Teaching the basics of quality writing for the high school level can prove itself a tedious task, especially at the end of the week. My co-teacher and I recognized this before attempting the feat with our 9th graders. To help reduce the gap between apathy and necessity, we decided to structure our practice lesson around a visual text that would engage the students. For our inaugural effort, we chose to view and analyze the 1st trailer for the upcoming Pixar film Inside Out.
After watching the rather comical trailer, which portrays a mother and father's failed attempt to uncover the root of their daughter's apparent emotional trouble, we had the students come up with a thesis statement based off a prompt: " Compare the differences between what the woman thinks and how she communicates and the man's thoughts and communication style.
After reminding the students of the characteristics that define a quality thesis statement for their level (references the text, makes an arguable claim, refers to support), we allowed them several minutes to work together and generate their own statements. We walked around to provide assistance. When everyone had a working thesis statement, we asked 2-3 students to read their statements aloud and refined them as a class. To my initial surprise, the students actually came up with some pretty great claims:
After the topic sentences, we moved on to the context/quote/connection pattern (for which I owe my community college professor academic credit). For those of you unfamiliar with this structure, it provides for the efficient deployment of textual evidence in an essay: background info on the story that pertains to the quote used, thus placing it sensibly for the reader; the actual quote (with citation), and the explanation of how the quote serves to prove the claim in the thesis and/or topic sentence.
For this part of the activity, we re-watched the trailer so that the students could look for specific quotes and kernels of evidence that would support their claims. Once they had what they needed, we allowed them more time to come up with all three components.
Differentiating between the context and the connection proved hardest for the students, but using a short visual text turned out to be a greatly effective intervention for their difficulty. I could easily reference the events in the trailer leading up to their quotes and have them describe those events to me on paper because the story was incredibly simple and the dialogue brief.
Once done, we asked some students to read aloud their topic sentences and CQCs, and as a class we refined them, attending especially to making sure the connections sufficiently elaborated on the quotes to effectively support the claim of the topic sentence. Once done, we repeated these steps for the paragraph about the mom.
I used a similar activity a few days later to once again practice writing, only this time I had the students work in groups of 5 or 6 on different topics related to the same text. Despite giving the classes the opportunities to nominate and vote for the visual text they would use, all classes ended up choosing the trailer for the 2015 horror film Unfriended. While requiring more careful discussion and making sure that everyone felt okay about watching something potentially frightening, the trailer proved an incredibly bounteous text from which we gleaned some great discussion.
One group focused on the topic on the themes and message of the film/trailer, another focused on the elements of horror that the film-makers employed to make it "scary," and the third group examined the importance of the film/trailer's form, as it is shot from the perspective of a computer screen, thereby involving the viewer like a post-smartphone-age Blair Witch Project.