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“Does This Need a Title?”: Helping Students Generate Titles

baby-names-268x300Most English teachers have heard some variation of “Does this need to have a title?” Although it seems like a yes-or-no question, my stock answer is “A title provides an excellent opportunity to set up your readers with some expectations about your topic and tone. There is no downside to providing a title.” In other words, “Yes, you need a title because it helps your writing, not because it’s a grade-based requirement.”

But students sometimes struggle with titles. I imagine them so exhausted after concentrating on crafting juicy paragraphs and considering the many ways their pieces can be organized that they end up just tacking on a simple label rather than an interesting title. How many pieces have we seen with the words “Romeo and Juliet” at the top, or even “Romeo and Juliet Essay”?

I’ve found that students can actually enjoy the search for just the right title if provided with some guidance and models. Listed below are four simple techniques for generating titles, along with some examples of my own culled from elsewhere on this blog. (I made the titles here clickable to posts on my personal blog just in case you’re compelled to take a look at the respective posts. It isn’t really necessary though.)

Three Key Words: This technique requires waiting until after the piece is written to generate the title. Then the writer simply chooses a few interesting words from what she has written and starts playing around with them in different orders, adding other words, and just seeing what clicks. (Much of this title-writing business relies on the “I’ll know it when I see it” impulse.)

Examples:
Delight, Wisdom, and Cutie Poems
Lilacs and TwitterArt
Schools, WAR, and Froggy DeMaestri

Make It Look Like a Title: This is the title-colon-subtitle strategy used in a lot of academic titles, many of which are perhaps accurate but also boring. “Boring,” of course, is in the mind of the beholder, but the titles of many academic papers actually seem intentionally boring. Let’s not encourage students to do that.

As we help students craft this kind of title, suggest that they use a single word or a very short phrase (1-3 words) followed by a colon and an emphatic or bold phrase.

Examples:
The Good Start: Twelve Targets for New Teachers
Today’s PLC Meeting: What Have We Learned?
Writers Week: 17 Years of “The Best Week Ever”
Stephen King: An Appreciation

Make It Not Look Like a Title: This is one of my favorites. Include symbols, numbers, punctuation. I’m not sure of the psychological principles involved, but titles using non-word elements seem to stand out.

Examples:
Un-send! Un-send! (two hyphens and two exclamation marks)
“The New/Newer/Newest Colossus” (quotation marks and two blackslashes)
The Truest “Grit”: 1969 or 2010? (quotation marks, colon, two dates, and a question mark)
#NCTE12 – Glimpsing the Future (hashtag and dash)

Dramatic or Funny Image:
Sometimes we use an anecdote in a piece to serve as an example or unit of evidence. If the essence of that anecdote can be distilled into a few words, the result can serve as a title.

Examples:
Extenuating Circumstances
The Brave Faces
Catch More Fish

Bonus Strategy: Each of these techniques can be augmented by noting that some kind of catchy sound device is a bonus: alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc. Students can be reminded that this is a practical application of those literary terms they’ve been learning all these years!

Examples:
Zapping Apathy with Daily Journals
Brit Lit: Reading, Writing, and Relevance
Trust Teachers

Class activities: I’m not sure how much time you want to devote to the art of writing titles, but here are some activities you can try:
– Bring in an op-ed piece and use these strategies to come up with a title. Headlines accompanying a newspaper op-ed piece are usually created based more on available column space than actual craft. What would the title be if space were not an issue?
– Have students bring in an untitled piece of their own and use these techniques to create multiple title possibilities. Then survey classmates about which is most appealing.
– Share a piece of your own writing that is finished or close to finished. Then solicit title suggestions based on these strategies.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to add your favorite titles or advice about crafting titles.

This is cross-posted, in slightly different form, on What’s Not Wrong?

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Rachel Giese: A Lesson Learned

Rachel has loved exploring languages and literature from a very young age. She spent her young years writing stories instead of coloring and painting. Rachel is continuing her exploration of the “spoken word” as she heads off the college to study the Spanish language and possibly onto teaching or more writing expeditions. Rachel grew up in northern Minnesota with her parents, Marty and Marcia, her two older sisters, Anna and Sarah, and with her younger brother, David. She enjoys playing the piano, singing, going for a jog, and experiencing the gifts of life.

  The breeze through the trees soothes. The sun reflecting off the subtle movements of the lake as it’s pushed by the breeze make a happy sparkle show for my eyes. The trees grow together as if they were a natural blanket protecting all who pass underneath them. The grass has grown so naturally long that it becomes a soft tangled carpet for the feet of those who walk through it. And as I watch the leaves I am overcome with a feeling so strong that I must sit. I must sit, watch, and learn from the leaves. I must learn about acceptance.

Bright colors fly all around. The leaves have spent all spring and summer living on their tree, with those who are like them: their own kind. They have spent their lives watching the sparkle show on the lake, dancing in the breeze together, and watching over all those who pass underneath them. They have watched each other grow; they have lived through the rainy nights and have been there with each other to enjoy the sweet scent of the forest the next morning. But what is truly admirable about the leaves is what happens when it’s time to fall. They don’t know when it’s time; they don’t know when the breeze will carry them to a new place. They don’t know when they will no longer be able to hold on and must float away forever.

And where do they fall? No one knows but the wind. A leaf cannot choose where the wind will lead. It cannot choose where it will live apart from its family and soon die. It cannot choose, but it does not complain.

When the leaves come to their place of rest, a wonderful thing happens. Beauty happens. There is not a certain place where all the green leaves lay; there is not an area where the yellow leaves fall or where the red leaves come to rest. They fall together and dwell among leaves of a different color, from a different tree. This is how it’s been for centuries. No one has told the leaves that it is wrong to dwell with those of a different color, from a different tree. Those leaves have not heard, yet, that they are supposed to fall and remain with their own kind. No one has told them these things because no one wants to ruin the beauty. No person would go into the forest and separate the red from the green leaves or the green from the yellow. Who would dare injure the rainbow of diversity? It is beautiful; it is what makes the forest come alive.

This is acceptance.

The forest is not color blind. There would be no reason for the leaves to dress up in the fall if the trunks of the trees could not see their brilliance. It would be pointless for the moisture in the air to paint a colorful rainbow in the sky if the forest could not see. No, the forest is not color blind. The forest can see the mixing of the different colors and it sees this as beautiful. It is beautiful because it is right!

At some point in time, the world changed its view. At some point, it became wrong to have one color dwell with a different color. At some point, someone said that the rainbow of diversity was no longer a beautiful thing, but a bad thing. Someone changed the ways of the world, but the forest remained the same. Even with its ever-shifting seasons, the forest has kept its way of life since the beginning of time.

If I start to question what is right and what is wrong in this world, I will consult the forest. I will take a walk on the soft tangled grass carpet, under the protective covering of the tree branches, past the brilliant sparkle show, and I will look down and see the ground full of leaves of different colors lying all together, and I will learn my lesson. I need to live as the leaves live.

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