Expository Writing Workshop

February 25, 2010 at 11:38 pm 2 comments

Expository Writing Workshop
© Sue Black

A pre-writing workshop, using storytelling skills, designed to bring enthusiasm to expository writing. After 16+ hours of research, here’s what I learned: If you google ‘teaching expository writing’ you’ll come up with a lot of prompts and calls to ‘be creative’ and ‘find a good hook’, but no specific teaching tools. So what I had to do was invent the wheel. Hard work, yes. But I did come up with a workshop that worked.
It was a fast-paced hour-long workshop for 100 kids with what I call ‘ ACTIVities’ – things to keep the kids talking and moving — that were interesting and transitioned quickly.
The kids really liked the ACTIVities and responded well and with genuine enthusiasm. There was lots of frantic arm waving – “Call on me, call on me!”.
The ACTIVities – I issue them as challenges to the kids — lots of opportunities to participate, to give me a single line, to brainstorm with a partner for 30 seconds, to offer your partner suggestion for the next sentence, to  volunteer to read a prepared lead because you’re very good at boring voice, to volunteer to read a prepared (good) lead because you’ve got a big voice, and to volunteer to act in what I call ‘2 Chairs React’.
In ‘2 Chairs React’ I have 2 chairs set up in front of the audience, one student sitting in each chair. I describe a scene, both chairs react in similar styles at first. For example, the first scene: Mom and Dad are in the front seat of the car, the student in the chair is in the back seat of the car, kind of sleepy, plugged into the latest electronic device, not looking out the window.
1st chair reacts to Dad as he exclaims, “Hey, look out the window! This park does have a squirrel – it’s very close to the road! –  just like the brochure promised.” As you might imagine, the student in the 1st chair doesn’t bother to look out the window – boring.
2nd chair reacts to Dad as he exclaims, “Hey, look out the window! This park does have a gorilla – it’s very close to the road! – just like the brochure promised.” As you might imagine, the student in the 2nd chair immediately has wide eyes and is searching, looking, wanting to see.
Different kids participated in two more scenes – one that resulted in chair #2 leaning in to hear; another with chair #2 standing, excited, not wanting to miss the action that was about to begin.
They could see visually – a bored reaction vs an excited, eager reaction. They could see: That’s what a lead is supposed to do – make the reader search, look, look again, lean in, get excited, want to read more.
I gave the kids another visual to go along with the mandates for good scores on the state tests:
With their left hand – one finger up = focus (narrow your topic down to something smaller and more manageable to focus on); 2nd finger up = facts (the details that you’ll use to support your focus); 3rd finger up = feelings (how do you feel about the topic – add some of that emotional content to draw readers in). Take a look at what you’ve got, 3 fingers up = at least 3 details needed; turn those 3 fingers sideways, it looks like the letter ‘E’ = elaboration for each of those details.
You need these elements in the lead paragraph (at least for state testing); you need them in every paragraph. The kids got it; they liked it; I can just see some of them using it as they take the test next week. The teachers got it; I could see them looking at one another, moving their fingers and hands, shrugging, asking ‘why didn’t we think of this?’.
Other ACTIVities included partner brainstorming, narrowing focus, figuring out ‘the heart of the matter’ for a variety of topics (because you can write well when you have an opinion or strong reaction to the topic), and more. Interest never waned.
In this school the kids have learned to use ‘the Hamburger’ as the ‘format’ for their writing – large pieces of construction paper represent the components – tan bun on top (introduction), green lettuce (paragraph #1), red catsup (transition), orange tomato (paragraph #2), yellow mustard (transition), brown hamburger (paragraph #3), tan bun (conclusion). The kids could see that the top bun did not look exactly like the bottom bun. Our introductions should not be an exact match to the conclusion. The kids got it.
Visuals included very large pieces of paper that corresponded to the hamburger colors the kids are used to. Because this was an oral brainstorming workshop the kids who volunteered an awesome sentence held the right paper color and stood in a row in front of the audience. In paragraph #1 there were several kids holding pieces of green paper. Other colorful pieces of paper represented the elaboration details in that paragraph. The elaboration we add to our writing adds color for our readers. The kids got it.
We just kept moving to the next level, adding the catsup and tomato and mustard and meat and bottom bun – orally building, building, building a short expository essay with a conclusion that did not insult our listeners by exactly repeating the beginning.
Teachers were taking notes. None of this was new information, but it definitely was being presented in a way they had never seen before — that’s where the strong basis in storytelling elevates the experience.
When it was time for the kids to go back to class they wanted to linger. They wanted to share the good ideas they had to make the essay interesting. All good stuff.
After the workshop, the gifted teacher couldn’t stop praising it — she kept using big words like “from a pedagogical standpoint it was awesome” and “kinesthetic learners” and “visual learners” and “I was totally enthralled and missed going to my next class” and “that thing with your hands was genius”.
I also got some specific feedback from the 5th grade teachers before I left. One teacher said he’s pretty critical and was wondering “yeah, but how is she going to cover transitions, and then – wow! – you did it”.
It was a good day!

Comments? Questions? I’d love to hear them.


Entry filed under: Teaching Artist.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. storyvulture  |  February 25, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    Fantastic, Sue! You have a gift.

  • 2. Lainie Levin  |  March 1, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    Sue, I can’t wait to try this with some students. I want to run right out, buy your book, and try everything I can on my own and with any willing teachers. Maybe in my happy world I can swing a way to get you up in my neighborhood…


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