Jupiter

 

STRONG, BRACKETS, STUCK: WRITERS’ TOOLS


Carol Jupiter

 

Carol Jupiter is a classroom teacher for the Toronto District School Board

hjupiter@sympatico.ca

 

 

Introduction

 

For several weeks I thought that Omar On Ice by Maryann Kovalski was the ticket that would teach the students in my grade two class how to write a story. The story unfolds quickly and readily fits the story arc (e.g., opening, build up, problem, events, resolution, end) that I presented to my class. My students had no difficulty analyzing and placing the plot on this arc. They acknowledged that stories usually work this way. But they struggled to apply it in their own writing. Their story beginnings were not bad, but more often than not they had no idea how to develop a plot. Their sentences were flat and lay dead on the page. In sum, the stories were boring.

I wrestled with this demon, trying to find a way to make my students’ writing come alive. Reminding them about the story arc resulted in duly plotted, but lifeless sentences. There had to be another route. This was my quandary. I laboured on trying every way to overcome this impasse. Then one morning in the quiet of my classroom I had my “Eureka” moment. I turned to that classic adage “Show; don’t tell.”

“Show; don’t tell”, the writing teachers’ mantra, continues to challenge writing teachers and writers of all ages. Just what this statement means and how exactly to teach it, are questions I have endlessly pondered. This year was no different. I had no answers, and a class filled with young writers who desperately needed guidance.

A barrage of questions rained down on me. How could I help seven year olds understand and apply the mantra? How could I ensure the best use of their writing time? How could I enable them to read and assess their own writing? How could I implement and support the critiquing of their own and others’ writing?

Stumped, I turned to the multitude of books on writing that filled a shelf in my library. I recalled the wisdom of Nancy Atwell’s (1987) writing workshops and the value of the writing process gleaned from Donald Graves’ (1983) work. Glancing through Atwell’s book I was reminded of the importance of mini-lessons and how their brevity and frequency serve as quick and focused instruction for writers. While we can use those teachable moments for highlighting technique and the mechanics of writing; Elbow (1981, p.50) advises us that although an open-ended writing process may be chaotic, it provides us with an opportunity to create something new and unexpected. He assures us that this lengthy process will change our words and ourselves. Fletcher (1993) echoes these thoughts:

“Writing process has helped demystify the act of writing. But maybe we need to remystify it. We have heard that clear writing comes from clear thinking. William Zinsser, among others, has exhorted us to write strong, uncluttered prose. Teachers of writing have worked hard to learn and teach the “writing logic” that would help students to write well. Skilled writing would seem to be similar to building a house. The writer needs material, a blueprint and elbow grease to finish the project. Simple, isn’t it? (p. 23)

Clearly it is not. Fletcher goes on to suggest that the best writing teachers read to their students the literature that moves them. These teachers share their passion for words and their own attempts at writing with their class. They take risks and make the taking of risks a safe and essential component of writing class. In addition, they foster a love of words and guide writers to be specific about person, place and thing.

This naturally leads to the following questions: What are the right words? How do students find them? How can I help my students find them? Can they see the specifics? Often teachers advocate for adjectives and adverbs, suggesting that they bring detail and colour to writing. In sharp contrast to that approach, Zinsser, (1976) states, “Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.” (p. 70) He also holds that active verbs convey meaning and generally do not need modifiers. Like Zinsser, McClanahan (1999) counsels writers to use active verbs to depict the action and enable the reader to visualize the scene. Through their discussion of word usage both Zinsser and McClanahan support, “Show; don’t tell.” I trusted their ideas, but had not yet grasped how to teach them.

Finally I turned to Ann Copeland (1996), who wrote: “Beginning writers are often instructed to show (through dramatic scenes) rather than tell (through narrative summary). Some telling, of course, is necessary. Exposition and summary surround scenes, linking them. But as a general rule, I guide my students toward showing as the better way of sustaining narrative interest and intensity” (p.195). At long last I began to understand. These disparate, yet linked voices filled my head with the importance of verbs, nouns, active verbs, writing process, mini-lessons and the necessity of balancing showing and telling. I was ready to confront “show; don’t tell” with my students.

