INTRODUCTION: When I started teaching composition at Spoon River College in Central Illinois 20 years ago, I encountered many student papers that began as dull and lifeless. Many of those same papers went on to brighten considerably after the introduction, so I wondered about the leaden opening strategies the student writers used. Referring them to suggested introduction strategies in their composition textbooks seemed to have little effect. Theorizing that the students failed to think about readers and how to appeal to them, I consulted a book by Donald Murray, a writer whose advice on teaching writing I had first encountered when I was in graduate school. I adapted one of his strategies to create this activity in which writers confront their readers’ preferences directly. This activity takes about 60-75 minutes, and though I focused on introductions in freshman compositions, it can be adapted for classes in any discipline in which students write papers or give presentations.
- Practice coming up with effective opening strategies for student writing
- Shift writers into a creative mode
- Engage writers with the work of all their classmates
- Illustrate to writers the potential benefit of giving themselves choices
Each student needs:
- One blank sheet of lined paper with a vertical ruled margin on the left side
- One pen or pencil
- Any draft of a paper s/he is working on
1. Announce: “Please write a number ‘1’ on the first line of your blank page, as if you were starting a numbered list. Then copy the opening sentence of your draft onto that line, exactly as it appears in your draft. After you finish that sentence, skip two or three lines and put a number ‘2’ for the second item on your list. You’ll add a second item in a few minutes.” (2 minutes)
2. Discuss with the entire group the function and purpose of the opening sentence of any piece of writing. Ask them to suggest what those functions and purposes are and keep track of what they suggest. When you have collected three or four good suggestions (for example, “Capture the reader’s attention”), list them back to the students. (If you have a chalkboard or whiteboard, you may write this list on that board.) (5 minutes)
3. Announce: “To practice coming up with effective opening strategies for your writing, spend the next 10 minutes continuing your list of possible opening sentences for the draft you’re currently working on. Each alternative opening sentence should be as different as possible from the others. Refer to our list of the functions and purposes of opening sentences to remind yourself of what your sentences should accomplish. Try to come up with as many as four alternatives in this next 10 minutes. Leave a few lines in between each of your sentences.” Emphasize that the focus of this activity is the first sentence only and that they shouldn’t concern themselves with how each alternative first sentence will fit with anything else in the current draft.
4. Keep track of the time as you monitor their progress. Assist any student who appears to be struggling to come up with additional sentences. This is best done by reminding them of what an opening sentence should do in terms of function and purpose. (10 minutes)
5. When 10 minutes have elapsed or when every writer has at least three sentences total on his or her list, arrange all the students’ desks into a circle in which every student is within easy reach of students on his or her right and left. (2 minutes)
6. Announce: “Please fold your page of sentences along the vertical rule (margin). This margin should be folded BACK so that the folded flap is not visible when you look at your list of sentences.” (1 minute)
7. Announce: “To find out what readers think of your sentences, when I tell you to begin, pass your page to the writer on your left. Because you are arranged in a circle, you will simultaneously receive a page from the writer on your right. You will read the sentences on that page, quickly, the way any reader would. Decide which sentence on that page is the most effective. Then fold the flap forward, place a checkmark on the flap next to the sentence you chose as most effective, fold the flap BACK into place—to avoid influencing other readers—and pass the page to the writer on your left. In this way, each writer’s page will make its way around the circle and back to the writer. Any questions? Begin.” (2 minutes)
8. Monitor the progress of the activity. If necessary, remind the students not to fold the flap forward until AFTER they have made their decision about each page of sentences. (10-25 minutes, depending on the number of students)
9. When all students have their own pages back, instruct them to inspect the results of the readers’ marks. (2 minutes)
10. Debrief the students. Spend 15 minutes discussing their responses to the following queries:
- Raise your hand if the sentence that garnered the most “votes” is your #1 sentence.
- Raise your hand if the sentence that garnered the most “votes” is your #2, 3, 4, or 5.
- Explain what the results mean to you as a writer.
- What do you think readers found appealing about the sentence they chose from your list?
- What have you learned about opening sentences from this activity? (15 minutes)
This is one of the most consistently effective activities I have used in composition courses. Not only are students engaged; they are also absorbed by the relentless flow of pages coming at them around the circle. (It’s probably the most reading some of them do in such a short time span.)
