From the Classroom: Organization is an Act of Revision
By Brian Kelley
I’ve always admired my father’s garage. It is organized. Utility shelves on the left. Steel pegboards and hooks on the rear and right walls. Every tool has its place. He knows where everything is, yet he is constantly revising the content of the garage.
My mother keeps adding stuff to the house, and older stuff is belched out to my father into the garage. So, my father makes decisions. He replaces and rearranges. He adds what he must. And he deletes. I know for a fact that he would love to delete a lot more.
When I teach organization to middle school writers, the lessons of my father’s garage must be in the DNA of my methods. Everything has its place. Nothing starts organized, and this includes writing.
Organization is an act of revision.
Three Categories for Teaching Organization
I teach and reteach (depending on the student) fifteen elements of organization. These elements are organized in three categories of five.
I. Structures: sequence, compare-contrast, description, problem-solution, and cause-effect.
Note: These aren’t presented as types of essays or individualized, prescriptive plans. These are structures to snap together like Legos for any essay might include multiple structures. Each structure carries its own short list of transitions. When students can identify that a section of their writing is one of the above, I direct them to make certain that some of the specific transitions find their way into the draft.
II. Common Leads: open with an image, open with an action, open with dialogue, open with an astonishing fact or number, open with a question or quote.
Some of these can be blended. An action can, of course, feel like an image. Dialogue could occur within action, and so on.
III. Common Conclusions; some of these will look familiar: end with an image, end with an action, end with a dialogue, end with a reflection.
When I see writers end with questions, I often think, as a reader, that this endpoint would best served as a reflection by the writer. Yes, I will join him as a reader, but I don’t like when a writer releases me with a question–as if patting my bottom, “Now, off you go! Scoot!”
Of course, there are more than five types of leads, conclusions, and structures. What I offer is a concrete basis of organization and the language to talk about it. And when students find something unusual, something new, I encourage them to bring it in. Let’s discuss what the writer is doing.
Early in the year, the students’ ability to discuss organization can be limited to “what should come first or next,” or “does this hook you as a reader?” Each of these questions matters. Yet, when we expand a student’s ability to talk about organization with specific language and examples, again and again, the students learn that every tool has its place. Replacing, rearranging, adding, and deleting become more specific and nuanced.
We have spent time examining writing from all over. And we look at the leads. We look at the conclusions. We discuss what did the writer do here? What did he blend? Do you notice the writer blending any organizational structures through the piece?
Our exchanges sound like, “Look, in this paragraph there is a bit of narrative in sequence.” Another student might add, “–but here he uses description” while another finishes “–and that sets up three paragraphs of compare and contrast.” I can’t get them to talk about writing enough.
Consider the lead in this draft by one of my students, Cynthia (pseudonym):
Chinatown was awash in light. Red and gold paper lanterns hung off of buildings and criss-crossed the street. They ran back and forth on diagonals, until a steep San Francisco hill carried the road down and down and out of sight. They swung gently in the dry California breeze. Chinese phrases were scattered through the night. The streets were packed with authentic grocery stores, gift shops, laundromats, and restaurants, like sardines in a can. Like sardines bathed in lantern light and detailed with shiny Chinese characters that made no sense to me, but were beautiful all the same. Young children holding their parents’ hands, old men and women, tourists in cheesy t shirts, and locals flowed through the streets, in and out of open-air markets and in and out of tiny, cramped stores.
Cynthia begins her essay with an image. It draws me in. Yes, this hooks me. The strong verbs, sensory language, specific nouns…it is all here. Not to mention the fact that Cynthia is learning to be patient as a writer–perhaps the hardest skill of all to teach.
For the next two paragraphs, Cynthia shares the sequence of events. On a family trip to San Francisco, she accidently stepped on the heel of a man’s shoe and gave him a “flat.” Cynthia was four. The man followed the family into the next shop and berated her.
Cynthia’s essay picks up in the fourth paragraph with a mix of cause-effect and reflection:
What I had done was not that terrible, but for some reason, the look on his face turned me stone cold. I didn’t speak about that night for years, and by the time I did, no one remembered, or had a clue of what I was talking about. It was a something I’ve fruitlessly tried to explain, or even just put into words, just like I’ve tried to explain the distinctive smell of a bitterly cold day, or an oppressively hot one, or the odd quality of iced tea that I dislike, but can’t exactly describe. It is a moment lost to time and memory to everyone but me. Maybe that old man still remembers the little girl who he was almost certain stepped on his heel, but wouldn’t admit to it, but I doubt it. For anyone else there, it was just a random misunderstanding between two total strangers, not even worthy of filing away in their minds. For me, though, it was one of the first times I experienced paralyzing fear. I shouldn’t have been so scared; what would he have done to me anyway, if I did admit to it? I’m sure nothing scarring or life altering, maybe he would have yelled at me, or maybe my parents about respect, or something, but he would have eventually left the store, and we would have gone on walking about the streets of Chinatown. If I had said something, it probably would have been another memory thrown into the void, unremarkable and unremembered, but something about keeping my lips sealed, imprinted that memory in me forever.
This, in my opinion, is essay. This isn’t creative writing anymore than it is prescriptive, prompt-driven writing. This is thinking on paper. I can feel and experience Cynthia thinking as she writes. That is what I identify with as a reader. That is what I connect and reflect with as a writer. I am not at arm’s length. Cynthia has not clipped me loose. She has kept the reader close.
How? Is this an unusually talented fourteen year-old writer? Maybe. But what I do know is that Cynthia was not using these techniques at the beginning of the school year. Her writing did not read like this.
As she has grown to see and practice and understand the tools of organization, as she has come to learn to talk about the tools of organization, she has come to understand how to use them in her writing.
Honestly, this truly is the first emergence of this writer flexing her writing muscles.
I believe that no matter what her memories and experiences throw at her, that Cynthia, like my father, has learned how to replace, rearrange, add, and delete within the context of organizational structures, leads, and conclusions, Think of the complexity of thinking happening here! Think of what her eyes notice. Think of the writing moves she will continue to learn to make irrespective of the assignment, test, or purpose for the writing. The writer has been taught, not the writing.
What Cynthia learned is a process, not a product.
The process of talking about and working with organization has become one of my favorite, recurring conversations with my students. I can see it. I can hear it. Just as I can see my father’s garage and just as I can hear him talking about the ongoing decisions he makes in that garage.
Brian Kelley teachers 8th-grade creative writing at Charles F. Patton Middle School in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania; his podcast about families and heritage “I Remember” can be found on iTunes; you can connect with him on Twitter @_briank_ or on his blog: walkthewalkblog.blogspot.com.