Ten minutes before my darling yahoots started walking in the door yesterday, I realized, while grading their Humanities 1 papers, just how devoid of topic sentences their papers are. Sure, they have lots of Idea and Content, they have clearly read their books and thought about them (Yay, yay, double yay!), but they haven’t grokked the idea of sentences which pull the ideas of the individual paragraphs together.
We’ve been coming at topic sentences sideways for a while now. When we read essays in class, I often have students highlight them as way of showing what they look like in the wild. (I imagine us on a safari, all packed in range rover, me wearing a pith helmet and pointing at a paragraph grazing on a shrub. <David_Attenborough_Voice>”Here, children, we see the elusive paragraph. Notice how its topic sentence is located in its undercoat.”</David_Attenborough_Voice>*)
I ran over to the board and put this up:
So, the students bopped in and read the Bellwork. They took a step back. “Read my notes?!? The ones in my own handwriting?!?” they gasped.
It also became clear who was reading the bellwork and who wasn’t. When I walked around to see what they were writing, I discovered a few students reading, the default activity for when they are finished with work. When questioned, I heard, “But I read my notes,” or “I wrote a sentence.” On the other hand, I did discover a student writing a paragraph.
Once all students had been shepherded towards reading their notes and writing three sentences, I walked around and looked for examples from the class. I asked a few students to write them on the board.
Then, I went over and picked up a large, yellow paper parasol I happened to have forgotten to take home about a month ago. I opened it and asked students to think about how a parasol or a bumbershoot is like a topic sentence. (Bumbershoot as in umbrella, not the music festival which happens every summer here in Seattle.) I asked students to write down their answers before I called on anyone.
The answers I saw as I walked the room were far from anything I had expected. Not necessarily wrong, just not going where I thought they would go. Now, I know we live in Seattle where there is very little sun, and therefore almost no need for a parasol. And although it rains almost non-stop, the rain is this misting, floating type of precipitation that curls in on you, making an umbrella just something that provides drag. Most people have one in the back of the car somewhere, but they wouldn’t bet on it. I blame the fact that this lesson was extended by 10 minutes on the Puget Sound.
Anyway, I decided to try another tack. I asked them what an umbrella or a parasol was for. The answer: “to protect you from something coming down from the sky.” True. Then I asked what part of the umbrella is like the topic sentence. They said, “The handle.” Okay. I can see where they are coming from. You can compare a tree trunk to a topic sentence. They said that the precipitation or sunshine, whichever, were the details. Completely opposite of where my head was.
At this point, I stopped and asked them to consider the protective part of our bumbershoot as the topic sentence. I asked what happens if your umbrella isn’t big enough. In a normal environment, “you get wet.” What if your parasol isn’t big enough? “You get sunburned.” Okay. Now we were getting somewhere. But what if your parasol is too big? “Ummm, you die of Vitamin D deficiency?” I was trying to give them a metaphor to tie these ideas to having a topic sentence which is neither too broad nor too specific.
Once I felt that we had this fairly straight, we went to the board and looked at the sentences that students had written.
We looked at each sentence and decided if it fit the needs of the information in our notes. (You will probably need to know something about the early Roman Republic to know if we are historically accurate.) But you can easily see which sentences are too specific and the one which best fits the need. (Sorry about the projector in the background.) And below is one which is too broad.
I have many books weighing well over 5 lbs which answer the above question.
I knew we needed to spend more time with this. So, having done that yesterday, this is what we did today:
Today, the students needed less guiding. Some of them came in and said, “Didn’t we do this yesterday?” Once I pointed (literally pointed) at the word Punic, all of them pulled out their notes and read them before they began to write.
Here is what ended up on the board:
…which I thought was a solid topic sentence if not on the edges of too broad, but it is clearly moving in the right direction.
I picked the first blue sentence because I thought she was taking a good risk here. However, the students decided it was too specific and at the same time too general. They asked if are we doing linguistics or history here? They have a point.
The second one, “The Punic Wars were very brutal,” the students thought was too specific. That is, until they went back and looked at their notes. They found many examples of brutality for each of the three Punic Wars, and we hadn’t even covered the salting of Carthage or the sacking of Corinth yet. Once having re-read their notes, the students congratulated him for seeing something that told the story without being too specific and that held their interest. (Bad behavior is always a draw. Ask the NHL.)
The blue one, everyone could see was right on the money. It’s got insight. Not only does it give you enough room to discuss the wars, it used the prior knowledge that everyone has about sibling rivalry.
The red one, everyone agreed was too general until we came up with a fix. We decided that simply adding the clause, “and the story of the Punic Wars is how it happened,” would narrow the focus and keep students from writing a textbook.
So we shall see if they will transfer this new-found skill to their essays. They know that, as they write their outlines and first drafts for their Humanities 2 papers, they will need to be thinking about how to give each paragraph a strong topic sentence which won’t give them Vitamin D deficiency or leave them all wet.
* Editor’s Note: My husband assures me that, “This is a visual pun on HTML-style markup.” Whatever the hell that is. 😛