 

Research Methods

 

My research study addressed the question: How does the use of the teaching approaches, “strong sentences,” “brackets,” and “stuck” influence grade two students’ writing and the feedback that teachers and writers provide? To answer my research question, I collected data through observation, listening, reading students’ work and note taking. I analyzed changes in both students’ writing and conversations with peers and myself. Through the latter, I was able to assess students’ capacity to identify strong sentences in their own and others’ writing. I also noted changes in vocabulary, (i.e. students’ ability to employ “strong”, “stuck” and “brackets”), as an integral component of their writing process. In addition, I was able to determine how well students could help their peers get unstuck and their ability to do so without taking ownership of classmates’ writing.

 

The Three Teaching Approaches and Their Influence on Students’ Writing and Critiquing

 

Strong Sentences

Fortunately, I had impulsively purchased Frieda Wishinsky’s picture book You’re Mean Lily Jean (2009). I thought that the concept of friendship and bullying that it presented would be meaningful to my students. Little did I know that it would be the key to a new way of teaching writing, critiquing and providing feedback.

Without showing my students the illustrations, I read the opening sentence: “Carly always played with her big sister, Sandy,” then asked my students what they knew. They responded with:

“Two sisters”

“They’re young”

“They are the main characters.”

“They like each other.”

“Carly is younger.”

“Didn’t need anyone else to play with”

“That’s like me and my sister”

“I’m the older one.”

“I’m the younger one.”

“They’re happy.”

They gathered all this without seeing the illustrations. It took only eight words to capture this audience and engage them in the text. This was a powerful beginning, which led me to declare that this sentence was strong. To verify this, I reviewed all the things that they had gleaned from it. We then discussed the concept that strong sentences provide a lot of information about characters, plot and setting. All were in agreement that this was true. I continued to read to my students, but stopped frequently to discuss what they had understood from the text, and to identify strong sentences. This exercise confirmed the power of strong sentences and the author’s skill in writing them.

I then wrote the following sentences on the board and asked my students to determine if they were strong:

“Once there was a boy. His name was Tom. He wasn’t very tall.”

The students concluded that these sentences were not strong and then rewrote them as: “Tom wasn’t very tall” which they deemed to be strong. I asked them how they would follow this sentence. They collaborated and offered three options:

He was so short he couldn’t see over the people in front of him.

He was so short everybody laughed at him.

He was the shortest person in the history of fifth grade.

 It was clear from this that they had some grasp of strong sentences, in addition to the idea that there were many ways to develop the story.

Following this joint exercise I gave ten minutes for each student to write two sentences that would serve as the beginning of a new story. We then gathered together to share and critique the writing. Everyone was eager to read to the class and listen to their peers’ critiques. Although their comments frequently began with the niceties of “I thought it was good” they then moved on to more focused comments that addressed the issue of strong writing. In some instances they were comfortable stating that although they thought it was good “The sentences weren’t strong.” They made comments such as: “That had good information.” “There was lots of information.” “The sentences didn’t tell us anything.” “Those sound like sentences for later in the story.” All of the critiquing was constructive and enabled the writers to rethink and revise. During this process, I limited my comments to elaborations on students’ statements. Not only did I want the students to develop their skills at identifying strong and weak writing, I also wanted to ensure that they could discuss this with comfort and ease. This in fact was the case.

This session established the ground rules for the critiquing that followed. This could occur with the teacher or a classmate. We were duty bound to identify strong sentences and those that could/should be altered or eliminated. This is demonstrated in Sandra’s (all names are pseudonyms) writing that follows.

Sandra was struggling with her story about Alexis.

 

Figure 1 here

 

Her awkwardly constructed two-sentence introduction, “Once upon a time there was a girl. Her name was Alexis.” was choppy and exemplified the writing style of her classmates. Furthermore, when she examined this for strength in comparison with Wishinsky’s opening, Sandra acknowledged that it wasn’t strong. After some discussion about her sentences’ strengths and weaknesses, her writing evolved, as did her character. The story changed and became:

When Alexis was born she was not like the other babies. She had wings and super power. She could make flowers into candy. She could make paper into dolls. Everybody called Alexis, Alexis the Super Baby.”

 

Similar changes are also evident in Karen’s work:

 Gigure 2 here


 

This draft became:

Kelly took her good luck bunny everywhere. She took her to bed, dance, tap and the cottage.

Kelly was getting ready to go to school. It was her first day of junior kindergarten. She jumped all around. After breakfast she wrapped bunny in warm cloths, then put her in her backpack.

