#Engchat Challenge

A while back I stumbled upon this:  100 Best Opening Lines in Literature. 

Once I stopped squealing and dancing, I decided it could make a good lesson.  I sent this to the formidable #engchat collective:

So, in the spirit of “I don’t make my kids do anything that I don’t do”, here’s what I did:

We had already been studying styles in writing (use of sentence length, figurative language, and imagery).  For some background reading, we annotated Stephen King’s piece on writing the first sentence of a novel1.  For King, these three keys make a great opening line:

  • Preview the plot
  • Preview the style
  • Draw in the reader

Thus identified, we set off on a massive gallery walk of all 100 lines.  I asked students to walk the room and find a line they liked and work to find King’s keys.  I had students complete two as “practice” formative, then share with a partner.

Sometimes this worked great.  Tony Morrison leads off “Paradise” with “They shoot the white girl first.”  The students immediately picked up that this book would have something to do with race, that it would be a sad book.  They assumed it took place in the Jim Crow era, although I cautioned them that “white girl” could be important in a lot of cultures.  On the other hand, they all assumed that Joseph Heller’s start to “Catch-22”, “It was love at first sight”, was about a romance novel2.  In all cases, they were strong with direct v. indirect, poetic vs. plain.

In the spirit of modeling, I used the opening line from what is, in my opinion, the best opening chapter in Western Literature, Vladimir Nakobov’s “Lolita”.  And, well, things got a bit out of hand.  The students were perplexed that I chose a love story or some kind of steamy romance, so we had to read the first chapter.  It was the second reading where the students started to realize something was amiss:  Why was Lolita so short?  Why did she have 3 names?  The narrator is a murderer?

I understand that student achievement is not won by a single “aha” moment, but a good one is worth its weight in gold.  Once they realized the narrator3 was a child molester they were hooked – they had cracked the code, solved the author, and they wanted more.  And, yes, I’m a bit worried about if a parent runs into their child reading a novel in which the main character is a child molester.

But we accomplished some good – inferences, figurative language, and writing style.  We had a simple assessment the next day (your choice of lines, complete as an essay).  If any kids needed more practice, they had 96 statements to chose from.  No bubble tests, no multiple choice.

I’m certain this is not the best possible plan.  I would have loved for them to illustrate their inferences on larger paper as a model, and then write their own.  But it was a good day in 207, and that counts for something.

(Have a better idea?  Yes, you probably do.  Please share!)


  1. I’m a King junkie, but any writer should read his stuff on writing. 

  2. and, sadly, were horrified to learn Yossarian’s love was for the chaplain 


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