Catherine Leach is a former Western New Yorker and a long-time friend of the WNY Young Writers’ Studio. She teaches and coaches at Sam Rayburn High School in Pasadena, Texas. I’m delighted to share this space with her today. 


It began with a lament. A few teachers were sitting around the lunch table, telling stories about catching plagiarists. I shared one of my best strategies: if the paper had a properly used semi-colon, it was likely plagiarized. We all laughed, and then we sighed. A correctly punctuated compound sentence shouldn’t alert us to cheating. Our department decided to create a vertically aligned grammar plan to address our grammar problems.

I began this year with a focus on getting my 9th graders to a place where they could identify subjects, verbs, dependent and independent clauses, and phrases. Once they knew the parts, the hope was they would be able to translate that knowledge into better sentence composing. Most of our grammar study was done in mini-lessons at the start of each class.

It was during that time period that we began our Of Mice and Men unit. I had the kids start by reading the poem “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns. We used the TPCASTT model – a strategy from a College Board training (title, paraphrase, connotation, attitude, shift, title (again), and theme). The students were able to make predictions based on the title, but I noticed the partners slowing down when they got to the “paraphrase” section of the graphic organizer.

I said, “Guys, don’t worry about getting the exact meaning for every single word; just focus on the most important words.”

The kids asked, “How do we know which words are important if we don’t know what the words mean?”

Good question.

I knew which words were important because I understood the poem. I scrambled to think how to help.

I wrote the following on the board: Circle the subject and underline the main verb. The kids did this, and it helped.

Over time, I added to the strategy as questions arose. We had meaningful conversations about purposeful use of fragments when kids hunted for the subject of a sentence and couldn’t find one. We looked at words that negated meaning and found synonyms for those words. We talked about the connotations of words and thought about how authors used language to shape meaning.

My students tend to race through reading to get it done. I think one of the real benefits of this strategy is that it forces students to SLOW DOWN and look at all of the words.

They don’t approach a difficult text as an impossible task now. They have a set of tools to help them navigate. They anticipate and accept a slow, difficult process. Many of them are finding that they are becoming faster and more adept as time goes on. An additional benefit is that some of the sentence structures are showing up in student writing. I’m going to have to work harder to catch plagiarists this year.

I couldn’t be happier about it.


Take a peek at the resource that Catherine developed to support this approach here: CloseReading


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