Saturday, April 4, 2009

S-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g Students' Prose Style

Well, the state exam is over. After two full days of testing, I had one day’s lesson to fill before any results came in. Like an island, this single day sits between psychological oceans: preparing for the test on one side and relishing the test being successfully completed on the other. My students trooped in dutifully, but in truth, they simply wanted their tests results, which I didn’t have to give them. As I prepared for this single day’s lesson, I went through old piles for a good, reliable, sturdy writing exercise that would foster both focus and confidence, provide both distraction and satisfaction.

What did I find? Aha. An oldie but goodie as the saying goes…Copy/change writing. A poet first introduced my college Teaching Writing class to the technique of copy/change poetry years ago. Essentially, the teacher provides a professional poem with a clear structure and syntax, walks students through identification of the key elements of that structure, and invites students to write their own poems, with original content, borrowing the structure and syntax of the original poem. I’ve used the technique to help students write poetry, and I found it to be a good exercise there. Somewhere around 1999, I decided to try the technique with prose, and I almost always do the exercise with the first paragraph from E.B.White’s “Here is New York.”

First of all, students usually recall Stuart Little and/or Charlotte’s Web (be it the books or the movies) fondly. Unlike other authors I mention with rapture, White’s name is greeted with grudging enthusiasm. As a full-blooded city person, I cannot help but read the first paragraph of “Here is New York” with excitement. I used the round-robin technique for the first reading, so students could roll the prose around in their own mouths, and then I re-read sentences as we highlighted the patterns in the prose. I used a website to introduce the concept of copy/change and gave them my own example: “Shakespeare wrote, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question,’ but my copy/change could say, ‘To eat or not to eat, that is my refrigerator dilemma.’” In my experience, explaining the technique at length confuses students and makes the assignment sound more difficult than it is. Instead, I put a copy of the excerpt on the big screen and marked which parts of the original structure/syntax should remain the same once students copy/change it. Students marked their own handouts. Then we brainstormed on the board kinds of people students could divide into groups of three. I encouraged them to think about customers where they work, fellow fans or team members of a sport, or even the citizens of their own communities. Then I set them going.

My students amazed themselves with their efforts. White’s prose in this paragraph (well, let’s face it—in lots of paragraphs!) is so well-structured, that a mimic can’t help but look good. I explained to students that this exercise gives them a chance to “try on” more sophisticated prose stylings. Maybe they’ll want to consider the dash in the future! The clean rhythm and juxtaposition in the sentence, “Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion,” has an easy cadence for students to shadow. Their own copy/change sentences (with three clauses!) came out strong and clear as well. I almost always read that one aloud from their drafts as I walked along. They sat a little straighter, grinned a little, and often mumbled, “Yeah, that does sound good!”

Alas, like Cinderalla’s midnight, our single day’s lesson came and went. The test results will be in next time we meet; some students will need to shoulder bad news and work again for a re-take. Other students will have to reach down deep to still care once the “big exam” has passed. We’ll start another unit, one I’m also excited about, but I don’t know that we’ll experience the quick elation of the copy/change prose exercise we experienced with White soon again.

* In courses that integrate writing and literature, I often would assign students a single sentence from the current text we were studying for copy/change as a warm-up activity. (Works great with Fitzgerald’s Gatsby...) We would identify the parts of speech, even sometimes diagram the original sentence, and then students would write their own shadow. I think it’s a great way to help students internalize great writing, be it poetry or prose.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was amazed at two details of this piece: the first was that test scores would happen so soon after the Big Test( we wait for months), and the second was the concept that literature would ever be separated from writing. Nonetheless, the revision assignment seems amusing, as given here. I do think that looking at literature for structure as a means of connecting it to student writing seems to work well--and annoying writing score data would confirm that concept.