A Chapter Book-inspired Writer's Notebook Lesson

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Teacher's Guide:

Comparing & Contrasting
To Imitate Two Nature Writers

creating a "showing" description about a natural object or place

This lesson was originally proposed by Nevada teacher Joni Martindale at an AT&T-sponsored in-service class for teachers. In 2010, the lesson was revised to feature a writer's notebook element.

The main "mentor text" to be used when teaching this on-line lesson is the book Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. Before writing their final paragraphs, students should analyze the writing style of this book's author, especially chapter 2.

To our loyal WritingFix users: Please use this link if purchasing Sarah, Plain and Tall from Amazon.com, and help keep WritingFix free and on-line. We thank you!

A note for teachers: These lessons are posted so that you may borrow ideas from them, but our intention in providing this resource is not to give teachers a word-for-word script to follow. Please, use this lesson's big ideas but adapt everything else. And adapt it recklessly; that's how one becomes an authentic writing teacher.

Teacher Instructions & Lesson Resources:

Pre-step (selecting nature-inspired passages from--at least--two authors to have students compare and contrast, then imitate):  There are many great authors who describe natural items and surroundings in their picture books and chapter books with such poetic finesse. We have modeled this lesson using specific passages from the Patricia MacLachlan and Jane Yolen's mentor texts listed below, but you could certainly substitute a different book by either author (like Yolen's Owl Moon), or you could substitute in a completely different author (like Gary Paulsen or John Steinbeck or...?).

For this lesson, students don't really need to be familiar with the entire mentor text; the lesson, instead, is based on pre-selected passages that focus specifically on descriptions of natural items or places.

Mentor Texts we chose to cite for this lesson:

Patricia MacLachlan:
Jane Yolen:
  • Sarah, Plan and Tall
  • All the Places to Love
  • Welcome to the Sea of Sand
  • Least Things

Find passages in the mentor texts you wish to use for this lesson, or study the passages on our handout below for the mentor texts we use. You need to be able to talk about stylistic strengths (what the author does well) in the passages you choose to share with your writers.

Step one (comparing writing styles from published models):  If you do have time to read all the mentor texts in their entirety, spread that process out over a few days, if not weeks. Should you read and enjoy each mentor text, consider creating a class list or chart that celebrates each author's strongest verbs, adjectives, or descriptive phrases.

Your ultimate goal of sharing from the mentor texts should be to eventually create a one-page celebration of REALLY strong passages or sentences that students can refer to easily. Here is our one-page celebration of passages from the above four mentor texts. Your one-page should include, at least two different authors, but it can cite more or less than four texts.

Essential Questions for student discussion about comparisons:
Which author's writing style would be the easiest to imitate? Why?

Have students, working in small groups, compare and contrast the ways both authors make use of language to "show" scenes from nature. Before they begin discussing, post the essential question above to give purpose to their discussion. If students are unsure which author is more imitate-able, do a demo; choose a natural topic--like snow or rain--and imitate one of the passages (like the model below). Then have your students borrow structures, verbs, and frames from any of the published passages to create a small group imitation. Share the groups' imitations whole class.

Original passage from MacLachlan:
Imitation with different topic:

When spring rains came and the meadows turned to marsh, cattails stood like guards, and killdeer called.

When the hawk swooped and made its shadow dance, the desert tortoise jerked in its head, and the air became still.

Step two (creating a writer's notebook page as part of the pre-writing process):  After student groups have worked in a group to create an imitation about a different topic from nature, explain that they are now ready to create a writer's notebook page where they can imitate passages about nature independently. The page can be set-up in any way, but if they need some structure, we have provided the following ideas and example:

A Writer's Notebook Page Frame:
Writing Naturally

Imitation #1:




With each imitation, students write their sentence(s), cite which author influenced the sentence, and provide a quick illustration for the sentence.

Imitation #2:

Imitation #3:





Imitation #4:

With your students, brainstorm objects/places of nature on the board; try to keep them focused on ones they know about so they can include accurate information in their passages.  If students need more ideas for natural topics, direct them to the interactive button on this lesson's Student Instructions Page.  Our notebook page suggestion above makes room for four topics from nature; your students can certainly create a notebook page that focuses on more or less objects, depending on their abilities.

Show them your own model of a finished notebook page and/or our webmaster's teacher model, which we have included (at left) with this lesson as our attempt to inspire you to make your own, but we will be understanding if you want to use ours as yours. If you are teaching your students to use Mr. Stick in notebooks to serve as a journal and notebook mascot, it can become fun to make a teacher model. Your kids can gain real inspiration from having proof that you had fun as you created your own notebook page; we believe kids can have fun while learning as long as the teacher is modeling what smart and fun looks like at all times. Sample notebook pages from a teacher can be inspirational! Click here for a really large version of our webmaster's notebook page, which allows you to really zoom in on details or print it on a poster, if you have that ability.

The writer's notebook page they begin does not have to be finished immediately. You can come back to it once a week for a month, or you can spread it out even more, perhaps adding to it whenever you discover a really great passage about nature from other authors you know you'll be studying.

Once the page is done, however, students need to look over the whole thing closely, and choose one of their "best" imitations to develop into a longer piece of descriptive writing.

The final assignment here is this: Students will create a showing description inspired by one of their imitations. They are to imagine a place in nature, or a specific object or animal, and they are to write about it. Challenge them to include no humans in their descriptions, which means no use of the pronouns "I" or "me." This showing passage should be about something natural, not something human. They may incorporate one of the sentences from their notebook page into their passage, or they may simply borrow one of their sentence's ideas in their rough drafts.

