Category Archives: Introductions

How to show students how to incorporate backstory into action

I would find a well-known story—fairy tales are perfect—which begin with backstory.  Either give each student in the class a copy or show a copy on the overhead projector.  For example, here is a version of a famous fairy tale:

Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who were very unhappy because they had no children. But at last a little daughter was born, and their sorrow was turned to joy. All the bells in the land were rung to tell the glad tidings.

The king gave a feast so grand that the likes of it had never been known. He invited all the fairies he could find in the kingdom—there were seven of them—to come as godmothers. He hoped that each would give the princess a good gift.

But there came into the hall a mean old fairy who had not been invited. She had fled the kingdom in anger fifty years before and had not been seen since.

The evil fairy’s turn came to give a gift to the baby. Shaking her head spitefully, she said, “When the princess is seventeen years old, she shall prick her finger with a spindle, and-she-shall-die!”

Ask the students to read the fairy tale opening several times, and then identify what you mean by backstory–the king and queen being sad they had no children, the bells ringing, the feast, the fairies invited, the old fairy not invited.  Explain that together you are going to rewrite this beginning in such a way that these events are written into the action.  Suggest that the place to begin the action is where the mean fairy is about to cast a spell on the infant.  Ask the class for ideas how to begin.

If this is the first time you have done this with a group of students, you might not get a response.  Or you might get a response that is more backstory.  So you might need to model how to approach this problem.  You might think aloud how you would write this story opener, accepting some of your own ideas and rejecting others.  Let the students hear how you would go about writing a more interesting beginning.

You could say and write,

Once upon a time, a mean fairy strode into a king’s and queen’s ballroom, glaring at the invited guests until the royal court, the king, the queen, and the tiny baby princess grew still.  Even the castle bells stopped ringing.

Ask students if they recognize that his story is a fairy tale.  Ask how they know.  These questions keep them involved.  Now continue thinking and writing aloud.

“Since you have waited 17 years for a daughter,” the mean fairy said, staring at the king and queen, “I will protect the princess for 17 years.”  The king and queen rose to their feet and clapped, as did the other fairies and guests.  Even the baby kicked her tiny feet in approval.

Explain to the students that you have just set up the king, queen and royal court–as well as the readers–for what will happen next.

But the mean fairy was not finished.  “On your 17th birthday,” she said, leaning over the baby’s cradle, and touching a finger of the infant, “you shall prick this finger on a spinning wheel.”  She turned around to look at the king and queen before she turned back to the baby.  “And you shall die!”

Next, ask the students to compare the two fairy tale openings, side by side if you can.  Point out that some of the backstory was not told in the second version, but the important parts were.  More importantly, the second version starts with action, with someone doing something. We learn so much from the dialog of the mean fairy:  that there is a king and queen who have wanted a child for a long time, that their longed-for baby is a girl, and that on her 17th birthday she will prick her finger and die because of a spell by the evil fairy.  Aren’t those the essential parts of the backstory in the original version?  And isn’t the longer quote of the mean fairy in the second version more scary and exciting than telling the information as backstory, as in the first version?

When you have worked through this process with one fairy tale, choose another, and another, and another.  Each time rewrite the fairy tale aloud with the students, asking for their input as they grow more capable of writing this way.  Then, divide the class into small groups, and let each group attempt to rewrite a fairy tale opening.  Meanwhile, you circulate to offer help, suggestions or praise.  Ask students to volunteer to read their openings aloud and to talk about how they wrote, explaining their problems and solutions.

Finally, ask students to write their own fairy tale opening, incorporating background information into the action.  Let students read their works aloud.

For all of these exercises, students needn’t write the whole fairy tale.  What you are teaching is how to write better narrative openings, so writing the opening is enough.

 

When you are writing the sentences of an essay, where do you begin?

  1.  with the hook?
  2. with the introduction?
  3. with the thesis or essay topic sentence?
  4. with the supporting topic sentences?
  5. with the conclusion?

The answer is with the thesis /  essay topic sentence.

3rd grader writing an essay.But too many students don’t start there.  They start with a topic—say Harry Potter books—and then focus on writing a hook to get someone to read their essay about Harry Potter books.  When they are writing their hook they have no idea about the precise topic of their essay, just that it has something to do with Harry Potter books.  Wrong approach!

To impress upon my students how primary the thesis is to an essay, I have them write it on their planner before they plan in detail.  Then when they begin to write sentences, I have them skip five or six lines on notebook paper (or on a computer) and write their thesis there, partway down the paper, leaving room to add an introduction later.

The thesis is the anchor of the whole paper.  I have students box that sentence in color for easy referral.

Next, I have the student write the body paragraph topic sentences. This time I ask students to skip ten or more spaces after each body paragraph.  Later they can come back and fill in those spaces with details.

We read over those topic sentences and check out each one against the thesis.  Does the topic sentence support the thesis?  If yes, keep it.  If no, toss it and write another topic sentence which does.

Next, students write the body paragraph sentences with all the details which back up the paragraph’s topic sentence and the thesis.

Now that they know what their essay is about they can go back and write the introduction and the conclusion.

