Friday, May 6, 2011

2-Sentence Journals

Thanks to Dr. Jim Beers and his team of mastermind educators, I had the wonderful good fortune of attending the Eastern Virginia Writing Project at the College of William and Mary a couple of summers ago.   One of the instructors, Emily Pease, was so amazing that I just had to find a way to be her student for a little while longer.   The next fall term, W & M offered a graduate level class called "Teachers as Writers," and guess who the instructor was.   Yep, the brilliant Emily Pease.   Jackpot.

This is one of her ideas, and perhaps she got it from someone else.   Now I'm passing it on to you.   It's the 2-sentence journal.

Even writers do not find it easy to make time to write.   I have always loved the idea of a diary and still do, but I don't use one...ever.   Sure I've tried, but every time that I would read over one of my entries, I would roll my eyes and tear the writing into confetti for the circular file parade.

Emily Pease brought our class tiny marbled composition books the size of a memo pad.   Two sentences for each twenty-four hour period seemed like something that I could do.   Besides, when someone nice and reasonable asks you to do something, you do it.   Right?

To make it work for me, I would draft on any scrap of paper I could find.   I would first list about 5-10 words that reminded me of what took place during the day.   Then, I would choose one topic to focus on.   Two sentences are not long.   It's like composing a haiku.   Every syllable counts, and you want to create a small image of a fragment of time.   The cornerstone of good writing, I believe, is "Show. Don't tell."   I would write, re-write, edit and revise.   It was only two sentences, so I found it easy to go through the complete writing process in one sitting.

Yes, I used this in writing class with 8th graders this year.   Here's what I was looking for when I assessed their diaries.   The first two weeks of school, I was happy to see what they thought were two sentences.   I taught vivid language.   I then looked for evidence of that lesson.   I moved on to "Show. Don't tell."   I expected them to follow.   We tried some sensory imagery and a lot of voice.   We learned about fragments and run-ons...and when you could use them for effect.   We wrote in third person omniscient for a week, so we could step outside of ourselves.   You see how flexible this assignment can be?   You can mold it to be an extension of a mini-lesson for independent practice.  

8th graders still can't drive...legally.   That's why I priced tiny journals over the summer and bought them in bulk.   I then sold them to my students at cost, 50 cents.   Of course, I took I.O.U.'s since most 8th graders are not financially independent.   Sure, they could write two sentences anywhere, but I liked the idea of the students having a "book" of their own.   Also, when I collected these notebooks, I was not asking for their main writing notebook (where I required them to write their drafts for insurance purposes as well as having enough space to go through the writing process).

Will this be a huge, unparalleled success for you?   Maybe.   But let me take a moment to remind you of one of the most insightful statements concerning writing.   It's a classic from Thomas Mann.   "A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."   Your writers will produce some stellar material.   So will those dear students who have the gift of listening to instruction and believing your advice, even if writing is not their favorite subject, yet.  

There will also be those students who slap down two lines in 10 seconds flat, and think they are ready to be published alongside Pulitzer Prize winning authors.   You'll be able to convert some of them over time.   You probably won't be able to convert all of them.   Alas.

I'm taking this idea with me to my next classroom, and I hope to iron out some of the speed bumps I found when implementing it this year.

Tomorrow I will tell you about a technique I used to jolt my 8th grade writers into more thoughtful crafters of language.

The honeysuckle is beginning to bloom, making me long for summer.    If you are local and would like some flowers of your own, there will be a fundraiser for the tornado victims of Gloucester County in Grafton tomorrow.   Follow this link for details:,0,6313392.story  

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