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The Devil is in the Detail

by Lea Puljcan Juric | 14 Jan 2021
Resource Description:

This lesson is intended to help students in a first-year composition class build a series of effective paragraphs and enrich storytelling in narrative academic essays by including descriptive details and figures of speech. It develops skills in close reading and increases students’ awareness of the components and content of an introspective narrative essay. The lesson's topic invites students to reflect on the ways in which they interact with ordinary objects and imbue them with meaning, and on techniques that writers use to defamiliarize the familiar. Readings include (see References, below, for full citations):

1.     “Ode to an Orange” by Larry Woiwode

2.     “My Laptop” by Annalee Newitz

Audience: University
Audience Language Proficiency: Advanced
Duration: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Language Skill: Listening, Reading, Speaking, Vocabulary
Content Area: Literature, English for academic purposes, social and cultural studies

Development of paragraph and essay composition skills as well as reading comprehension, listening, and speaking skills through individual or group work and through class discussion. 


Students will be more adept at textual analysis as well as developing personal narratives by including verbal images and details that open unusual perspectives on meaningful ordinary objects.



Introduction (whole class, 5 min): Preliminary remarks on A) what makes an object meaningful and B) how to read for that meaning by close-reading a text. For A), students are expected to draw on a previous lesson dedicated to building effective paragraphs, and for B) they must draw on past lessons on close, critical reading.


Text and Genre Analysis (ca. 45 min total, in two parts): Examining Woiwode’s “Ode to an Orange,” with particular attention to its genre and intricate structure, descriptive detail, and figurative language, which help to create memorable images of an object valuable to the author. Some questions to consider: What is an ode? How does Woiwode construct an ode in prose? What images and allusions does Woiwode craft to give a deeper meaning to the act of consuming an orange? How does he make ordinary things look unfamiliar and sound exciting (for example, how is this story about a fruit a religious text)?

Part 1: Warm-up (work individually, in pairs, or in groups of three, ca. 15 min): Students are asked to close-read a short passage from the text. They can look for “verbal pictures” (a term they learned previously; e.g. statements that appeal to the five senses), figures of speech and other poetic language, allusions to “specialized concepts” (a term they learned previously) or shared cultural content, and other relevant features. Or they can focus on the text’s structure and organization, explain the function of any unusual grammar and syntax, examine the effects of uncommon writing techniques (covered previously), and so on.

Part 2: Discussion (whole class, ca. 30 min): Students present their findings and discuss.  


Further Discussion and Closure (whole class, ca. 25 min): In the next stage of the discussion, students are asked to use Woiwode’s essay to suggest ways for making Newitz’s fragment, “My Laptop,” more vibrant and engaging. Questions to consider: What kind of text is Newitz’s piece, and how can you tell? What patterns of paragraph organization does Newitz use? Which parts of her piece appealed to you the most, and why? What is missing? How could you expand upon it and develop it into a longer narrative essay, i.e. a story similar to Woiwode’s?

The goal of this discussion is to identify the most productive and creative plans for developing detailed, coherent paragraphs in an imagined essay on Newitz’s topic. These plans should model the type of work students are asked to contribute to a collaborative essay project that follows upon this lesson and completes the unit on building effective paragraphs and narrative writing.
Assessment: Students are assessed informally on their reading and analytical skills and the ability to creatively develop another author’s work. They will apply these skills in writing as they work over the next two sessions on the collaborative essay mentioned above, which is eventually graded according to instructor's preferred rubric. 
Differentiation: A subsequent class session can be dedicated to a workshop for the collaborative essay project that completes the unit on building paragraphs and narrative writing. For the workshop, students are required to bring a draft of their contribution (a single paragraph) to the collaborative essay. Working with a small group of previously selected collaborators, they read each others’ paragraphs, make suggestions for revision (adding detail, creating verbal images, increasing unity and coherence, and so on), and work on connecting everyone’s paragraphs into a single essay with transitional sentences.

Woiwode, L. 2010. Ode to an Orange. In Seeing & Writing 4. McQuade, D. and McQuade, C. eds. pp. 48-50. Boston and New York: Beford/St. Martin’s.  

Newitz, A. 2010. My Laptop. In Seeing & Writing 4. McQuade, D., and McQuade, C., eds. p. 44. Boston and New York: Beford/St. Martin’s.

TESOL Interest Section: English for Specific Purposes, Higher Education