Slice of Life: Thinking About Word Choice and Mood with Sixth Graders

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When you walk into a yarn shop, you are faced with a dizzying array of colors and textures. There are yarns almost as fine as thread to yarns as thick as a pencil and everything in between. When I decide to knit something, a lot of decisions have to be made. Which weight yarn is right for my project? What color and texture should I use? All of these choices affect the “mood” of the finished hat or scarf or sweater.

On Friday, I brought an assortment of different yarns into the sixth grade ELA classes. As I shared the yarn with the kids, we talked about how different each skein was from the other. I asked the students which yarn they thought would be the best choice for a hat for Dad or a blanket for a new baby. They intuitively understood that the function of the finished product influenced the yarn choice.

I pointed out that, just like knitters make choices about yarn, authors choose particular words to achieve an intended effect, and these choices influence how a reader reacts to a piece of writing. To illustrate this, I shared the first stanza of William Blake’s “The Echoing Green.”

The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies.
The merry bells ring
To welcome the spring.
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around,
To the bells’ cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the echoing green.

(You can read the rest of the poem here.)

As soon as we finished reading I asked them to write down a word describing their mood. Then I sent them back into the poem to find which specific words Blake used that evoked that mood. They shared their ideas with their partners, then with the whole group. I was impressed with the variety of words they chose to describe their mood, but even more impressed with how they were able to cite specific words and phrases to support their ideas. We repeated this process with the other two stanzas to see if the mood was consistent throughout the poem.

Analyzing “the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone,” as the CCSS calls for sixth grade students to do, can be tricky. These students have just started reading Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt’s profound and thought-provoking novel. Babbitt is a master of evoking mood, but her word choice can be subtle, so my sixth grade colleague and I have been working on ways to develop this challenging skill.

The kids did a great job with the work we began on Friday. I’ll be visiting them several times over the next few weeks to continue this work, including looking at several poems that have many words in common but evoke very different moods.

 Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnnaBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday throughout the year and every day during the month of March. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Slice 27 of 31: The Search for Delicious

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We got new laptops last spring and changes were made to the way we save and access old files on our server. This transition has been fairly smooth, but today I went looking for an old file that wasn’t showing up in my document folder. I found it eventually, after I uncovered some real treasures.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969

Early during my first year of teaching, I got a terrible head cold and stayed home one day to rest. For some reason, I picked up a copy of Natalie Babbitt’s The Search for Delicious that had been sitting on my shelf for ages. From the moment I began reading, I knew I had to read this book to my third graders. Here was a magical tale, rich with descriptive language. The final sentence of the prologue, which foreshadows everything to come, is a perfect example:

“Nobody believed [mermaids, dwarves, and woldwellers] were real any more except for an occasional child or even more occasional worker of evil, these being the only ones with imagination enough to admit to the possibility of something even more amazing in the world than those commonplace marvels which it spreads so carelessly before us every day.” (p. 10)

Isn’t that lovely?

Babbitt’s story is that of Galen, son of Prime Minister DeCree, who is writing a dictionary for the King. Everything is going well until he gets to the word “delicious.” No one in the palace is satisfied with “Delicious is fried fish,” so Galen sets out to ask everyone in the kingdom their choice for delicious. Galen’s is a classic quest; he encounters friends, foes, and discovers much more than the elusive definition of delicious.

At the time, my students were struggling with adding descriptive details to their writing. I decided to have them write their own straight-forward definition of delicious, using Babbitt’s example as a starting point. Then they added details describing what made their choice so delicious. We wrote these in the computer lab and illustrated their definitions using KidPix so they could practice their computer skills as well. Here are some of their creations, long-buried in a folder on our school’s server:

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Delicious is one piece of hot pizza shaped like a pyramid covered with lots of tasty cheese, pepperoni, and tomato sauce.
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Delicious is six tacos with crunchy layers of cheese, meat, lettuce, and tomatoes.
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Delicious is a big plate of hot, freshly baked,chewy brownies with about 1,000 chocolate chips inside.
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Delicious is a steaming hot heaping mountain of spaghetti dripping with dark red tomato sauce, slippery, curly noodles and huge meatballs cooked just right.

The Search for Delicious is listed on CCSS Appendix A list of text exemplars as a read aloud for grades 2-3, but that’s not why you should read this book. You should read this book because it is, well, delicious.

Thank you to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this Slice of Life Challenge!