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Replacing Overused Words: Just a Band-Aid

Sarah_bunyi 
A quick Internet check offers a plethora of activities and suggestions for making writing "sizzle," but I can't help but notice how this attempt at "correcting" writing has gone wrong. Call it what you'd like: putting said to bed; million dollar words; sizzle words; worn out words; snazzy synonyms; graveyard words. The list goes on. But the reality is this- replacing "She was sad," with "She was depressed," doesn't push our students to new levels of writing proficiency. It is only a band-aid to a larger goal at hand.

Where Descriptive Words Have Gone Wrong

So, I am handed a pile of writing prompts to grade using our state rubric. It's part of a district-wide requirement that occurs three times a year. I sit down to read over the set of prompts for scoring. After just a few pieces I grunt and push the pile aside. I literally had to take a break from it all. The writing was so rigid-so forced- so formulaic. It was amazing to think anyone, let alone a prompt grader, was going to enjoy hours of this scripted stuff. It was as if the students had been taught good writing consists of strong descriptive words and figurative language. Lots of it. I imagine the message may have sounded like this before the prompt was shared, "Make sure you put plenty of descriptive words and similes/metaphors in your writing. You need to do this to earn a higher score." They sure did listen; it sure was bad. Descriptive writing can get double fried with the wrong focus.

Take the Focus off Overused Words. Replace it with Show Not Tell/ Writing Small Moments

I think it is through the focus of show not tell that we can naturally assist our writers with being descriptive without an isolated attempt at pumping up our sentences with replacement words.

Let's take the example of the girl who is sad. We can write that she is sad. We can say she feels melancholy even. But most writers will not tell you a character is sad. They will show it. And that is where the real talent is. I go back to Calkins who shared a piece from a child she conferred with at her workshop.

"When I came home from school yesterday, I found my fish in the trash can. I was very sad. I wish he was still alive."

With a focus on show not tell and writing about small moments, this is what this event could sound like (although my version is not as poignant as hers was):

"I walk over to the trash can. I press the pedal down- the lid moved up. I lean over and notice something orange and wet. My eyes zoom in like a microscope, not believing what I saw. There, buried in some coffee grinds, is my fish, Goldie. I blink my eyes several times and feel a hardness in my chest. I reach down, and without thinking, I pick him up in my hands. I flick the coffee grinds off him with one hand and stare at his weak, lifeless body. My best friend- gone. I bit my lip and nervously call out, 'Dad?' "

The truth is, no amount of replacement words is going to fix the first writing piece. Replacing some words is just a band-aid. Adding in words is a band-aid as well. It's like worrying about the gutters of a house, when the house is on fire. And if that cliche doesn't work for you, how about this- it's like putting lipstick on a pig. It's still a pig. Same concept.

The larger goal at hand has to be helping students write in a way that mimics real-life writing. Writing that is descriptive through showing and descriptive through slowing down events through a series of small moments...this naturally assists students to have "million dollar" writing with "million dollar" words. And we do this through author after author, lesson after lesson, throughout the year. 

Taking a Peek Inside Our Classroom

So, want to step into our classroom for a lesson? I do have a reason why I recorded myself, but I will spare you the details. For now, at least. This comes from our fiction writing unit and supports the concept of writing/thinking descriptively about possible characters in our writing.

Fiction Mini-Lesson

Lesson Summary: We discuss where fiction ideas come from. Do they come from the clouds or from small snippets of our observations and real-life? This is lesson two of our unit and writing partner talks have been edited for viewing purposes. It is longer than a typical lesson and focuses in on character traits and struggles. Length-15 minutes.

Lesson corrections: The story referred to in our discussion is "Slower Than the Rest" by Cynthia Rylant. It comes from Every Living Thing, a series of short fiction pieces.

A Writing Conference with Sarah

Summary: Sarah grasps grade-level conventions and generally writes in length daily. In this conference, we focus on developing her character, Sammy, who is battling self-esteem issues through baseball and adjusting to a living with mom after a divorce. This conference comes the day after the lesson posted above. The following day, we discuss what it is our characters really want (e.g. acceptance, love, etc.) and what is getting in the way. Sarah quickly answers these questions about her character, due in part, to our conference.

Author's Share Time

Summary: As our lesson starts off with an example of Katelin's recollection of saving a turtle from being run over, here is an example of how she works with this information to possibly place in a future fiction piece.

