February 9, 2009

Lead Me On

My students' favorite way to begin an essay is to simply restate the topic.

The song that has impacted my life the most is...

If they are super creative, they might begin with a question lead that is really restating the topic.

Have you ever had a song impact your life?

I know at least one of their 7th grade teachers taught them about using different types of leads, but it is largely forgotten. So, I whipped out my little lesson on leads, which is not very creative at all. It's a list of different leads, and I walk through each one with them, explaining which might be useful for different types of writing, and giving alternative examples. Afterward, they identify different types of leads on a worksheet, which is pretty lame, but I emphasize that the real purpose is so student can have yet another paper full of examples. Afterward, students work in pairs, practicing writing different types of leads with potential topics.

Again, I know it's not exciting. It's direct and to the point. They have some different ideas with which they can begin their essays. When I did a quick poll of the students, most of them claimed that the leads lesson was a review of what they had learned, but they had learned at least one new idea for beginning a lead. (I also emphasized that the options are limitless. The ten or so I gave them are some basic, flexible options.)

After we did the lesson, I asked students to try writing three different leads for a piece of writing they had done, and afterward, they were asked to choose the best one (they could consult a peer about it, too.) That was our revision activity one day.

Imagine my shock when I collected the essays, and many of them didn't try on different leads--and those who did, resorted to the lame question lead which basically asked the reader to answer the question the writer is suppose to be answering in the writing. Bleah.

It took me a few days to look at all their bomber essays, and when I did I puzzled over a next step. Even my proficiency high school students, who aren't as good at writing as my middle schoolers, are receptive to the basic leads lesson. What's up with the 8th graders?

As it turned out, we had a library day scheduled the next day, so I made up a Leads Treasure Hunt. I sent them off to find interesting story beginnings. I know, and I told them, that some of those introductory lines could not work for all pieces of writing, but many of them could. I emphasized my concern about their lack of "interesting introductions," and I believed that perhaps they should immerse themselves in good writing.

I'm so full of bullshit sometimes.

Only I didn't think so at the time. It's a great idea! I observed students plowing through books, recording good beginnings and shunning the dull ones. I was so proud!

The very next day, students shared their beginnings in small groups. The essential question asked them to find the characteristics of good introductions so that we might steal ideas from good writers. Initially, students had difficulty articulating what made the writing effective. They simple answered, "It is good." But with a little prodding, they started looking at the word choice, sentence structures, and similarities in some of the techniques they had already learned. It was wonderful!

So, then...the next step was to again try to apply what they learned on a piece of writing.

However, when I started looking over the essays, guess what I found? The same crap found at the top of this post. I'm incredibly irritated. Yes, there are a few students who won't be able to write a cool lead for years, but my students are generally bright, and you know if I'm stressed about leads, the bodies of their writings are pretty good.

When their turned in their essays, which are best rough drafts that include revision marks, one of the three things they had to do was make sure they had a good lead. Was I not explicit enough? It was written on the board. We'd spent days talking about, searching for, and writing leads. Do they really thing their leads are okay?

The song that has impacted my life the most is...


I'm sorry to have to admit that my next move does not include me being a nurturing, patient writing teacher. For the students who still are trying to use the question, but doing it like a thesis restatement, I offered suggestions about different types of questions to ask. I don't believe they are being difficult. But for the rest of them...it's the REDO stamp.

The REDO Stamp?

"Redo! This work is incomplete and/or substandard. Resubmit this work by tomorrow."

They will write inspiring leads one way or another.

The sooner, the better. The big, scary state writing proficiency exam is next week.

Double Ack!

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