When Kelly got to school her teacher said she had to leave bunny outside. “Oh, no,” Kelly said in her head, “I will cry.” Tears went down her face. She did not do anything, not even play at school. She couldn’t do anything without bunny. The school bell rang. She sprinted to her mom.

 

Karen was able to focus in on those behaviours that defined her character, Kelly, in a very visual way. She eliminated superfluous information such as, “She went to school the next day and it was her first day of JK.” Karen replaced this with “Kelly was getting ready to go to school,” which led to the packing of teddy in her backpack. Karen realized that the teddy was more significant than it being her first day in JK. Furthermore Karen had, through her listing of all the places that Kelly took teddy, already established the somewhat anxious nature of the character, all of which might lead to the understanding that it was Kelly’s first day in JK. By sifting through the sentences, Karen was able to recognize what was essential and strong. This sifting and sorting through sentences became the universal practice. As a result, students’ writing became tighter, more focused, fluent and purposeful. Things were beginning to shift.

I was also struck by another aspect of this day; no one wanted to stop writing. No one inquired about other work. Indeed some asked for more writing time. This assured me that engaged writers of any age welcome time to write. They don’t want it chopped up into timetable segments. So be it. Whenever possible, I set aside extended times for writing. We were launched!!

Or so I thought. Strong beginnings like Sandra’s and Karen’s did not always evince strong or even reasonable writing to continue the story, but how to solve this problem? It was clear that extended writing times were valuable, but time was only a partial solution. My students were happily creating and adding to their stories, but often with bleak results. How to ensure that they sustained their strong beginnings in the sentences that followed became the focus of my next effort. We took several routes:

1)      Initially I asked students to reread their work to find strong sentences. If this proved problematic, I paired students up with a classmate who would read or listen to a reading of the work. Together they could then note strong sentences and identify gaps in the writing.

2)      If this failed to provide direction I read their work and discussed sentences asking if they were strong. If necessary, I asked the following: Did you depict what you wanted? What have you left out? What mental images did you see happening?  Were these in the sentence? These questions were posed to assist them in identifying strong and weak sentences. This narrowed students’ focus and enabled them to address their work sentence by sentence as necessary.

3)      Sometimes I skipped 1) and went directly to 2).

This was time consuming, but essential and invaluable in providing focused feedback using consistent language. STRONG was the hallmark of this stage.

 

Bracketing

To improve their writing, students rapidly reached for their erasers. I saw this as a waste of time. So I instructed them in the use of brackets. Students could and should bracket any sentences, words, passages, and if necessary complete pages, that they wanted omitted from the text. They quickly learned to use this tool. I assured them that I was willing to read their work spread around over many pages as long as we somehow coded it with numbers or other suitable symbols, because this saved them time with their revisions.

Brackets also ensured that nothing was erased that might be useful later in terms of ideas, sentences and words. I know from bitter experience that the eraser, like the delete button, often evaporates carefully crafted phrases that could be used elsewhere. This was evident in Karen’s story about Kelly. Karen’s story read (the brackets that she inserted are included here):

Kelly had a pink bunny. (its name was bunny. Kelly brang it everywhere. She also liked it.) (The bunny’s name was Bunny.) on Sunday Kelly went to the park she put bunny on the bench and she left her there. Her friend’s dad picked her up.)

Kelly and the bunny

(Kelly had a bunny Kelly had it since she was a baby. She was in 2nd grade in 210 with Mrs. O’Toole.)

Kelly took her good luck bunny everywhere. She took her.

As she reviewed and reread testing her sentences for their strength, Karen bracketed those that didn’t measure up. However, the fact that they were still on the page allowed her to draw on their content and use it in the revised version: “Kelly took her good luck bunny everywhere. She took her to bed, dance, tap and the cottage.

Brackets are invaluable tools. They allow the writer to explore and try out ideas while eliminating the bad or weak sentences and preserving ideas on the page. Like the many draft versions that we save on our word processors, we can return to our earlier attempts and extract what we need. We might also liken this to what Peter Carver, one of my writing instructors, termed as throat clearing. By this he meant getting down many ideas, some of which would be useful in the end and others that had to be discarded. All writers need this. Brackets simplify this process and encourage writers to value their work. Furthermore, they reinforce the idea that our initial effort will not be perfect, nor must it be. BRACKETS were the hallmark of this stage.

