The opening of most things is important. The opening of a book. The opening of a film. The opening of a lesson. Get it right and you have people hooked and on your side. Get it wrong and you struggle to keep them looking in your overall direction. It is interesting that there are loads of books on ‘starters’ in teaching, yet very few books on ‘middles’ and ‘plenaries’. Now, I am not going to bore you with loads of starters I use as there are plenty other, much better, sources for that. No, I am going to share one starter that I use over and over again with different classes. Oh, and it is about openings.
This activity is usually used as a way to start a piece of creative writing. It saves you from those annoying questions about how to start a story after two lessons dedicated to planning it. Also, I use it to look at the opening of a class novel. I print out a sheet with the following sentence openings. Then, I give each student one. It doesn’t take long before they are heads down intrigued by each line.
Then, I simply ask them: ‘Which is the best opening line to a story?’ There has yet to be a class that has all come to the same answer. Some love the funny ones; others are interested by the violent ones. Overall, it creates a great discussion.
The next stage is to explore what makes them so effective. As a class we come up with a rough set of rules:
· Refer to something as ‘it’ or ‘they’ to create mystery and hide the identity of person or creature
· Suggest something bad has happened or is going to happen
· Use a narrator
· Describe something ordinary and make one thing odd about it
· Raise lots of questions
Students then create their own on a post-it note and we read them all out. Thankfully, it stops that annoying ‘How do I start it?’ phase of story writing. Plus, it gives students a range of sentence structures to copy or adapt for their own writing, saving us from some pretty dull writing.
Depending on the rest of the lesson, I might leave this as a starter or do some of these things to extend the learning:
· Categorise the openings by genre, impact on reader or effectiveness.
· Write the next few sentences to one of the openings.
· Based on one of the openings, write the last sentence of that story. How will they link together?
· Take one opening and analyse it in great detail. What questions does it raise? What techniques are employed to hook the reader?
· Watch an opening to a Doctor Who episode and write down the questions created to hook the reader.
If I have time, I might take them to library and get them to find new openings to add to this list. It gets students to engage with different books and, occasionally, they might even be persuaded to read the whole book.
I do something similar with the openings of non-fiction texts with Year 11. However, I always mention how writing in an exam is a bit like a date. The first impression is a lasting impression. If they opened the door to some dishy date who’s dressed to impress, then the date will probably go well. If they opened the door to someone scruffy and bored, then there is a big chance things will not go too well. Therefore, there first sentence must be impressive and free from mistakes. It sets the message and the tone of what they are doing. It hooks people in and keeps them: I am interesting so you can't help being interested in me.
In the beginning was the word. Yeah, maybe. However, I like the image of God looking at an empty nothingness and muttering the immortal words, ‘How do I start this?’ He looks up and there is no English teacher to direct Him.