Fetching the Binoculars
focusing on thoughtful action verbs while avoiding "get" and "got"
Overview: Students will analyze a fun, action verb-packed paragraph from 2012's Newberry-winning novel, Dead End in Norvelt by the hysterical author, Jack Gantos. The paragraph "shows" the books main character getting some binoculars for his mother from his father's storage case in his garage and workshop, and it's fun to see how such a simple task can be acted out with such a variety of quality action verbs. Students will practice using good verbs by creating their own action verb-packed paragraph based on a simple task they do regularly at home. They will then apply the same skills to re-tell the story of one of the labors of mythology's Hercules.
A note from this lesson's author: October is always my "mythology month" in my middle school classroom. I just love modern novels that make allusions to myth, so in October:
- My sixth graders study the story of Theseus and the other 11 Athenian youths who--because Crete could easily conquer Athens--were sent annually to Crete as "tributes" who were placed in a maze and hunted by the Minotaur. In an interview, I heard Suzanne Collins cite this tale as one inspiration that helped her pen The Hunger Games, so my sixth graders delight in discovering this.
- My eighth graders do a quick study of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex before we read Richard Peck's The River Between Us. We compare both tales' use of prophecies that are misunderstood, and we also focus on the the fact that important characters in both stories make significant discoveries about who their actual parents are.
- My seventh graders--the ones who are exposed to the easily-adapted-for-most-grade-levels lesson on this page--, well, they feast on the stories that share details of Hercules' twelve labors. After Hercules, I strongly suggest they research a modern day famous person who did something that others would have thought an impossible task for their expository requirement for writer's workshop. A lot of them take me up on this suggestion.
I tell you all this because, with the lesson I am sharing with you on this page, you could easily stop it after having students write the verb-packed paragraph about one of their daily routines or chores. You don't need to do the additional writing task I share here, which takes the kids to the story of Hercules; however, I happily share my Hercules' materials with you below, in case you're interested in them.
Personal praise for Gantos' mentor text: I personally loved this book. I don't think there are enough young adult novels out there that try to make you laugh out loud while reading. The story is about an entire summer of being grounded when you're just a kid. It's a weird, wonderful tale about a weird and wonderful town that I will be sharing excerpts from all year long. I have already shared (as a read-aloud) the scene where the main character, while out on his first deer hunt, attempts to silently pass gas as a means of saving the beautiful deer his father has his hunting sights aimed at; because of that read aloud, there is now a waiting list a mile long of students who want to check out my only classroom copy. In addition to being genuinely funny, the book also contains great descriptions of real stories from history that I know will spark an interest in researching them further; his well-written explanation of John F. Kennedy's herculean and heroic acts from World War II are fabulous, and his wonderful version focused on the coincidental July 4th deaths of both Thomas Jefferson & John Adams will fascinate the kids. And if that's not enough, the beautifully-written obituaries found in the town's newspaper, well, I'll be sharing those for a new lesson I am developing on writing tributes that praise people. This is a good book for a teacher to own! Lots of possibilities.
If you click here to order a copy, you will help out my website because they'll send me a percentage of the sale; thanks in advance for considering this!
Setting the stage: Thanks to my Classroom of Logophiles lesson from September and our Presenting Me lesson from the first week of school, my students are now quite skilled with discovering what we call "25 cent" words. Mostly, they are thinking about "25-cent adjectives," and this lesson is designed to shift their thinking towards verbs, which I believe are the most important part of speech to really know well if you want to improve your writing. Adjectives (and adverbs) give sentences fluff, which may or may not help the writing. But verbs, verbs give sentences power. As Ralph Fletcher says
in Live Writing (which my sixth graders are currently reading), "Invigorate your verbs!"
I have been in classrooms where I see posters and bulletin boards that actually forbid the use of certain words in writing. With the exception of curse words, I don't believe any word should ever be completely forbidden. I understand why teachers do "Said is Dead" lessons--you know, the type of lesson that encourages synonyms for said, but you can't "kill" said; it's a useful word. If every dialogue verb in a real novel or story contained nothing but synonyms for said, I think you'd be exhausted after reading it.
Ultimately, I don't "forbid" any words in my classroom; my kids, however, would probably tell you a different tale. They know I hate the verbs "get" and "got," but I don't actually forbid their use. I simply think they're a very lazy set of verbs, and in final drafts (especially expository or argumentative/persuasive writing), my kids should be doing a better job with verbs. "Get" and "got" are vague; they can be used to mean so many things. And they're kind of contagious, I think; once you start using the verb "get" as a verb, it's so easy to just keep using for every sentence where you can make it fit. This summer, I created a new page in my writer's notebook that explained some famous instances from writing where I think using "get" or "got" was the best word choice. You can click on the thumbnail image at left to be able to enjoy this page from my notebook. Ultimately, here are the two times I think "get" and "got" are acceptable verbs:
- It's okay to use "get" and "got" in dialogue in a narrative. I personally say "get" and "got" out loud all the time in casual conversation. "Get" and "got" establish a certain type of voice in dialogue, but be sure to understand that using these words creates an informal-sounding tone.