 

Stuck Sessions

Despite our best attempts to support the writing, students frequently reached a roadblock. They did not know how to proceed with their writing and/or on which course to take the story. Too many of them termed this state as writer’s block. This term suggested a dead end with real, solid obstacles obstructing their path. Somehow this seemed to be an easy escape from the task. Apparently this was a tack that they had employed with abandon in the past. From my perspective, this was unacceptable. I wanted them to solve problems, not avoid them. At the very least they had to make an effort. I suggested that they were merely stuck and not blocked. Unlike being blocked, being stuck held the hope of being able to shift thinking. We instituted that word for any time that a writer faced problems related to continuing the story and/or strengthening sentences.

More often than not, students said that they were stuck when they encountered problems with the plot. To get them un-stuck we often held class “stuck sessions” during which any individual could choose to read to the class and indicate where they were stuck. We stipulated that they had to read their stories from the beginning to ensure that we all knew the characters and plot. Then their classmates offered a variety of ideas to them. Usually the reader stated when he/she had heard enough. This meant that something had clicked and had given them the opening needed to return to writing. I was amazed at the thoughtful suggestions students proposed to each other. This procedure was such a positive experience that Thomas, who was struggled with writing, stated that he was stuck and wished to read to the class. With great aplomb he stood before them, clearly read:

 This is Sam. He loves to play soccer. He lives on a dirt road. Sam lives with his family. They went swimming in their backyard. When Sam came back his WII was gone, nothing to put the disc in. No WII steering wheel. No WII controller. No WII games.”

Hands shot into the air offering their suggestions: “He’s got to look for the WII.” “Maybe he should look outside.” “Did a robber break into the house?” “Where did he leave it? Maybe he doesn’t remember.” This was enough to help Thomas. It got him thinking. It helped him understand what his reading audience would want to know. Then he could get it down on paper.

When we were unable to gather as a class, I paired up students for this assistance. I also learned that it wasn’t necessary to do this formally because children comfortably turned to their neighbour(s) and solicited help when stuck.

Naturally I, too, had a role in the stuck process. Students frequently stated that they were stuck and requested that I work with them individually. Just as in the former stuck procedures, we looked at sentences for their strength and what they added to the story. This, of course, meant that after gathering the overall intent of the story, we scrutinized each sentence. These conversations were always intense. Students had to clarify what they wanted to say. They had to examine word usage, ensure that they had used the precise verb (without my using that terminology), created a visual scene or emotional tone, and transferred their image of the event on to the page. This often entailed their acting it out, posing, or analyzing body language. This occurred when Nina and I looked at the sentence, “Santa and Bella were talking when Bella accidentally fell back and *undid* the rope that held the sleigh down.” I questioned the word undid. “What exactly did she mean? Did Bella untie the rope?” I asked Nina to act it out to show me what she meant. Only then did Nina realize that “knocked off” should replace “undid”. Slowly taking students through the story and asking them to elaborate always worked. The investment in time and collaboration was challenging for both parties, but resulted in stronger writing and proud authors. STUCK was the hallmark of this stage.

 

Results

 

Although it is hard for me to objectively measure students’ gains, the opportunity to do so came in the form of a visiting author, Hadley Dyer. In a fifty-minute class focused on “Show; don’t tell” Hadley introduced students to the concept of “proof,” which she likened to evidence that a judge would require to be convinced that someone had committed a crime. This was simply another way of addressing “Show; don’t tell.” After reading students portions of I Am Small (Fitch, 1997) she asked them to identify the evidence that supported the title. They confidently responded with: “Can’t reach the light switch,” “Feet don’t touch the floor,” and “Sees knee-caps when standing.” She then proceeded to tell them a story about a visitor who stole a two foot chocolate Easter bunny from the school staffroom. She concluded the story with: “When the teacher went to get the chocolate bunny, it was gone and the teacher was mad.” Hadley noted that that sentence was weak; it didn’t provide any evidence that the teacher was mad. She invited each student to write a better ending.

With little hesitation the students put pencil to paper. Obviously writing was something very familiar and comfortable. They described the teacher’s bright red face, clenched hands, teeth that ground together and her threat to track down the thief. Apparently they had come to understand “Show; don’t tell.” Hadley concurred. Furthermore, she stated that they wrote like children in older grades, not like seven year olds.

