What It Looks Like

Here's a demonstration of Writing Blocks in the classroom:

Original Sentence: Business, you know, may bring money, but friendship hardly ever does.
(Jane Austen, Emma)

1.We discuss the meaning of the sentence for a minute. There is a different sentence with guided examples for each day of the week. I might prompt them by saying, “That’s an interesting statement—you can make money in business but not in friendship. Why do you suppose that is? Why does Austin compare friendship and business? Are they at all similar? What does friendship bring that business can? What does friendship bring that business can’t?”
We discuss it for a minute and see where the students’ ideas take us.

2.Then we play with the meaning and pattern of the sentence. We start slowly by just changing a couple of words.

For example, I might say, “(Blank), you know, may bring (blank), but (blank) hardly ever does....”
A student might suggest “listening,” “knowledge,” and “talking,” so that the sentence would read, “Listening, you know, may bring knowledge, but talking hardly ever does.”

Then I would prompt a discussion about the new meaning, for instance, “How do listening and talking relate to knowledge? Can talking ever bring about knowledge? Does the sentence communicate what you are truly trying to say?

“What about rearranging the sentence?  Talking hardly ever brings knowledge, but listening does. Does this arrangement have the same impact as the first?” 

3. Then I demonstrate my imitation of Austin’s sentence.

My Imitation: Life, I think, is filled with surprises, yet marriage rarely is.

I ask the students what this new sentence means and how it compares to the original. They should conclude that it has a similar structure and that there is still an unusual comparison. They should also note that I changed more than just a couple of words to create an original sentence.

4. The next step is to create a new imitation together as a class. We do this by taking my imitation and replacing key words just like in step 2. “(Blank), I think is filled with (blank), yet (blank) rarely is.”

5. Then they create an imitation with a partner. At first, I have the partners share their imitations with the class. I pick one that works and one that doesn’t so that we can discuss them in detail. I explain to the students that we are all learning and that we will all make mistakes. I refer to sentences that are “good” imitations as “effective” and sentences that are not as “ineffective.” There is a rubric for this.

6. Finally, each student creates one of her own. During the first week of this, I recommend checking each sentence at some point during class (perhaps during reading time) and guiding students with ineffective sentences toward making them more effective.

7. The ultimate goal of this endeavor is to improve student writing, so the final steps are to have students write. They construct a paragraph every Friday. I provide a prompt for them (appropriate to the form of writing we are studying during that six-week period), and the paragraph should contain one of each type of sentence we have imitated during that week. I have them highlight each imitated sentence. There is a PowerPoint with Cloze Notes and a Rubric to guide students through this process.

8. At the end of six weeks, they write a longer essay (narrative, descriptive, expository, argumentative…whatever we are studying). They select one of the Friday prompts on which to expound and select one sentence from each of the past six weeks to imitate (of course, they already have sentences from the week’s paragraph they are expounding on). There is a PowerPoint with Cloze Notes and a Rubric to guide students through this process.
9. Have students attach 3 copies of the essay rubric to their essay, and place the students in groups of 4. They should pass their essays around to each of their group members for feedback, and they should use the feedback when editing their rough draft for publication.

With this method, students learn to vary their sentence structure by imitating a variety of sentences. They also learn a variety of writing styles through deliberate practice.
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