I am in a unique position this year in regards to introducing the paragraph because most of my students have already been introduced to the T3C formula that we use at my school. One huge challenge, however, is that students think that since they've already learned it, they're done. I spent quite a bit of time before starting the actual notes taking to students about why it was important to re-learn the T3C paragraph. My key points were:
With this in mind, I asked students to write a topic sentence about one of the passages we've already read this year, either "King of Beasts" or "Booker T. Washington." I also gave students a copy of a T3C outline and asked them write their topic sentence in the TS (topic sentence) box. I used this sentence as a formative assessment, and told students to hold onto that sentence, because we'd be coming back to it at the end of class.
After this discussion, I gave students their topic sentence reference sheet. This is the topic reference sheet that my school's literacy committee, which I'm a member of, created. It has the basic definition of a topic sentence and examples of topic sentences for various types of paragraphs (compare and contrast, order of importance, chronological/sequential order, persuasive). Each type of writing requires a different sort of topic sentence, but basically, a topic sentence
The first and third sentences in the picture both have subjects (underlined in red), verbs (green) and claims (blue). The second sentence would work for an informative paragraph, but quite frankly, it's not that great. And I wrote the thing! It does have a subject (the T3C paragraph), it has a verb (is), but the claim isn't that catchy or effective.
Using their reference sheet, I asked students to look through the examples and identify a sentence starter/example that would be more effective than sentence 2 as currently written. Some suggestions were
You certainly don't want to limit students to sentence starters, but for introductory lessons, students with disabilities, and reluctant writers, having these sentence starters is an excellent scaffold.
The day before, students attended an assembly on Rachel's Challenge , so I used the assembly as inspiration for the topic sentences that I wrote. In a nutshell, Rachel was one of the students who died in the 1999 Columbine school shooting. She cared about the issue of bullying, and her family used excerpts from her drawings and journals to create positive change in schools to eliminate bullying.
I displayed five topic sentences on a PowerPoint and asked students to take turns reading all of the sentences aloud in their groups. You can see the sentences in the picture to the left. After reading aloud, I asked students to evaluate the effectiveness of each topic sentence by assigning it an x if it was missing a subject or claim because it wasn't a topic sentence at all. Students could assign a check minus if it had some parts of a topic sentence, but was missing other parts. Perhaps it had the subject, but was missing the claim. A check could be awarded if the sentence had both the subject and claim, but wasn't particularly interesting. A check plus could be awarded for a sentence that had a subject, claim, and was compelling. Click here for a video about my check/check plus/check minus system.
I gave students about five minutes to discuss in their groups before calling them back together for a full class discussion. This second picture is a screen-cap I took after one class' discussion. Most groups agreed on which two sentence were missing a claim (We went to the Rachel's Challenge assembly yesterday) and wouldn't work for a topic sentence (The assembly yesterday was sad and boring and I didn't like it). Students also agreed which topic sentence was most effective, i.e., had a subject, verb, and compelling argument (Rachel's Challenge is one of the best ways to make the world a better place). We had a fabulous discussion that resulted from a student saying that since a claim was negative, it wasn't compelling. However, a negative claim can work fine for a topic sentence.
You can download the PowerPoint I used here.
I use a check/check plus/check minus system in my class to assess student writing and to model expectations. I have this handout, "What do the marks on my paper mean?" hanging up in my room and also include the information in my syllabus.
After the group discussion, I asked students to return to the topic sentence they'd written at the beginning of class. journal for today. I asked them to identify their topic sentence and then copy it onto their notes. Using the check/check plus/check minus system, I asked students to evaluate their own topic sentence.
I walked around to every student and asked them how they rated their topic sentence. No student rated their topic sentence higher than a check, which meant that they all knew that they could do better. Most students could readily see that the topic sentences they wrote in their journal were a check minus or even an X. I asked students how they could improve their sentence, and the students revised it.
As we continue into the school year, I will be evaluating the topic sentences the students write in their daily writing quickwrites and weekly reading logs. For the first month of school, I focus on the quality of the topic sentence, rather than the quantity of writing. I certainly do not limit students' writings, but the main focus for my formative assessment is on topic sentences.