One of the central premises of the upcoming Writing Wednesday series is that by engaging students in meaningful creative writing tasks, we can improve not only their writing fluency, but their reading fluency as well. And by reading fluency, here I mean their ability to closely read and analyze a text in order to understand the effect of an author’s choices on meaning.
As I developed each activity in my upcoming book, I strove to ensure that the lessons addressed not only key writing skills, but key reading skills as well. Examples of this dual purpose can be found in “Making Time” and “Killing Time,” two new lessons from my first book, Artfulness. Each of these lessons is designed primarily to advance students’ understanding of stylistic choices: the techniques that authors employ to either expand or contract the reader’s sense of time in order to draw attention to – or away from – key details. On the surface, these lessons are lessons in style, showing students a variety of techniques they can use in their own writing to create a sense of purposeful rhythm. But these lessons also embed instruction on technical terminology like “elaboration,” “selection of details,” and “syntax” so that, in the process of learning how to control their own pacing for stylistic purposes, students are simultaneously exploring the effect of these choices on the reader’s understanding of the text.
My own students have recently completed both of these lessons as part of our Writing Wednesday activities. As we explored the paired mentor texts, the terms “asyndeton” and “polysyndeton” were introduced and considered. I’ve taught these terms to my students in past years but never in the context of student writing. Before Writing Wednesdays, I introduced them in a more traditional (and admittedly less-effective) manner: by providing them as part of a vocabulary list and learning about them in isolation.
As part of our study this year, however, the terms were introduced organically when it became appropriate to bring them up. In this particular case, they came up because both techniques were used in several of the mentor texts we were working with that day. Exploring the terms in this context, students were able to explore the way that authors can use these types of syntax structures to either “make” or “kill” time. We did not linger long on the discussion. The terms were introduced, explored, and then cast aside as we moved on to an exploration of the various other techniques employed by the mentor authors. The lesson concluded with students writing or revising their own original narratives with the specific goal of deliberately, and purposefully, controlling time. Then we were done.
As it happened, in our very next class we were reading Jill McDonough’s poem, “12 Hour Shifts” – a poem that explores the lives of drone pilots who work, as the name of the poem implies, in 12-hour shifts. The sense of time, you may imagine, is important in this poem. But we were not studying this poem for thematic purposes. Rather, we were studying this poem to explore narrative structure: how the author uses the structure of the poem to shape meaning.
Students began by reading and annotating the poem with a focus on narrative structure. Then we commenced with a class discussion of their findings. This was not a lengthy activity, nor was it intended to be one. Rather, this was our opening activity; a warm-up to get them ready for the longer lesson. Students were given only a handful of minutes to read and annotate the poem, and only a few minutes longer for the class discussion.
When the discussion began, a hand shot up. The student observed: “Okay, so I was thinking about what we talked about last class and I noticed that the author uses asyndeton in the parts of the poem that describe what the drone pilots do on their time off. Even though they have the same amount of time at work as they do at home, the asyndeton makes their home life feel shorter and more rushed, whereas their time at work feels longer.”
Well. Huh. I confess, I didn’t see that coming. Not that I didn’t see my students exploring the structure of the poem to arrive at meaningful conclusions. But that I didn’t see my students using a term that we had discussed very briefly the class before in a completely different context. I especially didn’t see that level of thoughtfulness occurring in what was, essentially, a bell ringer activity. The speed at which this student was able to recognize, apply, and analyze the author’s use of this technique in the poem speaks volumes about the impact of Writing Wednesdays on student outcomes. The writing activities in the earlier classes felt effortless – fun, even. The “grammar” lesson was impromptu and quick, free from the pressure of assessments. Free from memorization. Students had an opportunity to see the terms in authentic contexts and use them in authentic contexts. Importantly, these terms were introduced in a way that showcased their purpose, their utility as a writing tool. Seeing the value in the terminology, the terms apparently sunk in. And only a few days later, students were ready and able to apply them to new contexts.
Writing Wednesdays work. But Writing Wednesdays are about so much more than writing. They are about reading. And thinking. And evaluating. By highlighting the connection between the choices we make as writers and the effect we create for our readers, we teach students to recognize those same connections in the writing of others. Writing Wednesdays don’t just make better writers. They make better readers. And they’re lots and lots of fun.