“Hi. My name is Jane. Do you want to hear about my vacation?”
This kind of opening—“Hi. My name is ___” followed by a question—is the way almost all elementary school students whom I tutor begin their writing. By the time they reach middle grades, they drop the “Hi. My name is ___” and instead start with the question. “Do you want to hear about my vacation?”
Just like primary grade students print their letters from the bottom up—the part closest to their bodies first—so do they write content from themselves out. Since I see it so often in new students I work with, I suspect starting that way comforts students and instills confidence.
But of course, the primary effect of this kind of writing is to show the immaturity of the writer. I suspect teachers cure students of “Hi. My name is ___” by suggesting they start with the question first.
But with the kind of question the child asks—“Do you want to hear about my vacation?” the child still talks to the reader, and asks acceptance from the reader, as if the reader smiles and nods her head. “Yes, of course, honey, I want to hear all about your vacation.”
The real problem with these kinds of openings is that they show a lack of imagination and an inability to engage the reader. What if the reader thinks, “No, I don’t want to hear about your vacation.” Oh. Okay. Sorry.
The student should ask himself why a reader might want to hear about his vacation. What was exciting or strange about the vacation? Did your baby sister toddle into the woods and inspire a search party to find her? Did you visit the Atlanta Aquarium and see a shark as long as a school bus? Did you fly in a plane with masks on?
Teachers need to wheedle interesting responses from children by asking question after question until an engaging topic emerges. How?
One way is to write a first sentence as a class. Pick an event everyone has participated in—a test, recess, lunch in the cafeteria, a fire drill. Ask for student volunteers to suggest something that happened. When you hear a good idea, ask for details. What did kids see or smell or taste? What did kids think? What did you hear someone say? Write down clues on the board in the form of a mind web. Pick something that students think will interest readers.
Then write the first sentences as a whole class. Ask students to throw out suggestions. Write them on the board. Ask for student input. Which sentence makes you want to keep reading? Discuss why various sentences are good, better and best.
Don’t ask students to write the essay. Instead, start over with a different event everyone has participated in. Repeat the process. Then repeat it again until most students are comfortable with this approach. Ask students who are comfortable to work in pairs or small groups on how to write the opening sentences for another topic. Meanwhile, you work in a small group with students who are not ready.
What if a student persists with “Hi. My name is Frank.” Remind the student about how the class brainstormed for good ideas to write about. Help Frank on-to-one.
Read aloud good openings written by students. Ask the class to describe why they are good. I find sharing student writing is a sure way to inspire students to write better.