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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Finding Flow in Writing

Recommended Reading! See Review below.
If you're like me, you have read tons of student essays where you've found it hard to follow the train of thought, due to the fact that it has already derailed in the student's own mind.

So the the question is, "How can we improve the flow of ideas in student writing?"

Outlining and organizers and transitions can play a critical role in focusing writing, but once the words hit the page they tend to form sentences which stand only shoulder to shoulder, rather than arm in arm, with one another, failing to effectively carry the reader from one point to the next.

I stumbled upon a piece of the puzzle recently while reading a pdf on Paragraph Writing from The University of Adelaide Writing Centre. What that guide calls following "the natural order of information in English – i.e. the position of the ‘theme’ of a sentence and the ‘new’ information that follows" is illustrated in the excerpt below from the Learning Guide:

As you can see, the new idea introduced at the end of each sentence becomes the "theme" of the next. It's a simple way to keep the reader (and the writer!) on topic.

I pulled a similar example from our sixth grade social studies textbook, which I've paraphrased here:

Sumerians found a way to use symbols instead of picture to stand for words.

These symbols came to be known as cuneiform.

Cuneiform, or wedge shaped writing, could be combined to stand for words or sounds.

Once I pointed out this "natural order of information" to students, they began to see it in many of their content texts, and in fiction as well. In Cynthia Lord's Rules, for example, the author begins the second chapter with this passage:

When David was three and starting to come to the clinic for occupational therapy, I tagged along because I was too little to stay home alone. Now I'm twelve and I can stay home if I want, but I still like to come. I like talking to Mom on the ride over and back and shopping in the stores across the street, and I love the road between our house and clinic.

When I asked students if the author had written this way on purpose, their answers revealed that they were beginning to understand the purpose of this structure:
"She might have done it on purpose, but only because it sounded right."

"I think she wanted the reader to follow her thoughts."

"It keeps you reading because you see that for each new idea she mentions, she'll explain it more in the next sentence."

"Since she's the narrator, we can't ask her questions, so she needs to tell us what we need to know. And the more she tells us, the more we might get confused if we can't follow what she's thinking." So? "So it's important that she writes like this so she doesn't let us get confused."

This same classroom conversation led a students to ask, "Can't you create flow in other ways?" This in turn led us to a discussion of parallel structures, as well as simple repetition within writing.
In The Palace Thief (the story which inspired The Emperor's Club), author Ethan Canin describes how a young Sedgewick Bell arrives at a new school to discover his new classmates "wearing the togas they had made from sheets and safety pins the day before, spreading their knees like magistrates in the wooden desk chairs." When Bell unhesitatingly treats the boys and the lesson with disdain, he is rebuked by his new master:

"Young man," I said, "this is a serious class, and I expect that you will take it seriously."

"If it's such a serious class, then why're they all wearing dresses?" he responded, again to laughter...

Students liked this example, since the repetition of ideas in this instance was very true to life in how such a conversation might take place.

They also enjoyed hearing the very short chapter "A House of My Own" from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. The combination of simile, personification, repetition, and rhyme make the prose so rhythmic that students couldn't believe it wasn't a poem until I showed them the words on the page.

Public domain speeches are another terrific source for finding examples of flow, and many of these documents have been identified as exemplary texts for study in the Common Core Standards. One such text is Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech of 1851, which like the Cisneros text incorporates repetition to build a flow:

I think that ‘twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
    That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man-when I could get it-and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
    Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negroes’ rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech is another beautiful example of flow created through repetition, alliteration, metaphors, and familiar literary sources.

Putting It Into Practice

For one of our first attempts at creating flow, I asked students to respond to a question based upon Island of the Blue Dolphins, our current classroom novel. The prompt read, "Why would the dogs, which were previously owned by the villagers, attack and kill Ramo?" A class-sourced response read:

When the men of the tribe were killed by the Aleuts, the village dogs lost their alphas, or leaders. Without leaders, the dogs ran off to join the wild pack that already lived on the island. Because this wild pack didn't fear Ramo, who was just a boy, they killed him. They most likely killed him to show dominance, and not because they were hungry. The reason didn't matter to Karana, however, who took her brother's death as a huge blow.

Later that same evening, in responding to an article about Facebook on Tween Tribune, one student attempted to create flow between nearly all of her sentences:

In response to "Is the Problem Facebook or You?" I definitely agree that people shouldn't be blaming their problems on Facebook. Facebook wasn't made for you to blab your whole life story. Your life should be private and only shared with friends. But even your so called "friends" on Facebook might not be your friends, and they'll tell someone you're going away Friday night. You shouldn't tell anyone online that you were going away and your house was empty! If you tell someone your house is empty, your house could be robbed! Finally, Facebook shouldn't be blamed for your addiction to be on 24/7. It's your choice to post everything you do on the web. Even though some people might disagree with me, I think that it's not Facebook's problem that you "ruined your life!"

It's a start. 
Lessons on transitions, sentence variety, and opposing viewpoints are in order, but this writer was certainly able to help the reader follow her train of thought.

In Conclusion

This idea of flow holds a lot of promise for helping students develop and elaborate upon ideas in their writing. What they need to get started is just a few good examples and some practice with controlled, familiar topics. As they experiment further, the concepts of transitions and the need for greater sentence variety will likely become self-apparent, and the time will then be ripe for teaching them.

Recommended Reading

For some time now, readers have asked that I begin recommending books in addition to simply mentioning them in passing in my posts. I'm happy to oblige

This Girl is Different
by JJ Johnson
Peachtree Publishers

In a bold experiment, homeschooled Evensong Sparkling Morningdew chooses to spend senior year in a public high school. Book smart yet naive to the "social minefield" of high school, Evie soon finds herself increasingly ensnared in a struggle for power and freedoms which she, herself, initiated. Her attempt to give students a voice backfires as the voices become cruel and out of control. In no time at all, Evie has endangered not only her college future, but also the new and fragile friendships she has forged. Someone else might give up under these trying circumstances, but this girl is different.

In a style of writing which is John Green meets John Hughes, JJ Johnson crafts a funny and engaging battle of wits and wills which keeps the reader engaged until the very end, which in my opinion came too soon. For ages 14 and up, I recommend this title for book groups or as a welcome addition to any classroom library.

You  might also want to check out this author's most recent book, The Theory of Everything, which explores one teen's struggle to deal with the loss of a friend. While everyone else is ready to move on with their lives, Sarah still needs to find some meaning to it all. From the publisher: "But Sarah's not ready to move on... Her grades are plummeting, her relationships are falling apart, and her normal voice seems to have been replaced with a snark box. Life just seems random: no pattern, no meaning, no rules - and no reason to bother." A last ditch effort might just rescue Sarah from sadness, and from herself.


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