Two Sixth Grade Essays about
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.)