Teaching style

When I was a student teacher, I remember one veteran teacher saying, “Well, the truth is that some students will never really become good writers.  They’re just tone deaf.” As I’ve continued to grow and develop as a teacher of writing, I just don’t buy it.

Yes, some students are more skilled at “hearing it.”  But all students arrive in class with an ear for good language.  They know how to carry a conversation, craft a punchline, recognize a great line in a movie.  

All students can learn to make their sentences sing.  Yes, even mediocre writers can learn to craft great-sounding lines. And then they’re no longer mediocre writers. They’re budding stylists.

I’m a big believer in teaching specific style strategies, and I’ve had great success with the following techniques:

  • Crafting a short, poppy sentence for an important point
  • Using the colon and the dash for drama
  • Saving the best part of the sentence for the end of the sentence
  • Recognizing that words and phrases often sound best in a group of three
  • Using repetition for dramatic effect

All these strategies are relatively simple, both to recognize and to master.  I often use sportswriting and other magazine-type writing as examples, and I’ve loved “Running for their Lives” each year I’ve taught it.  Then, I ask students to use these exact style strategies in another piece, preferably a memoir-based one.  

And here’s what happens:  all students, even the struggling ones, the ones who never saw themselves as writers, learn these strategies quickly.  Then, they’re proud, so proud in fact that they volunteer to share their work in class.  We listen, we applaud, we compliment.  Students are now playing with language, hearing it on the page, crafting sentences that sing.  And we’ve created a culture that celebrates great writing.

Students are now ready to flex these style muscles in analytical pieces.  And while there’s more work to do, they are, most certainly, on their way.

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