Saturday, October 22, 2011

My Teaching Materials: The Letter

One of the things I rather enjoy is making pertinent materials for my writing classes. Yes, I probably do way too much myself, and should save energy by finding or buying and using pre-made stuff, but I like it. So, I thought I would share a few of those with you.

The past couple of posts in this series have focused on spelling. My classes are graded in three areas: Prewriting, Writing, and Editing. Spelling falls under the editing category. This week, I thought I would jump over to the Writing category. The following is not so much a worksheet, as a model for them, to show how to add detail in order to "explode the moment," as my district calls it. Beginning writers have a tendency to gloss over entire scenes, because they are used to watching them play out on television or in movies instead of reading through them. This, I believe, is the same reason they struggle so much with describing characters and setting: on the screen, it is never described, just shown.

The first one I show them is a short little paragraph that covers an entire scene. Below is the first version of The Letter.

The Letter

It was night. It was windy. The girl stood on the roof. A man walked up to her. He gave her a paper. Then the man jumped off. The girl read the paper and cried and threw the paper away.

This I show them on one screen. Even the kids can tell you it's bad. Then I tell them I have another version, and ask them to see if they like it better. Reading the second one has every kid's attention.

The Letter

It was a dark and stormy night. The wind howled around the corners of the street. Above the street, the wind and rain assaulted the rooftops.

On the roof stood a girl, wearing a dark trench coat with a hat pulled low over her eyes. Whether it was meant to keep out the rain, or hide her face wasn’t clear. She seemed to be waiting for someone. It must be an exceedingly serious reason to be out on a rooftop in such blustery wind and biting rain.

Suddenly, the rooftop door opened. The wind slammed it against the wall. The man standing in the doorway had long, stringy hair and a cruel-looking face. His countenance made the scar across one eye look almost cheerful. He stepped out onto the roof, leaving the old wooden door to slam and swing back and forth helplessly in the wind.

As he walked up to the girl in the broad-rimmed hat, he held out his right hand. Clenched in his fist was a paper envelope wrapped in plastic. She hesitated, but accepted the mysterious package. In a flash of lightning, she could just barely make out the address on the outside of the envelope.

She looked up to ask a question just as he stepped up onto the ledge. This was so startling that her question froze unvoiced in her throat. Then the man jumped.


She stepped forward, but it was too late. He was gone, even more mysteriously than he came. She ripped open the envelope and held the letter in both hands to keep the wind from ripping it away. As she read, her sudden tears mixed with the pouring rain. She finished the letter and stood, frozen, shocked. Finally, she opened her fingers and let the wind take the hateful letter out of her life.

After reading this, I have to go through 5 minutes of questions about what happened to the two characters and what was in the letter. To which I have to shrug repeatedly, with a knowing smile. Then we discuss what made the two versions different. I go back to the first version and point out how every piece was turned into something larger. Practically every sentence in the first version became a paragraph in the next. "It was night. It was windy." From those two sentences, we get a full paragraph of setting description in the second. The same with the next sentence about the girl, and so on.

At the end, I ask them to choose a piece of their writing that they feel matches the first version, and turn it into the second one. This has been a pretty effective lesson in the past; I look forward to trying it this year.


Other posts in this series:
Land of Xanth
Thief & Chief
Key to Happyness

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