Idea Expansion: Helping Their Ideas Explode

I stumbled upon a lesson this week that had my entire class erupting in giggles, awed at their classmates’ similes, and patting each other on the back for their ingenuity. For a group of middle school students who struggle with English, this was a huge win. If your students are writing narratives with sentences like, “He is tall,” instead of “He towered over the others, casting a shadow across the room,” then this post is for you!

Narrative Peer Revision Assessment (2)

Every October, my school district hosts an Annual Horror Story Contest in grades 7-12. Every student attempts to write a 3-5 page story rich with suspense, mood and, of course, horror. I teach four sections of middle school – if you have experience reading the work of this age group, you know that reading these can be both extremely entertaining.

These students are exploring new ideas that often explode into stories of non-stop action. Yet, most middle school students fail to grasp the concept of pacing (everybody dies all at once) or conventions (“Then they ran to the barn and hid in the hay and tried not to sneeze and heard footsteps approaching and they started shaking and…”).

I worked hard with my middle school students to discuss pacing, to offer guidance in the early stages of writing to avoid pacing issues. Students created rough drafts and we went through a round of peer revisions using my Narrative Peer Revision Assessment and the students were SO helpful to each other!

However, as I scanned the stories, I kept seeing really short descriptive sentences like the one mentioned in the opening of this blog post. I knew I had to find a way to widen their thinking.

So, the next class, the students came in and on the whiteboard, I had written the following: 

IDEA: “I am so tired.”

EXPANDED: “My eyelids drooped as I fought off sleep. My legs felt like lead balloons as I dragged myself across the room.”

I asked my students to write everything down in their notes. Then, we got into a lively discussion of how relateable drooping eyelids were when you’re really tired – everyone in the room had felt that at least once in their life! Then, we talked about lead. So many of the students nodded vigorously when I asked them if they had ever done so much running that their legs were heavy enough to feel like lead! BOOM! I had their attention.

I decided to get them involved more in the lesson. On the board, I crossed off the word “tired”, and asked them for other adjectives that would make sense. Soon we had the words “tall”, “beautiful”, “anxious”, and “angry” on the board.

Counting off by fours, I broke the students into small groups (I only have 12 students in this class, so this worked. If you have more students, come up with a fifth or sixth adjective and break them up like that. Any more than two or three students per group may allow one student to sit back and let the others do the work! I assigned one of the sentences they had come up with to each group and asked them to expand that sentence in their notebooks.

For example, Group One had the sentence, “I was so tall.” Group Two had the sentence, “I was so beautiful.” Etc. The rules were, they couldn’t use the original adjective, and they should aim for one or two sentences as their Idea Expansion. I gave them a five-minute timer to keep them on track.

Can I tell you something, educators? I never expected to have so much fun with such a simple concept. These kiddos got right to work, trying their hardest to come up with an Idea Expansion that was truly great (and some tried really hard to come up with similes to make everyone laugh).

Once the timer went off, every group would share out. I asked the groups who were not sharing out to write down the Idea Expansion – I typed every Idea Expansion up on the SmartBoard as the group told us their ideas so anyone who couldn’t keep up could get everything written. Everyone was giggling, handing out compliments for similes done well, and it was probably the most joyous lesson I have ever experienced.

After all of the groups shared, I had the students take out their narratives and, with a highlighter, they were to comb through their stories and find at least three (3) instances where there was an idea that could be expanded on.

Their reaction? “Ms. C. can I highlight more than three?” 

Me: “You sure can.” 

I repeated this lesson three more times that day. Every single class went just as well. I even caught my one group of 8th graders that can be tough cookies when it comes to engagement giggling over some of the idea expansions.

Sometimes the best lessons are discovered by accident. I hope this joy spreads to your own classroom, and you find yourself having just as much fun as we did. Happy Teaching!


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