Experimenting with Leads

I spent last week doing some prep work for the graduate course I’ll be teaching this summer.  By prepping I mean reading journal articles and rereading Mentor Texts (Stenhouse, 2007) by Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli.  Chapter five of Mentor Texts focuses on “creating powerful beginnings and satisfying endings.”  Sound like something you’ve taught your students a bunch of times?  Does it also sound like something you struggle with when you’re doing your own writing?  If you answered yes to one or both of those questions, then this post is for you!

I often change the beginning of a piece of writing around several times before I’m pleased with it.  As a writer, I know this is something many writers struggle with. Therefore, I want to share an excerpt of Mentor Texts with you that will  help you and your students the next time you’re faced with crafting or revising a lead:

Choosing the Right Lead

The important thing about beginnings is that students have choice.

There are so many ways to craft a good beginning for narratives and

informational pieces. Many of the strategies apply to all the modes of

writing. Lynne often models with a narrative she has written that takes

place in an amusement park. Her main characters are Billy and Lyddie.

The problem is that Billy, who is usually brave, is afraid to ride the roller

coaster but does not want to admit his fear to his sister and her friends.

She returns to the story to demonstrate how she could craft many different

leads for the same text. Revising the lead, or beginning of a piece,

can be a powerful revision strategy. Students can make better sense of

the different kinds of leads when each is written in the context of one

setting. The following examples show the possibilities for Lynne’s story:

Onomatopoeia: Clickety, clickety, clickety, clickety. The roller coaster

slowly pulled along up the steep hill.

Snapshot Setting: It was hard to walk through the throngs of people—

women pushing carriages, kids running and bumping into each other,

older couples strolling along arm-in-arm—as bits of notes floated in

between from the merry-go-round, my favorite ride.

Snapshot Character: Billy was not a coward. He just didn’t like the

twisty, turny rides, especially the ones that turned you upside down.

For an eight-year-old, he usually was pretty bold. He even didn’t mind

sleeping in his own bedroom without a nightlight.

Foreshadowing: If only Billy had known that he was tall enough to ride

the Rolling Thunder. Why did he always talk before he thought things out?

Simile: The roller-coaster track twisted and turned like an enormous boa

constrictor wrapped around the limb of an ancient tree of the rain forest.

Short, Choppy Statement: No. No. I’ll never do that again!

Question: Is there any better way to spend a beautiful Saturday than at

Great Adventure Amusement Park with your best friends?

Name Statement: I, Lyddie Jones, will never, ever take my younger

brother to an amusement park with my best friends.

Action (Suspense): Higher and higher it climbed, until it almost disappeared

into the billowing clouds, and all we could hear was the screaming.

Thoughtshot: “Why am I afraid to tell my sister how I feel?” Billy

thought to himself.

Dialogue: “Come on, Billy! Hurry! If we run, we can ride in the front

car!” Lyddie squealed with excitement.

Exclamation: “Look at how steep that hill in the roller-coaster track is

. . . Why, it looks like it stretches to the sun!”

Metaphor: It was a beautiful day, but windy enough to send wispy

cloudships sailing through the blue-ocean sky.

Personification: The old cars moaned and groaned as they were pulled

up the wooden track by invisible hands.

Appeal to the Senses (other than sound): The sickeningly sweet scent

of fear drifted to my nose as I stared at what seemed like miles of rollercoaster

tracks. I glanced around me to see if anyone else caught a whiff.

Salty beads of sweat had formed on my brow. I wiped them away with

clammy hands.

Creepy Statement: The track rose up like a dark spirit across the blue

sky, turning my insides to mush.

Weather: A soft rain spattered against the car windows as we drove

down the New Jersey Turnpike. But there was a ray of hope, poking

between dark clouds with golden spokes.

Quote (what people say): My mother always said that Lyddie should

have been born the boy, Lyddie, who was always daring, courageous,

and full of life.

Controversial Statement: Amusement parks! They should really be

called torture chambers!

Taking a Reader Back into the Past: When Billy was only two, his

grandpa swung him upside down and round and round. At first he giggled

and laughed, but when he started sputtering and gagging and spitting up

everywhere, he ran for his grandmother, burying his head in the folds of

her skirt and crying his eyes out. Yes, that’s when my brother must have

started hating roller coasters.

A list such as this could be kept on a chart in the writing center

or distributed as a handout for students’ binders or stapled into the back

of a writer’s notebook. As students explore mentor texts, they can label

beginnings, add the examples to a chart such as the one above, and try

to imitate them. Students should remember that descriptive language in a

beginning acts as a hook to reel in the reader. It is worth spending time

working and reworking the beginning of a text. Just as E. B. White did

in Charlotte’s Web, students should be given the opportunity to try out

many leads to discover which one fits best (pgs. 114-116).

Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-6 by Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli. (c) 2007 Stenhouse Publishers. Used with publisher’s permission.