We have been going at nonfiction paragraphs again. I’m heavy handed with the cookie cutter method: topic sentence, 3 detail sentences plus a conclusion: thumb, fingers, pinkie. What will this do to their writing down the road? Will they find it impossible to break from the hand as paragraph model I am drumming into them? Not sure.

Meanwhile, when your students are learning to communicate with a topic sentence and supporting details you are given multiple opportunities to reinforce this concept. It comes up when you talk about your weekend. It comes up when you try to convince the teacher of something. Back it up! Break it down!

Today it came up in the computer lab. Their job was to browse through their classmates’ digital portfolios on our class web site, paying particular attention to recently posted art and spoken word tracks. Then they were supposed to post comments (Using WordPress, these comments go through me and await my approval. I can also edit them or delete them before they see the light of day). It occurred to me in the nick of time that their feedback should also be in paragraph form. “Your poem about freedom is awesome. I like the background music because it makes my heart thump. Your words painted an image in my mind of people marching. I love the line about “Fight the power!” Great poem!”

Then, after say 10 minutes of posting comments, I can call up some model comments by their classmates and point out all that they do, giving them some deserved praise. I can edit a few other comments and I delete the knuckleheaded comments that just say “cooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool!” Then they have a second and third chance to get their comments up and their posted. It also gives me time to go around and work with kids who might need a little extra help writing a strong paragraph as a comment. Later, they get to show it off to everyone and get some (sadly) rare praise.

Another component of this feedback in paragraph form, of course, is regular classroom work. Time to start responding to author’s chair with paragraph feedback. Time to talk about each other’s art and photography with more developed feedback. It’s a revolution and it starts when your fist links with your mind and opens up to a wave.

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