Making-Strange Paragraphs

My students have been writing rhetorical analyses of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In an attempt to help them compose their paragraphs more mindfully, coherently and logically, I repurposed an idea from Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian Formalist critic: I instructed my students to take their paragraphs and make them strange.

They undertook Shklovsky’s concept of Ostranenie by rewriting one of their analytical body paragraphs on index cards, parsing the paragraph’s sentences out card by card. I provided each student with the number of cards he or she needed; post-it notes could work as well, although index cards are slightly easier to move around and manipulate quickly, and I happened to have a lot of them on hand!

As students wrote out their sentences, which took 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the number of sentences in their typed paragraphs and the length of their quotations, I fielded questions.

“Can I put ‘dot, dot, dot’ in the middle of a long quote so that I don’t have to write the whole thing out?” a sweet 16-year old boy called out.

I responded firmly. “No.”

“But this quote is so long!” he whinnied.

“Hmmmm,” I answered, “maybe you don’t need the whole thing?”

It was working! Students noticed things that normally are hard for them to notice; for example, the process slowed them down enough to recognize that maybe they didn’t need the WHOLE quotation to support their idea — maybe they only needed a part of it.

I emphasized that students should pay attention to any awarenesses and thoughts they had while they wrote their sentences out on the cards. “Maybe you’ll see a grammatical error that you didn’t see before, realize that you’ve mistakenly tried to make a dependent clause stand on its own. Maybe you’ll notice that one of your sentences can be broken into two sentences, or that one of your sentences doesn’t really belong logically in this paragraph.”

Students continued to work; their engagement inspired and thrilled me.

Once they’d finished this part, I gave them ten minutes to read and annotate a handout about paragraphs from The Little Seagull Handbook. Any grammar and writing handbook would work for this part of the lesson; I pulled from my bookshelf the book closest at hand, but I could have easily pulled the Hodges’ Harbrace College Handbook or Easy Writer: A High School Reference, both of which are in my bookcase, too. These types of handbooks provide concise instructions for writing issues (like “Developing Paragraphs”) and provide examples for students to examine. Aimed at beginning writers, the lessons from these handbooks can be read and comprehended quickly.

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After they read the lesson on paragraphing, we discussed it briefly, reviewing the functions of a paragraph and the suggestions for how to make them more coherent using strategies like repetition, parallel structure, transitions. I spent a few extra minutes showing them examples from the Purdue Owl website of non-parallel and parallel structures, because in my experience, the importance of using parallel structure is the greatest challenge young writers need to master.

I asked them to shuffle their sentence cards before spreading them out before them again in the appropriate order.

“Based on what you just read, take some time to see if any of your sentences might benefit from the repetition of key phrases, from parallel structures, or from transitional words or phrases.”

“Wait,” a girl with braids said, “I can’t remember the order of my sentences! Can I look at my typed paragraph?” (They’d been told to put their typed drafts away).

“No,” I said, firmly again. “My hope is that you are able to tell which sentence goes where.”

This was one problem I had been hoping for. I wanted students to understand that no matter how strange they made their analytical paragraphs, the techniques they employed could make the order of ideas so apparent that they — or anyone else, for that matter — could reconstitute the paragraph from the index cards, based on the component parts (topic sentence, evidence, analysis of the evidence, etc.) and the logical flow (coherence).

Once they had finished finessing the sentences on their cards, I asked them to shuffle them again and then give me their stacks. Then, I randomly reassigned a stack to each student.

“Now let’s see how well you can reassemble your peer’s paragraphs!”

They were not allowed to talk at all during this process, to ask the paragraph writer which sentence went where. I gave each student a large post-it note and told them to write any comments or questions they had for the writer on the post-it. I gave them about 20 minutes to do this part of the activity.

At the end, I asked students to number their peers’ cards in the order they thought was correct and to return the cards and the feedback sheet to the paragraph’s owner. I overheard them giving great feedback to one another at this point, telling each other what had made it easy or difficult to reassemble the paragraphs.

One student asked, “What if my peer put my sentences into a different order than I meant them to be, but her order works better than mine?”

“Fantastic!” I beamed.

This lesson worked really well for all the students and they had a great time doing it.

“Doing this made me realize how I needed to make my paragraph stronger,” one student said.

“While writing out my paragraph on the cards, I felt really bad because I could see how bad my paragraph was,” another student said.

“That’s okay,” I consoled the latter. “It happens to the best of us.”

Inspired by Shklovsky, I hoped that by making their paragraphs strange, my students would see them in a more mindful, vivid light (instead of numbly recognizing them), and in seeing them more clearly — five days before final drafts are due — they could make revisions that would help them become clearer, stronger, sounder writers.