Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Enrich Student Writing by Mining for "Gems"

     I fell in love with an image today.

     "They traveled in one group, like children inside a camel costume."  Something about this image in Meg Wolitzer's best-seller, The Female Persuasion, spoke to me.  (It didn't hurt, either, that one of the character's,"Dog," was affectionately nicknamed for his first spoken word.)  With one evocative simile, Meg Wolitzer convinced me of Greer and the dynamic among her friends.

     I'm sure you've experienced Book Love, too, that moment when a line or a character or even a picture hooks into the you of you and becomes an essential something you carry forever.  It's important for you to discuss this experience with your students.  The ones who have felt it will want to chime in. Those who have never even heard such a thing need to know it exists.  Once they do, not all, but some will want to savor the feeling themselves.

     Naturally, some lucky readers (including you and me) instinctively began mining these gems, these words and phrases and even illustrations, early in our childhood.

     To this day, I cherish the quirky bond between Jane, The Middle Moffat, and her friend, The Oldest Inhabitant, who is Cranberry's most senior citizen.  Reading about it calls to mind the relationships my childhood self embraced with my own beloved set of "oldsters":  Abu, Gikki, Daumie, PawPaw . . .

    "Kindly do not poke the Sally."  An unexpected, annoying touch instantly resurrects this quote from Shirley Jackson's Raising Demons.  Sometimes I even say it out loud, not caring one bit that the 'poker' won't "get it." It tickles my funny bone. It makes me happy. 

      Grok.  Karass.  Corduroy's fuzzy ears peeking out from under the bed sheets.  These words and images are for me and of me. They make me who I am.  And I know you have some of your own.


     Awareness of words and a love for them does not come naturally to everyone, but they can be cultivated in our students by having them create a page in their Language Arts journals designated for "gems." I first learned the practice of  mining book "gems" in a long-ago writing institute:  A "gem" is a turn of phrase that captures your fancy in the (self-selected) text you are reading.  You pause as you read (or after you read) to inscribe it -- along with the book's title and page number -- on that dedicated page in your journal.

     Collecting gems, as with any other worthwhile practice in the Reader/Writer Workshop, is a habit that must be ingrained through repeated practice.  Doing it as a "mini-lesson" will result in a one-and-done "activity."  (As are most "mini-lessons."  Do NOT get me started on "mini-lessons.")  You may have heard that one must repeat a behavior seven, eight times before it becomes a habit?  That's at least how many times your students must be instructed to jot down a "gem" they encounter during Silent Sustained Reading.  Some will take a while to warm up to the practice, so have your Immediate Enthusiasts share theirs with the class.

     Now for the "why" of mining for gems:

     Pablo Picasso is known to have said, "Good artists copy.  Great artists steal."  By way of explaining to your students that this is not an endorsement of plagiarism, give them an example of how they can obliquely insert gems into their own writing.  For example, in Paragraph Three of this post, I refer to books that hook into the "you of you," an indirect reference to an e.e. cumming's poem I read long ago, the title of which I've since forgotten.  But the phrase is a permanent part of me along with the feeling and the understanding it invoked.  

     Students who do not "grok" the concept of allusions will benefit from a lesson on how to embed direct quotes into their writing.

     Over time, your students' collection of gems will grow, as will their skill in using them to make their own writing sparkle.  And, if all goes according to plan, one day they'll start creating gems of their own.

JRR Tolkien's illustration of Smaug atop his pile of gems.

     The Sustained Reader, a blog devoted to promoting the use of self-selected text in an integrated Language Arts classroom, debuted on May 13, 2014, with its inaugural post "Let It Go".