"It Was a Dark and Stormy Night": Eliminating Being Verbs from Student Writing

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SWBAT rewrite a short text with many being verbs so that it relies on action verbs instead.

Big Idea

Students need opportunities to experiment with showing rather than telling in their writing.

Teacher to Teacher: Lesson Overview and Context

Ready. Set. Write. These three words set the tone for my pedagogic philosophy about writing: For students to improve their writing, they must write often (preferably daily) and they must write in quantity.

I expect students to be ready to write daily. Additionally, rather than announcing an essay assignment at the end of a literature unit, I focus students attention on preparing for major writing assignments throughout our study of literature and weave focused writing instruction into the literature units. 

As a teacher, it's my job to help students find their writing voices and to show them they have important things to say.

In its original context, this lesson is

Lesson 2 in "Once Upon a Time" In My Life: Teaching Narration and Description Unit. 

I teach this lesson as # 7 in the Beowulf unit. However, it is a lesson that works w/ any writing assignment as a way to emphasize showing rather than telling. 

In this lesson students

  • learn the difference between being and action verbs;
  • learn which verbs function as being verbs;
  • learn the difference between active and passive voice;
  • learn the difference between showing and telling in writing;
  • rewrite a short text and eliminate the being verbs from it;
  • share their responses with the class. 

I was introduced to this activity through the Idaho Writing Project in the mid 1990s.

Whose Line is It Anyway?

5 minutes

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” — Edward George Bulwer-Lytton.

Each year the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest solicits the "worse" sentence in the English language for its contest that honors Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, author of Paul Clifford (1830), the novel generally considered the worse one written in the English language. The novel begins with the sentence above, the source of "It was a dark and stormy night," which many know from the comic strip Peanuts. 

I tell students this story as way of introduction to today's lesson and share the opening sentence of Paul Clifford with them.

Show and Tell: What We Do When We Write

15 minutes

Tell students that they'll be working with a passage that begins with Bulwer-Lyton's famous line. 

Distribute the handout. Dark_and_Stormy_Night_being_verb_exercise.It's in two parts. I give students only the top part because I won't be ready for them to have the bottom part until after they have a chance to rewrite the passage. 

Next, read the directions with students, but before giving them time to work, do the following:

  • Define what it means to show vs. tell in writing: Showing allows readers to experience the action as they read the words. Think of putting the reader in a movie and how one would experience it as the movie unfolds. In contrast, telling is characterized by the use of being verbs, which create passiveness in writing. It bogs the writing down and gives readers a static feeling. 
  • Define active vs. passive voice: Active voice means the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed in the verb. To illustrate, I throw a paper wad at a student I know well. Then, I ask the class: "What did Mrs. Funk do?" Inevitably, someone will say, "You threw a paper wad at Tyler." I say, "yes. Mrs. Funk threw a paper wad at Tyler. That sentence is in active voice because the subject, Mrs. Funk, performed the action, threw." 
  • Define passive voice: Ask, "What happened to the paper wad?" Generally, someone will say, "It was thrown." If not, use a sentence starter: "The paper wad...." That will prompt someone to finish the thought: "was thrown." I then respond: "The paper wad was thrown at Tyler by Mrs. Funk." Then I ask the class, "Did the paper wad do the throwing?" The say, "no." I respond, "Thus the sentence is in passive voice." 

Meeting Mathilda and Rupert

25 minutes

Next, read the passage students will be rewriting to them. Remind them that the words functioning as being verbs are in italics. Dark_and_Stormy_Night_being_verb_exercise.

If necessary, work through the first sentence with students before giving them time to work. My students wanted to attempt the entire passage on their own. 

Additionally, tell students not to worry if they have a being verb or two in their rewrites. Encourage them to have fun and to feel free to write something that is "over the top, even though professional writers encourage us not to make our writing overladed with adjectives." i tell students "the point of the writing is to learn to control your diction rather than simply defaulting to whatever comes to mind." 

Now set the timer for 15 minutes and give students time to work. 

As students work, mill around the room and encourage "stuck" students to write through their writer's block instead of staring at the paper. This is because students should feel safe playing with language, especially during exercises such as the one in today's lesson. 

Tell Me Mathilda's and Rupert's Story

20 minutes

It's okay if students don't finish the exercise. They can continue playing around with it later. 

Now it's time to share. I ask for volunteers. I have one student who is always eager to share, but when I choose him, no one else is willing to follow. This is because he is a very good creative writer and is also a drama student who loves interpreting his writing for the class. Today when he volunteered, I told him he has to wait until others have a chance to share first. 

We had two volunteers, and the class clapped after each one. I count down: "Three, two, one." The students know this is their signal to clap three times in unison. I always find something to compliment the students about. This might be an image or an idea. It might be one of their action verbs or the fact the student only had two being verbs. I use some of the following phrases: 

"I like that ...."

"Good job with...."

"I heard...."

"I wish I had thought of..."

Here are two student examples from volunteers who preceded my aspiring novelist: Student Example 1and Student Example 2

At the end of the period, I share my example with students, which is the bottom half of the handout. This is my first attempt at the rewrite, which is important for students to know because it's only fair that I take the same amount of time I give them to rewrite the passage.