their points. I can tell them to look at the transitions when they read articles and blogs. 

They will nod hesitantly with a slightly puzzled wrinkle between their brows. Which means they don’t really get it. 

Looking for an engaging way to get students to really notice transitions in a model, I came across this idea somewhere on the internet (sorry I can’t give proper credit) a year or two ago, and never got around to using it until this week. (One sign of insanity: trying the same thing and expecting different results. Yeah. I finally tried something new.) This is so simple, so engaging, and so effective, I’m kicking myself for not trying it sooner. 

All you need is one mentor essay—whether it is a published article or a sample student piece from past years. Make a copy for each group of students. (I use groups of 4.) Slice paragraphs apart and shuffle. Have groups try to put the paragraphs in the order of the original piece. I have never heard such good discussions about thesis statements and preview of points, transition between paragraphs and logical development, nail statements and topic sentences, as I did on Wednesday. 

On Wednesday, we took about 10 minutes for this exercise at the beginning of a writing day with the rough draft due at the end of the class Friday. After this exercise, performed on a student essay from past years that students had already discussed on Monday as sample response to the prompt, they had the rest of the period to work on their rough drafts, thinking particularly about how to build in transition from one paragraph to the next. 

I’ll do this exercise again sometime with a published article. I’d also like to do it with sentences within a paragraph.

What are ways you’ve used to help students read like writers to understand transition between paragraphs?

More 10th graders puzzle over transition.

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