The students occasionally laugh or gasp as they read a page of sentences. This is good—it means someone has reached out to readers and gotten a reaction. As gratifying as the continuous rustle of pages is during the “voting” portion of the activity, the best experiences may be during the portions leading up to and coming after the voting. Students have excellent ideas about what opening sentences should do, and they nearly always come up with the ones I’m hoping for. When they work individually on coming up with alternative opening sentences, they often struggle a lot—which, as we discover during the debriefing, is the point of the activity.
Best of all, this activity is absolutely reliable in producing Aha!s. Here’s the experience: in a typical class of 20 students, only two or three will report that their #1 sentence—in other words, the one they’re actually using in their papers—got the most response from readers. Nearly all the rest (there are occasional “ties” between two sentences) report that their “favored” sentence is #2, 3, 4, or 5 on the list—in other words, the ones they came up with only after careful, creative thought. There is nearly always laughter upon seeing the measly few hands up when I ask whose #1 sentence got the most votes. When we discuss a few of their actual sentences as a group, we have interesting comments from actual readers on what they find appealing. When they get their own pages back, they also say things like, “I can’t believe THAT one was everyone’s favorite!”—until classmates explain what they found appealing about it.
*Practice coming up with effective opening strategies for student writing
For seventy-five minutes, we focus on nothing but opening sentences. This is about as intense as our focus gets. I find too little time for this kind of sustained attention to one topic, but I always find this time worth it.
*Shift writers into a creative mode.
To illustrate with just a few examples, what follows are paired sentences: an individual writer’s #1 sentence versus the later one that readers judged the best on that same writer’s list:
It started out like any other day VERSUS Imagine that you are eleven years old and that you have just been told that you have a rare, genetic, and incurable disease.
It was going to be a great day today we had just finally got done unpacking all of our materials from the move from Arizona and settled down in our new home” VERSUS Bits and pieces of that night were a complete blur, but that shining piece of metal caught my eye.
Young children are precious parts of life VERSUS In the movies you always see the unplanned teenage pregnancy played out and think, ‘That never happens in real life’; guess again.
School is a very frightening thing for a young child to cope with VERSUS As I walked slowly down the sidewalk I felt a tear stream down my cheek, my stomach stiffen, and my knees tremble as I reached the locked door.
*Engage writers with the work of all their classmates.
We do peer-response activities with their drafts, but they get to see, at most, the work of two or three classmates. In this activity, they see the work of every single one of their fellow writers. They also get feedback from every one of those classmates as readers. The collective power of this is sublime.
*Illustrate to writers the potential benefit of giving themselves choices.
Being compelled to compose even ONE additional sentence produces results. In my recent sample involving three classes of composition, 63 students participated. The results:
- Sentence #1 judged best by readers: 6 (9.5%)
- Sentence #2 judged best by readers: 13 (20.6%)
- Sentence #3 judged best by readers: 24 (38.1%)
- Sentence #4 judged best by readers: 9 (14.3%)
- Sentence #5 judged best by readers: 11 (15.9%)
Not only was the AVERAGE preference for sentences 2 through 5 higher than for sentence #1 on each list, the total preferences for #1 sentences was 33% lower than for the next lowest. Students understood the implications of the results very clearly, especially after debriefing. One student this very semester commented that he learned a lot from the activity—his list was an exact inverse of the responses he received: his #5 sentence got the most votes, while his #1 got the fewest. He felt that the one he came up with last would be a good option for his revised draft of the paper. I think that few of the students miss the importance of what they have witnessed; sometimes they ask if they can change their opening sentence right away (answer: of course!). Their comments during debriefing show that they understand WHY the results come out the way they do. Typical comments: “We had to spend more time on the sentences lower down the list”; “The earlier sentences are a lot more obvious”; “We had to think harder and be creative.”
When I first tried this activity many years ago, I was simply trying to address a common weak spot in students’ papers. I hoped to show them that readers find unusual or provocative openings more appealing than colorless or obvious ones. My own Aha! came when I noticed how few of them had their #1 sentences chosen as BEST by their readers. When I started paying closer attention over time, I quickly realized that this was a nearly unwavering pattern. That was my Aha!: this is not only an exercise in opening sentences and giving yourself choices, it’s also an exercise in finding your own creativity. That was a real light-bulb, and this has become among my favorite activities. I’m now more committed to the value of brainstorming-types of activities for getting outside that cliched box.
This activity was suggested by Donald Murray’s in-class activities in his book A Writer Teaches Writing, pages 118-19.
–Douglas Okey, Faculty, English, Spoon River College, IL