- It's okay to use "get" and "got" if you're telling a story in first-person point of view, and you believe the narrator would say that word at that point. Again, it's adding an element of voice. Jack Gantos' narrator in Dead End in Norvelt uses the verb extensively, and it gives him a natural-sounding voice...but it is the voice of a twelve-year-old boy who is speaking to us. The verb works well here, and Gantos does a great job of balancing his "gets" and "gots" with other excellent action words. The paragraph we use in this lesson doesn't have the words get or got once.
Start this lesson by writing this sentence on the board: "I got the binoculars for Mom." Tell them it's not--in your opinion--the best sentence you've ever read or written. Ask them to talk with a partner and formulate a theory why you don't think it's that good a sentence.
While listening to their theories, pass out a "Word Storm" brainstorming sheet to each student. These come from Alana Morris's Vocabulary Unplugged: 30 Lessons That Will Revolutionize How You Teach Vocabulary K-12, a book that I am using like crazy this year. This is a great teaching resource with lots of interesting, learning style-friendly tools and ideas for helping students do more meaningful tasks with vocabulary words than just memorizing them. If you don't have this book, don't panic, a "Word Storm" sheet simply gives students space to brainstorm words they already know and categorize them into different columns based on syllabication. I always use the "word storm" sheet because my students really like having those daunting columns where they can record any 5- and 6-syllable words they know about the topic I assign for the brainstorm. My kids quickly discover they don't know very many 5- and 6-syllable words, but they like the challenge of trying to come up with at least one word for all of the "Word Storm" columns.
For this "word storm," I ask my young writers to brainstorm--with a partner--as many words they can that would take the place of the verb "got" in the sentence "I got the binoculars for my Mom." I do allow them to use "phrasal verbs," which means they can list two-word verb synonyms, like "brought out." Make this hard for them by stressing, "The only word you can remove from the original sentence is the word got, and you can't re-organize the sentence so that the words come in a different order, and you cannot eliminate or add words. They will most likely not be able to come up with many 4-, 5-, or 6-syllable synonyms here, but reward them for trying.
After sharing some of their best synonyms, talk about how vague the word got is. Share some different sentences side by side to show them how many different meaning the word can have.
- I got the flashlight. (meaning retrieved or fetched)
- I got really tired. (meaning became or felt)
- I got an 'A' on the vocabulary test (meaning earned or received)
- I got my parents mad at my brother last night. (meaning assisted in making)
- I got a new shirt. (meaning purchased or acquired)
- I got three of those! (meaning own or have in my possession)
And look how many different things got can mean in sentences like these:
- I got you! (meaning either tagged or supported or owned, as in a friend/lover, or...?)
- I got this problem. (meaning either possess or understand, as in math, or...? )
Explain for this activity, they are going to attempt to write about some simple actions without using the words get or got. They are also, instead of simply substituting synonyms, going to show an simple action with multiple sentences, each sentence trying not to use get or got.
Time to share for the mentor text! In chapter 14 (specifically on page 188 of my copy) of Gantos' Dead End in Norvelt, there is a ten-sentence paragraph about the book's main character getting (or fetching!) a pair of binoculars for his mother. To explain the paragraph briefly, you can tell the students that in the story the characters hear the town fire alarm and the fire (which is probably arson!) is visible but it's some distance from the house. The narrator's mom needs her husband's pair of World War II binoculars to see what's going on, and she asks her son to go get them. The binoculars are stored in the garage/workshop in a chest of war souvenirs. The J-3 mentioned in the passage is an airplane the father--who isn't home and doesn't like anyone going through his workshop--is attempting to restore; there is a picture of this J-3 on the cover of the book, proving it's probably an important item to the story. With this contextual explanation in place, your students will be able to quickly navigate this paragraph.
I had my student aide type up the ten-sentence passage for this lesson so that I could double space it and make it easier for them to circle words for the following activity.
Have students read the passage quietly to themselves; then, have them work with one partner to see if they can circle every action verb used in the passage. There are 20 action verbs in this 10-sentence paragraph. I play this activity as a game because my kids are naturally competitive. For every action word the partners choose to circle that is actually a verb, they earn one point. For every word they circle that is not a verb, they lose two points. The highest point-earning partnerships earn silly stickers for their notebooks.
You should remind them of a few verb facts before they begin:
- There are two verb types: action verbs (which can be transitive or intransitive--probably don't need to tell them the difference for this) and linking (or "state of being verbs," like was, is, are, etc.) verbs. For this activity they are looking only for the action verbs.
