Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
The Magic of Three: Teaching Students about "Triplets"
Irving Berlin knew it when he wrote, "From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam." Emma Lazarus knew it when she wrote, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Abraham Lincoln knew it when he wrote, "Of the people, by the people, for the people." And Thomas Jefferson knew it when he wrote, near the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and, at the very end, "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."
Rhetorically, three has magic properties. Something within us is affected by a series of three items, read or spoken, and skilled writers know how to use series of three to appeal to our aesthetic sense, our emotions, and perhaps to something even deeper. But our goal today is practical — making students aware of series of three and showing them that creating them is a technique they can become adept at. They may not produce lofty creations like Lazarus's and Lincoln's — not at first, anyway — but they will construct serviceable creations.
I see words, phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs, in series of three every day in The New York Times, and that's where I've drawn the examples from for this essay. Use them to begin making students aware of the literary effectiveness of the triplet, the term I use for the series of three words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs writers intentionally construct for their aesthetic, literary and emotional effect. Your students will find triplets in The Times every day. They're always there.
The art and craft of creating triplets can be taught in every classroom from junior high up, and even in the lower grades. What students need to know most of all is that they can, indeed, make them; that skillfully employing a series of three words or phrases in one's writing is not just the province of great lyricists, orators and writers. The Times is well-suited to teach triplet writing from because of the excellence of its writing and the variety of topics to be found in it each day, from the lighthearted to the grim.
Let's start with three triplets from the sports pages, a fertile place to find them because, particularly in their first paragraphs (called leads or ledes, in newspaper lingo), sportswriters like to pack in three ideas at the top of their story that they talk about later, one by one. Note the lilt in each of those italicized sections, as well as the pictorial nature of each item in them.
ANAHEIM, Calif. — The last game at the old Yankee Stadium was over, Derek Jeter had offered a spirited speech to the fans and players had scooped up some dirt as a memento. For four Yankees, it was time to acknowledge what they had done together.
(Jack Curry, 10/23/09)
SUGAR LAND, Tex. — The legend of Jerry Hughes was first formed by juking defenders, breaking tackles and outrunning opponents.
(Thayer Evans, 10/24/09)
CARSON, Calif. — David Beckham has been hanged in effigy outside a London pub, has had his photograph printed with a bull's-eye around it in a British tabloid, and has endured visits to stadiums that roared with derogatory chants about his wife.
(Billy Witz, 7/21/09)
In this next passage, see how quickly and graphically a simple verb sequence depicts a series of actions. What conciseness!
Every weekend during this fall marathon season, long after most runners have completed the 26.2-mile course — and very likely after many have showered, changed and headed for a meal — a group of stragglers crosses the finish line.
(Juliet Macur, 10/23/09)
Here, in three quick images — chrome, neon and over-easy eggs — the writer has us visualizing an entire diner.
Mr. Cammarano was a regular at the Malibu Diner, an always-open beacon of chrome, neon and over-easy eggs on the northern edge of this city of about 45,000. The diner figured in the criminal complaint against Mr. Cammarano.
(Nate Schweber, 7/26/09)
Each of the next three passages contains a trio of phrases that begin with the same word.
Not long ago Dixie Redmond thought every tomato was red and round and hard as a baseball. But that was before she heard of heirloom tomatoes, before she met tomato people in cyberspace, before she dug up her backyard in Hampden, Me., to plant 21 varieties with names like Sun Gold and Aunt Ruby's German Green.
(Donna St. George, 8/20/97)
WASHINGTON — There is no owner's manual for the Oval Office, no school to learn how to be a president. Perhaps most challenging for any new president is learning how powerful that megaphone really is. Every offhand word, every spontaneous remark, every comment informed more by emotion than calculation risks profound consequences.
(Peter Baker, 7/26/09)
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A short midlevel cleric, with a neat white beard and a clergyman's calm bearing, Mehdi Karroubi has watched from his home in Tehran in recent months as his aides have been arrested, his offices raided, his newspaper shut down. He himself has been threatened with arrest and, indirectly, the death penalty.
(Michael Slackman, 10/23/09)
This passage contain two triplets.
The bitter divisions over an overhaul of the health care system have exploded at town-hall-style meetings over the last few days as members of Congress have been shouted down, hanged in effigy and taunted by crowds. In several cities, noisy demonstrations have led to fistfights, arrests and hospitalizations.
(Ian Urbina, 8/8/09)
And here? Not just a triplet, but a triplet with vivid verbs and alliteration. Thank you, Ms. Crouse.
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Professional golf's landscape is littered with dreams buried in bunkers, plunged into ponds and detoured by trees.
(Karen Crouse, 3/9/09)
Sometimes a triplet consists of entire sentences, as in this snappy series (the woman was Hillary Rodham Clinton).
ABUJA, Nigeria — It was hot. She was tired. And it had been a long day in Africa.
(Jeffrey Gettleman, 8/13/09)
And sometimes, a triplet can be entire paragraphs, as here in these opening paragraphs of an October 23, 2009 article by Greg Bishop that was headlined, "Dealing With Cancer, Jets Executive Finds A Balance by Running."
Cancer did not slow Matt Higgins. If anything, it affirmed the depth of his resolve. He took one day off for surgery and plunged back into work, crying only when he had to tell his bosses.
Cancer did not enlighten Higgins with fresh perspective. He treated it like another obstacle on his meteoric rise to becoming the Jets' executive vice president for business operations.
Cancer did not change Higgins. Running did.
As I mentioned earlier, triplets appear in profusion in The New York Times. Start your class with those here, then each day have one or more students check the daily Times, scanning whatever sections they wish, and sharing the triplets with the class. (It can be done online, but it's far quicker with the newspaper.) In no time, you will see triplets appearing in your students' writing.
So your students can apply what they've learned about writing triplets, here is one of the most effective and enjoyable writing assignments I ever gave to high school and college students.
In no more than 300 words, but no fewer than 250, describe what you did this morning, from the time you awoke (including how you were awakened) until you set foot in the school building. It can't be a morning in general; it's got to be this morning. Don't write an introduction; begin with the waking up. And don't have a conclusion; end with the moment you entered the building. From beginning to end the reader must be able to picture your activities, although you may include dialogue, thoughts and feelings. Be as detailed as you wish — the 250-word minimum is intended to encourage that — and at least twice in your story have a triplet consisting of three whole sentences, or three phrases, or three individual words. Make the reader see your morning with you in it. Give your story a title, but if you wish, use this one: "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning."
("Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" is the title of a song written by Irving Berlin (1888-1989) and performed by him in the stage show — and later the movie — "This Is the Army," during the Second World War. Berlin, who wrote all the songs for the show, traveled around the country with the production as the show raised funds to fight the war, taking no salary and donating his royalties to the war effort. Here he is performing the song in the movie.)
I can almost promise that everyone in your class — including you — will enjoy hearing everyone else's graphic, lively and unique morning story. And why not contribute your own, as well? They'll love it.