Tell students they will need to create a passage that, when read aloud to a classmate, gives the classmate enough detail and information to draw an accurate picture of the scene they are describing.

Step three (introducing student models of writing):  Before they write their own rough drafts, it's good practice to have students analyze and evaluate finished pieces of writing from other students. In small groups, have your students read and respond to any or all of the student models that come with this lesson.  The groups should certainly talk about the word choice, since that's the focus of this lesson, but you might also have your students talk about the sentence fluency in the writing too; in particular, have them focus on sentence variety: variety of sentence lengths and variety of first words in sentences.

You might first choose to read these passages aloud to your students, asking them to each draw a picture of the visual imagery they heard in the words. If your grade level is not represented in these samples, we believe it's okay to use samples from a different grade level. Have students compare and contrast their pictures.

WritingFix Safely Publishes Students from around the World! In 2008, we first began accepting students samples from teachers anywhere who use this lesson. Hundreds of new published students now go up at our site annually!

We're currently looking for student samples for other grade levels for this lesson!  Help us obtain some from your students, and we'll send you a free resource for your classroom!  Visit this lesson's student samples page for details.

Step three (thinking and pre-writing before drafting): Before they write a rough draft inspired by a single sentence from their notebooks, have students create a word bank about their place/object using the word choice graphic organizer below.

For your stronger writers, challenge them to begin--like Patricia MacLachlan does--sentences with different prepositional phrases as a means of improving their sentence fluency. Discuss the idea that every sentence does not need to begin this way; good writers learn to balance the types of sentences they use. We've included a list of prepositional phrases below that students may choose from as they create rough drafts.

Finally, consider using our Sentence Fluency Drafting Sheet below to ensure students are thinking about the variety of sentences they can use as they compose. For younger students, you can just use the second page, which is the page that has the actual checklist embedded on it.

Have students do quick self-edits of their rough drafts for basic spelling and basic punctuation.  Look over students' shoulders as they are quick-editing and make additional suggestions for word choice and sentence fluency improvements.

Share Original Graphic Organizers (for Pre-Writing)
from Your Teaching Toolbox.

We share graphic organizers with our peers, we find them in books, and we think we should also be able to find tried-and-true ones online at WritingFix. This year, if you create an original graphic organizer (or adapt one of ours) when you teach this page's lesson, and post it, we might just end up publishing it directly here at WritingFix, and we will post it here, giving you full credit.

  • Original graphic organizers for specific lessons, like this one, can be submitted as an attachment at this link. Look for the "Reply to this Box" beneath the post. To be able to post, you will need to be a member of our free Writing Lesson of the Month Network.

Step four (revising with specific trait language):   Have students prepare to write a second draft.  To promote response and revision to rough draft writing, attach WritingFix's Revision and Response Post-it® Note-sized templates to your students' drafts.  Make sure the students rank their use of the trait-specific skills on the Post-it® Note-sized templates, which means they'll only have one "1" and one "5."   Have them commit to ideas for revision based on their Post-It rankings.  For more ideas on WritingFix's Revision & Response Post-it® Note-sized templates, click here.

Share Original Revision Techniques or
Adaptations from Your Toolbox.

Inspired by Barry Lane's Reviser's Toolbox, the WritingFix website encourages its teacher users to adapt our lessons, especially the tools of revision we have posted here. If you create an original revision tool (or adapt one of ours) when you teach this page's lesson, and post it, we might just end up publishing it directly here at WritingFix, and we will post it here, giving you full credit.

  • Original revision ideas from teacher users of WritingFix can be submitted through copy/paste or as an attachment at this link. Look for the "Reply to this Box" beneath the post. To be able to post, you will need to be a member of our free Writing Lesson of the Month Network.

After they have written this second draft, have each student find a partner.  One student will read his/her paragraph and one will listen.  When the reader is finished, the listener will draw a picture based on what was heard.  Next they will switch roles and do the same thing.

When both partners have read and drawn, the students should do a final edit of their writing so they are flawless and can be displayed in the classroom.

Step five (editing for conventions):  If you've established a "Community of Editors" among your students, have each student exchange his/her paper with multiple peers.  With yellow high-lighters in hand, each peer reads for and highlights suspected errors for just one item from the Editing Post-it.  The "Community of Editors" idea is just one of dozens and dozens of inspiring ideas that is talked about in detail in the Northern Nevada Writing Project's Going Deep with 6 Trait Language Workbook for Teachers.

Step six (publishing for the portfolio):  The goal of most lessons posted at WritingFix is that students end up with a piece of writing they like, and that their writing was taken through all steps of the writing process. After revising, invite your students to come back to this piece once more during an upcoming writer's workshop block.  The writing started with this lesson might become even more polished for final placement in the portfolio, or the big ideas being written about here might transform into a completely different piece of writing.

At the very least, some of your conventionally-perfect student samples (and the pictures of the writing created by their peers) should be posted on a bulletin board inside our outside your classroom.

Interested in publishing student work on-line? You might earn a free classroom resource from the NNWP! We invite teachers to teach this lesson completely, then share up to three of their students' best revised and edited samples at our ning's Publish Student Writers group.

To submit student samples for this page's lesson, click here. You won't be able to post unless you are a verified member of this site's Writing Lesson of the Month ning.

Learn more about author Patricia MacLachlan by clicking here.

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