- Sentences must have--at least--one verb. Good sentences often contain more than one verb! 20 action verbs here, ten sentences--let them do the math!
- Helping verbs (like could, should, shall, will, etc.) help verbs, but they are not officially verbs by themselves.
- Don't be fooled by verbs posing as adjectives. In this sentence--The girl was jumping rope at recess.--the word jumping is an action verb. In this sentence--The jumping frog won the contest at the fair.--the word jumping is being used as an adjective and the word won is the actual verb of the sentence.
Years ago, I came to accept the fact that not all teachers know their grammar as well (or would it be good?) as I do. If you are uncertain about finding the verbs in the passage yourself, here are the answers I use in this game. Please remember, grammar can be debate-able, and there are some sticklers out there who might call me on things like participles in the passage, but let's not go there with this. Let's keep this about being able to spot action verbs in a passage:
- Sentence one's action verbs: grabbed, turned, started.
- Sentence two's action verbs: seemed, rise. The word was is a linking verb here but not an action verb. If students circle it, don't dock them points but don't give them points either. (Officially, seemed is also a linking verb, but let's not argue that point here)
- Sentence three's action verbs: leaped, counting. The word were is a linking verb here but not an action verb. If students circle it, don't dock them points but don't give them points either.
- Sentence four's action verbs: left.
- Sentence five's action verbs: slipped, pulled, trotted. The word were is a linking verb here but not an action verb. If students circle it, don't dock them points but don't give them points either.
- Sentence six's action verbs: lifted, leaned.
- Sentence seven's action verbs: kept. The word was is a linking verb here but not an action verb. If students circle it, don't dock them points but don't give them points either. Wrapped is an adjective in this sentence; the rifle is not wrapping anything, so it's not an action verb here!
- Sentence eight's action verbs: see, poking (out). Poking out is a actually phrasal (two-word) verb here; they circle just poking, that's fine, but if they circle just out, then that's wrong.
- Sentence nine's action verbs: swung, make (out). Make out is a probably a phrasal (two-word) verb here too; they circle just make, that's fine, but if they circle just out, then that's wrong.
- Sentence ten's action verbs: grabbed, reversed.
I have partners exchange their circled passages with another set of partners. They correct each other's work and score for them. Passages are then returned. I ask, "Who's the winner?" and reward some extra credit stickers.
I ask, "What are the author's best three action verbs in this passage?" Reversed and trotted will just about always make the students' lists, but students will recognize that most of the verbs here are not what we call "25-cent" vocabulary words in my classroom. (For an explanation of this, see my "Presenting Me" lesson here online.)
I then challenge the partners to take one of the ten sentences with "less-than-25-cent verbs" and to rewrite it using 25-cent verb synonyms. I discourage thesauruses for this; I'd rather hear what excellent synonyms they know without needing a resource other than their combined brains. If they do this quickly, challenge them to re-work a second sentence. Share the sentences with synonyms. Praise the really excellent verbs they show you that they know.
Time for them to independently write something original. At this point, students receive a new "Word Storm" (from Vocabulary Unplugged) from me to use; I usually run this brainstorming sheet off so that there's a blank on each side of the paper, so they actually just flip the "Word Storm" form they used earlier in this lesson.
Explain, "I'm going to show you four sentences--like the flashlight sentence we started with--that use got as their main verb. You are going to write--like Jack Gantos did--an eight- to ten-sentence paragraph full of action verbs that 'show' me the original sentence but never use the words get or got. Basically, you're going to take an 'I got the binoculars for Mom' idea, and you're going to turn it into an action-packed paragraph. You will earn a better grade if you use four or five '25-cent verbs' in your paragraph. Don't go beyond that; using too many 25-cent verbs can make writing sound forced and not natural. Choose several strong 25-cent verbs to spread out and use in your paragraph. Here are your sentence choices:
- I got ready for bed.
- I got ready for school.
- I got my chore(s) done.
- I got the garbage can out to the curb just in time.
- I got ________ (get teacher's approval)
After students have selected a "got" sentence, they will spend ten minutes brainstorming verbs they might use in their paragraph on their "Word Storm" sheet. I require them to brainstorm without a thesaurus first. If they show you ten or fifteen verbs that came from their own brains (or from a conversation with someone sitting near them), then I allow them to poke through a thesaurus for multi-syllable words.
