The Dash Hunt: Injecting Variety into Writing

Born from a pile of generally well-written but boring essays, The Dash Hunt is a fun way to remind students about sentence variety and to promote the development of voice. 

By Adrin Fisher

A typical high school student struggles with several aspects of writing.  Some students are still fighting through the basics:  punctuation, fragments, and agreement.  Others have graduated to more advanced issues like parallelism, sentence variety, and voice.

A typical high school teacher struggles as well.  I struggle with chaining myself to my dining room table in the hopes that *this time* I won’t get bogged down in twenty minutes’ hard labor over each of the seventy essays I collected yesterday.  Maybe *this time* I can do what veteran teachers have been advising me to do for the last two decades:  narrow the field and resist correcting every spelling error and every comma splice, and refuse to write all those helpful questions encouraging development.  Fingers crossed!

Another struggle—perhaps one more easily solved—is the glum feeling that students already know the things I want to teach them.  There’s so little novelty by the time they’re in high school.  They were introduced to sentence types in first grade and metaphors in second, after all.  When I find a way to access some mostly-forgotten piece of information, I am totally game.  Turns out, students are, too.

Let The Dash Hunt Begin!

Born from a pile of generally well-written but boring essays, The Dash Hunt is a fun way to remind students about sentence variety and to promote the development of voice.    


  • First, find a few pieces of mentor text that incorporate the dash.  The first time I did The Dash Hunt, I used local newspapers.  Last week, I used the Up Front magazine that I had on hand.  I tell the kids, “If a writer for the Associated Press or the New York Times is doing it, you can, too.”
  • Next, do a two-minute review with the class.  Hyphens are short and they CONNECT words. Dashes are long and they SEPARATE words.  If you’re feeling fancy, discuss en vs. em dashes.
  • Next, pass out your mentor texts.  The hunt begins!  Instruct students to scan the text, highlighting or otherwise noting the sentences that use dashes.  They should stop to analyze the purpose of each dash.
  • Then, as a whole group, discuss the purposes they discovered.  You’ll be amazed at how right your students are!  Wrap up with any nuances they’ve missed.
  • Finally, set those young writers loose to incorporate dashes into their drafts or final copies or a journal or whatever bit of writing is handy.
The discoveries one class made during their Dash Hunt.  Photo by Adrin Fisher

My Dash Hunt strategy can be modified to cover any grammar issue you’re working on.  Why not an Indirect Object Hunt?  What about a Synecdoche Hunt?  Create a hunt for any “move” a writer makes.  And then—most importantly—have the kids use it.

The dash can do so much—change the tone of a sentence, replace other punctuation, or elaborate on a topic—and, since it’s not usually emphasized by teachers, it’s fresh to students and to you, helping you all struggle just a little bit less.

One thing’s for sure.  That giant pile of essays seems a little less daunting when I can look forward to reading seventy unique and varied voices.  Happy Hunting!


WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. Try this strategy out and let us know how it worked!  What ways have you found to inject novelty or develop voice in your students’ writing?  Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not managing lively discussions, developing teaching strategies, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her talking video games with her kids, walking through the woods, or pounding through a good novel. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin


Look at Me Lines

By Jessica Salfia

On April 20-21, 2018 WVCTE co-hosted along with NWP@WVU our first annual WVELA conference. This event featured some incredible teachers, speakers, presenters, and writers who inspired the ELA teachers of West Virginia all weekend. (And don’t worry–a blog post laden with ALL the #WVELA18 reflections and feels is cooking as we speak. Look for it next week).

Among the brilliant writers who shared their work with us at this conference was Robert Gipe. Gipe is the director of the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College in Cumberland, Kentucky, and is the author of Trampoline and Weedeater. I have written about Trampoline on this blog before.  You can find that post here.

Both Trampoline and Weedeater are illustrated novels, and Gipe treated the crowd to a reading from both works and a discussion of his writing process. During the Q&A portion of his presentation a teacher in the crowd asked him how he decided which lines to illustrate.

He responded:

“When I was a kid and my dad was talking to us, when he got to something real important, he would say ‘look at me.’ That part of the talk was the thing he wanted us to really remember. It was line he really wanted us paying attention to. When I wrote the books, I went through and circled what I thought were the ‘look at me lines’ and then illustrated them so that it was like that character was saying that line right to the reader.” 

I loved this idea–that a writer or character would ask a reader to “look at me” with language. This is also an essential skill that we want our students to possess as writers– to make a reader “look at them” so to speak.  And when a teacher loves an idea, it usually becomes a lesson.

Last week in my creative writing class, we read “All of Us Animals” by Annie Frazier. You can read this story HERE.

I first came across this story on my Twitter feed, and as soon as I read it I loved it and I knew my students would love it, especially my creative writing students.  I had them read the story as writers annotating for structure and writers moves, identifying how Frazier seems to blend fantasy and reality to create the extended metaphor of the girls becoming feral creatures or pack animals.

**Side note: This story also elicited a rich conversation about harassment, the #metoo movement, and when and if it’s “ok” to “hoot and holler” at someone you find attractive.

Then, I asked the students to read read chapter 1 of  Gipe’s Trampoline and specifically to pay attention to which lines get illustrated.  You can read chapter 1 of Trampoline online HERE. 

(Trampoline, pg. 61)

I told them Gipe’s “look at me” story, and we discussed the importance of “look at me lines” in great storytelling.  The students did some small group Socratic discussion regarding the lines Gipe illustrated in Trampoline and which lines they saw as “look at me” lines in chapter 1 that maybe didn’t get illustrated.

Next, I asked the students to go back to Frazier’s story, identify two “look at me lines” and illustrate them.  The goal here was not necessarily to create beautiful illustrations, but to pick out the line from the story that stood up and shouted at the reader–the line that said “look at me.”

Here are some of their choices for “look at me” lines from Annie Frazier’s “All of Us Animals”:

Once they finished their illustrations, the students then shared out which lines from Frazier’s story they thought were the “look at me” lines and why. They had to read the line out loud (even if someone had chosen the same line), and explain their illustration.

The cool part about this was seeing the same line identified several times as a look at me line, but also seeing the wide variety of “look at me lines” the students identified.

Finally, they had to pick one of the lines they identified in Frazier’s story and write a flash fiction story of their own that contained Frazier’s “look at me” line.

This activity created some truly great conversations and generated some terrific writing in from my students.  Let us know if you decide to try “look at me lines” in your classroom!

WVCTE is wondering…

What are some great texts you could use with this lesson? How else could you identify “look at me lines?”