Think of an essay as a wedding ceremony.  What is most important in the ceremony?  Is it the music as the bride walks down the aisle?  Is it the flowers?   Is it the witnesses?  The kiss?  Of course not.  It’s the vows.  The vows are just a few words.  “I take you, Harry, to be my husband.”  “I take you, Meghan, to be my wife.”  Those vows are followed by supporting details like “for better or for worse,” and “in sickness and in health.”

The vows are like the thesis.  “In good times and in bad” and the other details are like the body of the essay.  The music is like the introduction and conclusion.  And the bride’s beautiful dress is the hook.  You can have a wedding without the dress and the music, but you cannot have one without the vows.  The vows are where you begin, just as the thesis is where you begin an essay.

An essay is a planned, organized piece of writing with one overarching idea expressed in a topic sentence / thesis.  Until you know what that thesis is, it makes no sense to write any other sentences because every other sentence must support the thesis.

Where do you start writing an essay?

An essay always starts with a topic.  Your teacher might assign a topic based on what you are studying in school, such as evolution or Romeo and Juliet.

But then what?  Do you just start writing?  Not if you want a good essay!  No, you think about the topic, about what interests you.  Does Harry Potter’s relationship with his aunt, uncle and cousin interest you?  Does the paucity of strong female characters—just Hermione and Professor McGonagall—in the Harry Potter series interest you?  You need to narrow down the topic.  At this point, you may have written a list but no sentences.

So when do you start writing sentences?  You start with a working thesis or topic sentence for the whole essay.  Your thesis needs to be a statement, and it should be an opinion which you can back up with evidence.  “Harry Potter’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents for him.”  “Harry Potter books contain few strong female characters compared to strong male characters.”

Now what?  Now come up with two, three, or four supporting ideas for that thesis statement (three if your teacher demands a five-paragraph essay).  Write those supporting ideas as statements.  “Harry’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents because they forced him to live in a closet while Dudley had a big bedroom.”  “Harry’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents because they bought few toys for Harry and many for Dudley.”  “Harry’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents because they didn’t tell him the truth about his dead parents.”

Thesis written.  Supporting ideas written.  Now what?  Do you start your introduction?  No.  Now you search for evidence to back up your supporting ideas.  Under each supporting idea, use three or more bullets to identify evidence.  Use direct quotes or paraphrases.  Add page numbers or other citation information.  You want to have plenty of proof that your supporting ideas are true.  If you can’t find enough evidence, eliminate that supporting idea and write another for which you can find data.

Thesis written, supporting ideas written, evidence jotted down.  Now do you begin your introduction?  Yes.  Think how you can start out with either a hook or with general information about your thesis, narrowing your information with each introductory sentence you write.

For example, you could start by saying that Harry was raised by his aunt and uncle, a general fact.  Next you could say that his aunt and uncle have a son about Harry’s age, another general fact.  Now you say that Harry and Dudley are treated differently by Harry’s aunt and uncle, and that Harry is not treated well.  Do you see how you are going from general information—Harry is raised by an aunt and uncle—to more specific information—Harry is not treated well by his aunt and uncle.  Now you can add your thesis as the last sentence in this introductory paragraph.

Adding your body paragraphs should be easy.  You already wrote the first sentence of each body paragraph, and you listed evidence.  Turn the list into sentences and your body is done.

Now it is time to write the conclusion.   Two “go-to” conclusions that work well are a full circle conclusion–returning to something you said in your introduction–or future looking introduction–talking about the future of the topic.  For example, you could go full circle by saying that Harry’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents, but they provide a great deal of humor at the beginning of the Harry Potter books, hooking young readers.  Or you could look to the future by saying that Harry Potter would certainly raise his children differently from the way his aunt and uncle raised him, providing comfortable bedrooms and using closets for clothes, broom sticks and wands–and maybe for a photo of their great uncle, great aunt and cousin.

College writing is moving into high school

I am working with a high school sophomore who is writing an argumentative research paper, the kind of research paper I was required to write in college.

His teacher identified the type of information required for each paragraph in a handout.  It includes a hook leading into an introduction leading into a thesis, using a funnel effect to taper to the thesis.  The thesis must have several elements, all of which must be backed with data in the body.

The body must have at least three sections of data supporting the thesis, plus a counter argument which must be debunked.  The conclusion should not merely repeat the thesis but in some other way support the ideas of the essay.

This essay is due not for an A.P. course but for a regular sophomore English class.

With another high school sophomore, I worked on a Toulmin essay.  This kind of essay has a rigid structure for each body paragraph.  First comes a position statement or thesis; second, a claim or example supporting the position; third, data cited to support the claim; fourth, a warrant or a clarification of the connection between the claim and the data; fifth, a counterclaim which rebuts the thesis; and last, a rebuttal with data to destroy the counterclaim.

With another high school freshman I worked on a response to a news article using the SAOQ method:  summarize the article in a few sentences; analyze the main idea or some aspect of the article; offer your opinion on the ideas in the article, using logical arguments to back your opinion; and offer three discussion questions of a probing nature to show you have pondered the article.

These assignments call on higher level thinking skills:  analyzing information; researching, using and citing appropriate data; recognizing truth from stereotypes or “fake news”; recognizing valid counterclaims; evaluating ideas; and synthesizing information into new literary forms.