Hadley’s remarks and observations did more than confirm my own evaluation. I knew that the students’ writing was changing over time. Their stories were longer, more detailed and more interesting. Their vocabularies were richer. They voluntarily searched our list of “Other Words for Said” to find the precise word for their sentence. Indeed, students often asked me to add words that they had thought of to that list. Their engagement in writing was evident and palpable. They had also learned the most valuable of all lessons for writers, perseverance. Without that, few writers would ever succeed in composing stories that satisfy their audience.

My battle with “Show; don’t tell” was over. I had, I hoped, slain the dragon with “strong”, “brackets” and “stuck”, and the freedom of time to write. I felt victorious, or at least satisfied that I had the tools for instruction and feedback that could make a difference for my students. In the course of this, I had helped them become better writers, taught them to recognize strong writing, given them the tools to critique each other’s writing, and assured them they could get unstuck. They also learned that if they were well and truly stuck it was fine to abandon a story and tackle a new one. Beyond this, we had a universal language for writing that we could apply to any text and writing situation.

This knowledge held another implication for me. In any given school year I publish at least one story for each student. I use MS Word and set up the text in booklet format and leave space for illustrations. In the past I went directly from student writing to the booklet. This year I inserted another step. After word processing the text, I printed it as continuous text with numbered margin notes that indicated where students could consider whether or not sentences needed to be stronger. This step allowed both teacher and student to read the text without the distraction of brackets, arrows and symbols, thus, enabling a more informed revision. The significance of this intermediary step is evident in Sandra’s text.

 

Figure 3 here

 

Figure 4 here

 

 

 

What I Learned about Teaching Writing

 

Although Zinsser, Atwell, Graves, Fletcher, Copeland, McClanahan, and Hodgkins are back on the shelf, they are never out of reach. Their ideas inform my thinking. I do not think of them as discrete units employed in isolation, but as necessary components of a unique whole. The deceptive simplicity of “strong, brackets, and stuck” belies the complexity of writing and its many challenges. Simultaneously its clarity and direct approach issue power to both students and teacher. We are well on the way to solving the puzzle posed by “Show; don’t tell”.

My writing classroom is a noisy place filled with the activity of writers eagerly engaged in writing. At any one time children are reading their own writing aloud to themselves, looking for gaps and omissions. Other children are reading aloud for the pleasure of hearing their own words. Other students may be reading to a classmate to entertain them with their story. Yet another has asked for help getting un-stuck. In a corner of the room there is a pair of students reading to ensure that the sentences are strong and packed full of information. Still another is quietly bracketing sentences that were not strong. The room is abuzz with people who care about writing.

 My initial tools, wonderful picture books, are always at my side to refresh our memories of strong writing. They are the essential ingredient in a complex process that constantly needs feeding. I supplement this with frequent readings of students’ writings that demonstrate strength and growth. The latter engender faith in each and every student that they, too, can write with strength.

Perhaps what we have all learned throughout this process is patience, the patience to read with care, to examine each sentence for its strength, to ensure that each sentence builds on the strengths of those that precede it and to value the time that we spend in the process. It has instilled in us the determination to succeed and persevere in our pursuit of accomplished writing. Armed with the tools of “strong, “brackets” and “stuck”, and given the luxury of time all students succeed in becoming more accomplished and confident writers.


References

 

Atwell, N. (1987). In the middle: Writing, reading and learning with adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Copeland, A. (1996). The ABC’s of writing fiction. Cincinnati, OH: Story Press.

Elbow, P. (1981). Writing with power: Techniques for mastering the writing process (2nd ed). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Fitch, S. (1997). I am small. Toronto, ON: Doubleday.

Fletcher, R. (1993). What a writer needs. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Graves, D. (1983). Writing: Teachers and children at work. Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann.

Hodgkins, J. (1993). A passion for narrative: A guide for writing fiction. Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart.

Kovalski, M. (1999). Omar on ice. Toronto, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

McClanahan, R. (1999). Word painting: A guide to writing more descriptively. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books.

Wishinsky, F. (2009). You’re mean Lily Jean. Toronto, ON: North Winds Press an imprint of Scholastic Canada.

Zinsser, W. (1976). On writing well: The classic guide to writing nonfiction (25th ed.). New York, NY: Harper Collins.