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Two Sixth Grade Essays about Fires

      The most profitable way to have students study sentence structure is probably to have them analyze and discuss the writing of their peers, especially when the identity of the writer is not known. "The Fire" and "The Rescue of Buddy" are from  the Pennsylvania 2000-2001 Writing Assessment Handbook Supplement. Both are about fires. As the "Notes" with the assignments indicate, "The Rescue of Buddy" is an example of  "Content" with an assessment of 4; "The Fire" is an example of "Organization" with an assessment of 2. There are several things that can be done with these two essays.

Students' Scoring of the Two Essays

     You might want to begin without telling the students the scores that the essays received. Instead, give them the prompt and the scoring guide, discuss the scoring guide, and have them score the essays. I'd suggest collecting their scores for each category -- "Focus," "Content," "Organization," "Style," and "Conventions." If possible, have an overhead up of each essay as the class discusses it. Depending on how detailed you want to be, this could take a couple of class periods. (Unfortunately, the Handbook Supplement presents essays as examples of each domain, but does not indicate how any one sample would be evaluated for all five domains. If, however, you examine the analyzed samples, you will probably conclude, what I did -- essays that do well in one domain will usually do well in all five.)

Editing the Two Essays

     With one of the essays on an overhead, have the class collectively edit it for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Then do the other essay.

Statistical Stylistics?

     If your students are working at KISS Level 3, you may want to have each student analyze each of the essays through clauses. You might even want them to do and discuss a statistical analysis. (See "KISS Level 6.5 - Statistical Stylistics.") Have them analyze it individually, in pencil. You do not need to check or grade this. Simply review it in class. During the review, the students can "correct" their own homework. Do this review before the students calculate the number of words per main clause and the number of subordinate clauses per main clause.

Revising the Essays

      Let the students take as long as they wish (out of class) in doing the two sentence-combining exercises. ["Buddy" "Fire"] However, unlike the typical KISS sentence-combining exercises, tell the students to use their imaginations to add details to each essay. What you want from them, in other words, is the best that they can do to make each original a good essay. In class, have the students sit in a circle and pass the papers so that everyone can simply read what everyone else did.

Writing Their Own Responses to the Prompt

     With or without the statistical analysis, complete the project by having each student write his or her own response to the prompt. Then ask the students to use the scoring guide to assess their own writing. Having students score each others' papers is tricky, but you might want to try it, or you may just want to have all the students read each others' papers.