Students then compose their own paragraphs. Remind them this is not about cramming a bunch of 25-cent verbs into every sentence. Gantos doesn't do that, which is why his paragraph about the binoculars sounded natural. Here are several examples for this exercise from my seventh graders; writer's notebooks.
|Better than: I got the garbage can to the curb just in time.
from Cyanne, seventh grade writer
I woke up, hearing a loud noise from outside. I opened my window and could smell the disgusting scent. Then, I realized it was garbage day. I raced out of my room and grabbed a huge garbage bag and started collecting the trash. I looked out the window and saw the garbage truck at my next door neighbor’s house. I retrieved the rest of the garbage and stuffed it into the garbage bin. As I rolled the garbage bin down my driveway, the garbage truck stopped in front of my class at the same moment. I knew I brought the garbage bin down just in time.
|Better than: I got ready for bed.
by Jaysen, seventh grade writer
Water drips down my face as I splash on that cool delight, cleansing all that has collected throughout the day. My toothbrush rigorously scrubs the food from my molars. I stumble down the hall once my mouth and face are fully sanitized. As I search for the light switch in the dark, my fingers touch the cool wall. The light that has come from the bulb stuns my eyes that have only just adjusted to the dark. I stare intently at the numbers on my clock. 11:12. My eyes are barely open as I tug back the sheets on my bed. I slap the light switch and feel as though I can hear the who-knows-whats and the what-knows-whos that weave their way through the walls. I feel my eyelids growing heavy as I collapse into the warm and comforting bed in which I sleep. I’m out before my head hits the pillow.
Patrick, one of my seventh graders wrote a "no got" paragraph the first day of this task during sacred writing time, then on the second day, he tried to use as many gots as possible in a paragraph to show he understood the difference between his two examples. I admired his creativity, and he showed the class how easy it is to use got to write un-descriptively.
|Better than: I got my chores done.
by Patrick, seventh grade writer
After I finished brushing my teeth, I hopped over my sleeping dog and sprinted down the hallway to collect the laundry. I hoisted the basked over my shoulders and lugged it around the house, collecting dirty clothes as I traveled.
After I completed my task, I grabbed the dog’s water bowl and filled it to the brim. I crept back to the laundry room—where the dog’s bowl is situated—and colorfully lowered it to the ground. Next was my least favorite task: the garbage!
I slouched down the hall, reluctantly grabbing the garbage cans and emptying them into the big bag. Finally, I slogged back to Mom and reported my accomplishment. “Good job,” she told me.
And that is better than I got my chores done.
|Using as many “gots” as I can
by Patrick, seventh grade writer
When I got woke up this morning, I got out of bed and got down the stairs. Then, I got the cereal and got the milk. When I got finished, I got dressed and got my teeth brushed. I then got the laundry and the garbage and got the dog water. Then I got the TV remote and watched TV all day before getting ready for bed.
Revising & Editing Paragraphs: You certainly could do this assignment as a single-draft assignment, but why not add some revision requirements, especially if you have a little time and are still teaching them the steps of the writing process. For revision, I put the students in groups of three, and each group member is given a set of trait-based questions to ask themselves about their group members' drafts. Here are the three sets of questions I will give the three group members:
- Idea Development: Did the writer use details that help the reader visualize where the scene is taking place? What was their best detail? Where could they add another detail?
- Organization: Did the writing begin with an interesting sentence? Did the writing end with an interesting sentence? How might the writer improve his/her first or last sentence?
- Voice/Word Choice: Did the writer use strong words/vocabulary in a way that still sounds natural, not forced? Which sentences sound the most natural or conversational? Which sentences sound the most forced, and how could they be improved?
As they read each other's drafts, I always ask them to suggest spelling or punctuation corrections, if they spot something they suspect is incorrect.
Author's Chair/Notebook Page: I haven't decided if I am going to host an author's chair for finalized paragraphs, or if I am going to invite students to type up their final drafts, glue them into their writer's notebooks, and illustrate them. I might give students the choice of either publishing activity.
|Extending this Lesson: The Twelve Labors of Hercules without Gets and Gots
This is an optional extension of this lesson for writer's notebooks. I like to encourage my students to re-tell favorite stories in their writer's notebooks (when they don't have a story of their own in their brains), and the stories of mythology--when combined with Mr. Stick--make for great writer's notebook pages.
I use the stories of Hercules' labors to teach my kids an important set of themes: 1) with the right motivation, the impossible can become possible; and 2) work diligently for forgiveness if you ever do something wrong because earning forgiveness is a key to a good life.
After the "Fetching the Binoculars" lesson, I asked each of my students to research/print details on-line associated with one of the stories behind Hercules' twelve impossible labors. Each student was assigned a different labor by drawing from my "coffee can" of labors. After students brought in their research, they practiced re-telling the story of the labor they researched in small groups. Students, then, had to choose a labor they heard about from a classmate (not one they did online research for), and attempt to tell it in 8- to 10-sentences while using only action verbs.
Finally, I asked them to check their spelling and punctuation and neatly copy a final copy of this Hercules paragraph into their writer's notebooks. Mr. Stick illustrations were encouraged. I, of course, had highly creative work from my students. Below, is just a sampling. More to follow!