In short, these writing assignments require critical thinking, the kind of thinking the Common Core Standards advocate.  No matter what you may think of the Common Core Standards, they are putting pressure on schools to develop students who can think.  In the three schools where my three students study, the schools and the students are meeting the challenge.

Peer evaluation of writing

Is it worth taking time to let students evaluate others’ writing?

Recently I asked second graders to write stories based on the picture book, Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle.  Since the book is wordless, the students were forced to write their own versions of the story relying not on the author’s words but rather on the illustrations for guidance.

Later, I selected portions of two students’ stories for comparison.  I typed and printed them side by side, so students could compare how the two students wrote the same parts of the story.

Here are some of the comments students (second through eighth grade) made:

  • I like Student One’s opening because it tells when the story happens.
  • I like Student Two’s opening because it names the girl.
  • I like the word “poked” by Student One because it shows exactly how the penguin acted.
  • I like all the ways Student Two shows what Flora and the penguin did. They skated, danced, jumped, twirled and slid.  You can see it happening.
  • I like the dialog that Student Two uses when Flora asks, “What are you doing?”
  • I like Student One’s word, “outraged.”  That is a strong word.
  • I like Student Two’s word, word “disgusted” because it shows how Flora felt.
  • I like Student One’s writing where it says that Flora feels sorry because it shows that Flora cares.
  • I like when Student Two says “just like a fishing net.” I can see it.
  • I like when Student Two says “they tugged and tugged,” but maybe there are too many “tugs.”
  • I like Student One’s ending because it says Flora and the Penguin are happy.

After their blow-by-blow analyses, I asked my students what they learned from evaluating other students’ writing.  They said:

  • Use details, lots of details.
  • Use dialog or thoughts.
  • Use names.
  • Show emotions of the characters.
  • Verbs are really important to show action.
  • Use good vocabulary words.

One second grader, who rushes through her writing, compared her  plain version with the two shown here and said, “I’m starting over.”

A seventh grader who read the two versions, said, “Second graders?  Really?  I didn’t think I could learn good ideas about how to write from second graders.”

Is peer evaluation of writing a good idea?  You decide.

What kind of writing should kindergarteners and first graders be able to do?

The ability to write well comes gradually and in stages.  This skill is a synthesis of many writing skills, each building on one another.  Here is what I see in practice and what the Common Core State Standards recommends for kindergarten and first graders.

  • In kindergarten children learn to write letters and words, and some advanced students may write sentences.  They might write with phonetic or invented spelling, backward letters, missing punctuation and haphazard  capitalization.  They use a combination of upper case and lower case letters.  They like to draw a picture of what they are describing.
  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) ask kindergarteners to “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book; use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic; and use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.”
  • In first grade children’s writing ability varies widely, but teachers expect students to write in sentences by the end of the year. They might draw a picture at the top of a paper and then write one or more sentences under the picture telling what the picture means, and using many of the errors which kindergarteners use.  Many of the rules of writing and spelling are fluid for a first grader, but they are becoming formal than for kindergarteners.
  • The Common Core State Standards recommend that first graders “write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure; write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure; and write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.”

As you can see, a wide gap exists between what many children can do and what the CCSS expect them to do.  For more on the Common Core State Standards, go to http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/W/K/.

Share your writing with students to improve yours and theirs

A couple of months ago I shared the first scene from a story I am writing with two of my students, an eighth grade brother and a sixth grade sister.

Teacher typing on a laptop seated between a young boy and a young girl.

Their feedback was insightful:  how I started off in the middle of a tense situation, how my short sentences made that tense situation even tenser, how they liked the tenderness of the main character, how shocked they were by something that happened just like the main character must have been, and how real the dialog of the children sounded.

I had previously taught them that writers today are encouraged not to provide back story at the beginning of a narrative, but rather to jump right into the action and weave the backstory in here and there.

“Oh, now I see what you mean,” said the brother.  “You have the mother trying to stop the car, and the 18-wheeler zooming up behind her, and the pickup ahead of her zig-zagging and trapping her.”

“Yeah, and only then you learn there are children in the back seat who are yelling because they’re scared,” said the sister.

“But you don’t tell anything about them except their names.”

“Yeah, but you still care about them because they’re kids and they’re scared.”

From this short exchange, I was reminded how useful it is for the writing teacher / tutor / parent to share her own writing with a student.

  • Sharing your writing proves that you know how to write, so your praise and criticism are respected by your students.
  • Sharing your writing makes the lesson more collaborative. The students give feedback, ask questions and suggest areas that could be improved, adopting the role usually reserved for the teacher.  The teacher, meanwhile, learns how to improve her writing.
  • Demonstrating the kind of behavior you hope your students will show, such as listening carefully to what they say, adding more information when they say that an idea is vague, and drawing arrows to move ideas around for better sequencing, will lead to the same good writing behaviors in your students.
  • Taking the students’ suggestions seriously models life-long learning, a lifestyle we hope they will adopt.
  • And perhaps most importantly, showing that you do what you are asking them to do builds their respect for you as their teacher.