Some Comments on the Two Essays

     Although the Standards present "The Fire" as weak in organization, I would suggest that instruction in organization is not what the writer needs. The organization is weak because there is very little to organize. The paper needs more details that are specific. If students did not notice this in doing the analysis exercise, many will probably note it in doing the combining exercise. There are also significant differences in syntax between the two essays. "The Fire" has shorter, simpler sentences. To help students like the writer of "The Fire," we need to consider several questions, questions which your students can also consider, if you have the class time in which they can do so.
    First, there is the possibility that the writer was hindered by an actual lack of details. "The Fire" may never have happened, and a little thought suggests that it is much harder to write, and especially to write syntactically mature sentences, when one constantly has to stop to dream up what happened, where, when, how, etc. Studying sentence structure is not going to help students with this -- the only thing that will is practice at writing in response to a variety of prompts under timed conditions.
      Another possible cause for the weakness in "The Fire" is that the writer did not realize that detailed examples are important to a good essay. (Many of my college Freshmen still do not understand this when they enter college.) Here the syntactic analysis can help. Have the students list the words that are used as adjectives in the two papers. The list for "The Fire" will consist entirely of common words such as "four," "big," and "his." On the list for "The Rescue," we find  "shabby," and "scorching." This may not seem like a lot of difference, but it is a major difference in quality. There is no setting, no sense of place, established at the beginning of  "The Fire." A "little shabby house" immediately establishes such a sense in "The Rescue." 
     Likewise, have the students examine the use of adverbs. "Once upon a time" may be a cliché, but it is the opening of fairy tales, and fairy tales are about good, evil, struggles, -- and bravery. And the prompt asked for "bravery." Extend the analysis to prepositional phrases. I would suggest, for example, that "in the garden" plays an important role in "The Rescue." Like the "shabby little house," it creates a visual setting for the action expressed in "digging up worms," and thus shows readers George and Buddy being best friends. The distinction between showing and telling is often discussed in the teaching of writing (even at the college level), and it is also an important concept in literary criticism. Instructors often tell students, "Show, don't just tell." But what does that mean? One of the things I am suggesting here is that these two essays demonstrate the difference. Students, as  they look at the adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases -- and discuss their effects on the writing -- will begin to understand that difference.
     Perhaps the major difference between the two essays can be seen simply by examining the finite verbs. What does Luke do in "The Fire"? He "saved," "heard," "woke up," "saw," "tried everything," "thought," "woke up everyone," got his gerbil, and ran out of the house." In the other essay, George "lived," "owned," "went." George and Buddy "were digging." and "were called in,"  and "ate." George "got up," "stood up," "smelled smoke." Right here, we have a very important sequence. In "The Fire," Luke "heard a big boom,"  "woke up and saw the kitchen was on fire." Why didn't the rest of the family hear the big boom? Later we are told that "His family lives in the back of the house. That is why they didn't hear the big boom."  Does that mean that Luke does not live with his family? What was he doing in the kitchen? Too much is simply left out. 
      Without looking at all the finite verbs in "The Rescue," we can simply note the almost total lack of details on conflict in "The Fire." (Bravery does imply some sort of conflict, does it not?) All we are told about Luke is that he "tried everything." But that says nothing. Did he use a fire extinguisher? He he put water from the sink on it? Did he try to smother it with towels? What is "everything"? The verbs in "The Rescue," in contrast, specify  several conflicts: "his mom said he couldn't ..."; He "tried," but "his dad caught him." [Note that "by the sleeve of his shirt" -- there is no comparable detail in "The Fire."] George "pulled," "slipped," "started running," "dove," "jumped," darted," and "grabbed."  He "tried to break the window," "failed, and "tried again." That "failed," I would suggest, is important evidence of George's bravery. The window "shattered." They "climbed out," and George "screamed" so that people would see them up on the roof. The verbs in "The Rescue" show readers what happened; those in "The Fire" simply tell. The reasons given in the Supplement to justify the poor assessment for organization include "the lack of connecting transitions." Some people may take that to mean the lack of grammatical transitions, but I would suggest that it also means the lack of verbs to show the connecting actions.
     There is still another question that students who are using the KISS Approach should explore. Was the writer of "The Fire" hindered by a lack of syntactic flexibility -- the ability to easily combine ideas into more mature sentences? The essay certainly begins with a series of very short simple sentences. The comments in the Supplement note a "weak introduction" and cite "There was a boy." I have not had the time to do a complete statistical analysis of the entire set of papers from which these two are taken, but one does not need such an analysis to see that the sentences in "The Rescue" are longer and more "mature" than those in "The Fire." My subjective impression is that neither essay is among the more sophisticated in terms of subordinate clauses, but that makes them both good exercises for discussing the effects of sentence combining. There are at least two ways of doing this. One is simply to review the results of the sentence-combining exercises and to praise those combinations that are noticeably effective. 
     The other is to focus on a series of sentences  in either essay:

He tried to run, but his dad caught him by the sleeve of his shirt. George pulled with all his might and slipped out of his father's grasp. He started running towards the scorching house. 

When he tried to run, his dad caught him by the sleeve of his shirt. George pulled with all his might, slipped out of his father's grasp, and  started running towards the scorching house. 

When he tried to run, his dad caught him by the sleeve of his shirt. Because George pulled with all his might, he slipped out of his father's grasp and started running towards the scorching house. 

He tried to run. When his dad caught him by the sleeve of his shirt, George pulled with all his might.  After he slipped out of his father's grasp, he started running towards the scorching house. 

None of these alterations is intrinsically better than the original, but they do entail differences in emphasis, tempo, and logic. ("When" and "after" make temporal connections; "because" highlights cause/effect.) The idea here is to explore some of  the ways in which the sentences can be combined, thereby giving students  syntactic options, syntactic flexibility.

     The preceding suggestions will take a lot of class time, but I would suggest that a detailed, interconnected study such as this provides students with contextual understanding that is much better than the typical short comments that we usually have to make before going on to the next assignment. (Note that I included myself in this situation.)