Sharpening the Focus
Generating Ideas; Focusing Topics
Mentor Text Suggestions:
- A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You by Ralph Fletcher
- My Father’s Hands by Joanne Ryder
- “Ga-Ga’s Hands” from Confessions of a Pioneer Woman (website)
- The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown
- A Tree is Nice by Janice M. Udry
- Big Mama’s and Shortcut by Donald Crews (Shortcut zooms in on one moment)
- Flotsam by David Weisner
Good writing has a clear sense of focus, but young writers usually struggle with this. They tend to write “bed-to-bed” stories, recounting an entire event or grocery list stories that are nothing more than a list of facts or events. The following mini-lessons help students take their “watermelon” ideas and focus them down to “seed” ideas.
Focused vs. Unfocused
Help students see the difference between a focused and unfocused piece of writing. On the overhead share two versions of a story written by you or a former student. One version should be a general, unfocused story such as “My Trip to Washington, D.C.”. The other should be a focused version of the story such as “My Visit to the Washington Monument.” Discuss what makes the second story a stronger piece of writing. Have students look through their own writing folders or writer’s notebooks to find a draft that could be revised to give it a stronger focus.
This child’s piece lacks focus. It contains several topics which could be develop into several pieces of writing. Click to enlarge.
The following piece focuses on one event: a ride on Space Mountain. Instead of writing about “My Spring Break” or even “My Trip to Florida” or “My Trip to Magic Kingdom”, this writer chose to describe sensory images and feelings he experienced during this one event, making this a much more powerful piece.
Photo Album Analogy
Bring in a photo album containing pictures from a trip you have taken. Gather students around and ask if they would like to hear about your trip. Begin telling them how you got ready for the trip, what you packed, what the weather was like that day, how you got to the airport, etc. After telling the story, ask students what they thought of it. Most will probably admit that it was a boring story. Ask what they would like to know about your trip, encouraging them to ask specific questions. Open the photo album to one snapshot that shows an interesting or meaningful part of your trip. Tell a whole story about that one snapshot. Discuss the difference between the two stories. Lead students to see how focusing on one aspect of the trip makes for a much more interesting story than listing every insignificant detail.
A Lot About a Little
The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown is a classic and has so many uses in the writing classroom. To use it as a lesson on focus, read it aloud to students and encourage them to notice how Brown takes each topic and describes it in detail to write “a lot about a little.” As a shared writing activity, select one of Brown’s topics and have students add more details about it. Have students write their own paragraphs—either elaborating on another topic from the book or selecting a topic of their choice. A Tree is Nice by Janice M. Udry is another great mentor text to model this technique.
Ralph Fletcher has a chapter called “Writing Small” in his book A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You. This chapter can be paraphrased or read aloud to students to introduce the idea of focusing their writing. Fletcher encourages writers to notice the small details and to write a lot about a little. He says “a single detail can sometimes give a window into a person’s whole life.”
| My Dad’s Hands
My dad’s hands are really soft and big. I like his hands because they always tickle me and grab me when I least expect it. My dad’s hands are really thick, strong, and large. They are always nice and warm. Sometimes I use my dad’s hands as a pillow. I like to feel my dad’s hands and try to guess what he did that day. My dad’s hands are really muscular. It always seem like my dad’s hands are sore. He says, “They aren’t sore.” I massage them anyway. Sometimes it makes him fall asleep when I massage his hands. I love my dad’s hands.
The Rule of “Write About a Pebble
In Lessons That Change Writers Nancie Atwell describes a mini-lesson that was inspired by a student’s attempt to write a poem about pebbles. Nancie encouraged the student to write not about pebbles, but about one particular pebble. The premise behind this principle is “don’t write about a general idea or topic—write about a specific one.” Don’t write about friendship. Write about your friend. Don’t write about fall. Write about this fall day. Go to the window. Go outside. Observe.