Anchor Charts

Here are some of the anchor charts used to support the lessons, conferences, and writing. The first three come from U of S, and the last one comes from Ralph Fletcher's Craft Study with the premise being that if you develop a character well enough you can place them in a series of events and then decide how to piece them together.  I also carry a small set of laminated index cards now that restates the anchor chart points. It is a helpful resource for students that need extra support.

Fiction_chart Character_development

Character_external_internal 

Event_timeline


Meeting_area

P.S. I was not at school 5:30 as the clock on the wall states. It's broken. It does, however, tell the right time twice a day.

Katelin_sharing

To learn more about our class, visit us at: http://www.bar.rcs.k12.tn.us.teachers/bunyia/bunyihome.html

Comments

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Angela

Hey Amanda,

First, let me say that it sounds like you are doing a fantastic job as a new teacher. Second, I appreciate the compliments...especially when I am sick and feeling cruddy right now.

But to answer your question, I am going to have to be open about myself, which means it may not work for you. In my situation, I teach out in a portable and have this sort-of mystery persona of sorts. If someone comes to my room it is because they have heard good things and would like to learn more (and many have done that). That means I don't have to hear/battle the different philosophies.

So, let me try answering this as if I were in your shoes. The concern would be very low for me and I'll tell you why. I honestly think it is like picking your spouse. Different styles work for different people. The teacher I admire the most at my school, Betty, is rather traditional and literally knocks test scores out of the ball park- every year. She is incredible, and I just love her. I could never imagine me teaching like she does, and like-wise...but we are different people.

I would just mentally remind myself that if you are doing a good job others will see that and come around. It's kind of that open your door and teach a little louder sort of idea. Reputation will solidify your practices, and that should be enough to support what you do. I stear way clear of people who don't support or believe in me. As you know, I call these shiny smooshers and know they create doubt and fear to others. I do well because the people around me believe in me and encourage me along the way. It's my little secret of success.

I hope that helps!!!

Angela

Amanda

Angela,

Great post! Simply replacing overused words is really only a band-aid! It often doesn't really change the tone, feel, or strength of a piece of writing. Although, admittedly, we can all agree that gregarious is an improvement from friendly. :) Word choice isn't the only thing that amplifies your writing, and I definitely think it's important to model how we do it and how published authors do it. Great video demonstrations, by the way!

Now, this replacement strategy has been utilized forever it seems. It made me think about so many other methods and teaching strategies that are cemented into our schools. It also made me think of reading workshop and writing workshop, the strategies, anchor charts, and a myriad of other "best practices". There seems to be a line drawn at my school as though you have to pick a side. You're either new or you're old. The feeling that I get sometimes, as a new teacher using these newer methods, is that I am stomping on other teachers toes. They walk into my room sometimes and make comments under their breath about the anchor charts or whatnot... and explain that they don't see the significance. I try to "know my place" as a newbie without being brushed off as ignorant. I have mentioned that there is research that supports these methods, but this sometimes only puts a wall up. How can I support my teaching without making others feel like I am saying my way is superior to theirs? That is certainly not what I am implying. I am only doing what research supports and what works for me. Everyone is different. Any suggestions from the peanut gallery as well? How do I walk that tightrope and support what I'm doing without making others feel like I'm a know it all kid?

Any advice would be fantastic!!!! Thanks!!


Amanda

Angela

Hello Kim!

Thanks for writing me. I wrote a post in February on this topic. You can find it here:

http://blogs.scholastic.com/3_5/2009/02/helping-students-read-through-a-balanced-classroom-library.html

Most of your questions can be answered on the blog, with the exception of defining your classroom library. That is my next post for Saturday. I am going to write about classroom design, which will include a video narration of organizing classroom books and creating reading spots. With our small, oddly shaped quarters, I feel like I have a lot to offer on setting up a classroom. :)

Hope you enjoyed your weekend.

Best,

Kim Wallis

Mrs. Bunyi,
Hello, I am a teacher at Childersburg, AL. I teach 5th grade. I was looking for some good ideas for my classroom environment and I ran up on your website. I just have to say how great it is! WOW!!! I have gotten some really great ideas from you. I would like your advice on something. I am only a third year teacher and I want to increase my classroom library. Do you have any good suggestions on books? I am also trying define my reading area a little more, but I just can’t seem to do it. Do you have any suggestions for that? I think what you are doing is wonderful! You have given me inspiration! ☺ Thank You…
Kim Wallis

Comments are closed. Please see Classroom Solutions, our new blog for the 2009-2010 school year. And stay tuned for Teaching Matters with Angela Bunyi and Beth Newingham.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Inside Angela's 4th Grade Classroom are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.