Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Couple of Writing Lessons

Yesterday my classes and I did a little work on specificity with sensory images. I started with a writing assignment I pulled from Room to Write by Bonni Goldberg titled “Seasons.” Here is what they were supposed to have written the day before:

Today pick your favorite season. First, recall a personal moment during the season. Then focus on only the details that evoke that experience. Use texture, smell, and sound if appropriate. Be truer to your response to the moment than to its features. Notice whether you start with specific features and move to general ones, or the other way around.
So today I started by writing Sensory Images on the board and asking the class what the five senses were. Then I listed them and pointed out that in my experience with beginning writers, most of them put about 90% of their details on visual images, and 9% on auditory images. Ninety-nine percent of sensory details coming from 40% of the senses—a little on the overkill side.

Then I wrote Vague Words on the board and under that wrote delicious. I asked if they could figure out why that was a vague word. After a few guesses, some of the classes hit on not everyone likes the same foods. I illustrated the point with my own love of red cabbage, a treat that makes my Southern wife gag. Just saying it had a similar effect on most of the students in the class. I then pointed out that my wife loves collard greens, a food I wouldn’t eat for pay. Where we grew up and what our families considered normal made us grow to have some very different tastes in food (pardon the pun).

I also pointed out that I cannot make myself eat steak sauce. The students inquired as to why and I explained a traumatic childhood event when my father, to teach me a lesson about way overusing the steak sauce one night got a spoon and made me finish all the steak sauce left pooled on my plate. After about three hours at the table it was gone and I never ate steak sauce again.

After putting some other vague words the students love to use, good, pretty, and nice prominent among them, they started to get the idea. So I gave them highlighters and asked them to mark any word or phrase in their papers that was vague. Then they numbered the marks for future use.

I then made another apparent digression into the difference between Revision and Editing. Every class got what editing was right away. Not a single problem in figuring that out. Almost all of them were stumped by revision. We finally got to the point that we agreed it had to do with content, and that it involved organization, adding in details and deleting irrelevant details.

I told them to look at the highlighted words on their papers and then, either on the back or on a new sheet to write the number one. Then look at the vague term and try to come up with something more specific. I briefly explained clustering to get ideas rolling, and let them loose for a while. Now I can look forward to reading them and seeing what they think is vague. And I’ll add a different highlight of what I find to be vague. Should be fun.

They also had another writing assignment from Room to Write: “Stranger Than Fiction.” The idea here was to write about a recent story in the news. For this I did the first part of the “To Be or Not to Be” assignment I picked up at an idea swap at NCTE a long time ago. The original lesson was donated to the swap by Dr. Tracey Johnson of Clarion University.

The idea here is for the students to write a page or so and then swap it with another student who highlights all the “to be” verbs (be, being, been, is, are, was, were, am, the apostrophe m in I’m, and any apostrophe s that means is). Then I break from the original plan to talk to my students about Klingons. Yes, I am ubergeek enough to use Star Trek and Star Wars references in my classes.

Apparently the writers who originated the Klingon language for Star Trek had decided that the language would have no “to be” verbs in it as Klingons would define themselves by their actions. Ironically, the first thing they were asked to translate was Hamlet’s soliloquy. I am not sure how they did it, I didn’t hear that part of the story, but my best guess would be something like, “To live or to die—This I ask!”

This sets the stage for my students to revise their papers, changing the words without altering the basic message. They need to rewrite all the sentences with “to be” verbs in them so those verbs are eliminated from their papers.

I haven’t checked them yet, but I do have some high hopes.

Okay, ‘nuff said for today. More than enough. But after so long a silence, can I be blamed for my logorrhea?

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