|A note for teachers: This lesson would work with students from most grade levels. In Northern Nevada, we've exclusively ear-marked this lesson to be used in September or October of our students' fifth grade year. It is designed to have fifth graders continue practicing showing skills they learned about while writing to this on-demand practice prompt. When preparing for on-demand test prompts, we believe it crucially important to teach an authentic writing lesson in between practice sessions for the writing test.
Robert McCammon’s novel-- Boy's Life--captures the magic of everyday life, filled with adventure, discovery, fear, joy, and heartache. In the first two opening pages of the book, we meet Cory, an eleven-year-old boy, whose character we begin to understand based on the personal treasures he keeps in his room. This lesson has students brainstorm and record some of their treasures on a writer's notebook page. Later, students to reflect on their own rooms (and their personal treasures) and write short narrative descriptions which will allow readers to know each writer better by the details he/she chooses to show about his/her room.
The focus trait in this writing assignment is idea development; the writer’s goal is to “show himself” through the specific, relevant details he chooses to “show his room.” The support trait in this assignment is organization; the writer will follow the model of Robert McCammon, using the lead and conclusion exactly and following the form of the mentor text.
Note: These lessons are not intended to be used as "scripts" for other teachers. Study this lesson, then adapt it to match your teaching style. Adapt it recklessly. We become great writing teachers by adapting good ideas from other writing teachers!
Pre-step (long before sharing from Boy's Life): As a journal write, have students write a description of their own bedrooms a week before you plan on doing this writing lesson. Put those drafts away, and bring them out again after you have shared from McCammon's book.
Step one (sharing the published model): Give a brief summary of the mentor text; see the lesson overview above for the briefest of summaries. Tell the students that they are going to read just two paragraphs from this great chapter book and analyze them to discover what they might know about the main character, Cory. Put a copy of the two paragraphs (from chapter 1) about Cory's room on the overhead, Elmo, or Xerox it for the students to read from. This passage begins with the sentence: "Here is my room: Indian rug red as Cochise’s blood, a desk with seven mystic drawers, a chair covered in material as velvety blue-black as Batman’s cape, an aquarium holding tiny fish so pale you could see their hearts beat, the aforementioned dresser covered with decals from Revell model airplane kits, a bed with a quilt sewn by a relative of Jefferson Davis’s, a closet, and the shelves." The passage ends with the words, “I am rich beyond measure.”
Read the passage a second time, looking closely at how the author constructed the text. Draw the students’ attention to the fact that the first part of the text is a description of the room, while the second part focuses more on the important things in the room. Point out the rich language: seven mystic drawers, material as velvety blue-black as Batman’s cape.
Inform students they will be borrowing from McCammon's idea and writing style to revise their writing about their own rooms from a week ago.
Step two (setting up a writer's notebook page based on an alphabox brainstorm): Students will begin pre-writing by celebrating their own personal treasures in their writer's notebooks using an alphabox brainstorm.
||To get them in an “alphabet mood,” share Old Black Fly by Jim Aylesworth because it's about a fly landing on items (some are treasures!) around a room or house. When sharing this mentor text, use it as a riddle book; halfway through, once students understand the fly is landing on objects that are successive letters of the alphabet, have them guess. Ask, "The next letter is N, so what do you think the fly will land on? What details do you think the author will share about that noun?"
Next, pass out this alphabox brainstorming sheet. When you Xerox it, put a blank copy on both sides: one side will be used for activity #1, the other for activity #2.
- Alphabox activity #1: Students will work with a partner or small group to recall as many "treasures" (in noun form) from Cory's bedroom description that they can, recording them in the appropriate box on the alphabox sheet. There's not a treasure from the text for all 26 letters, but it's a great memory activity to have students use the alphabox structure to recall a variety of different items. After about three or four minutes of recall time, show the passage again. Celebrate your students who not only remembered the nouns from the description but also included a few of the author's original details (adjectives, for example).
- Alphabox activity #2: Now, by themselves, have students brainstorm "treasures" from the space they are going to write about. It should probably be their rooms (since their previous draft was about their rooms), but you might allow some of your stronger writers to choose a different space for this brainstorm--one that holds more personal treasures (a garage, a clubhouse, a toy box, etc.). To help them focus on recording nouns on the alphabox, say, "What things might Old Black Fly land on in the space you're writing about?" Students most likely won't have an item in all the alphabox spaces, and that's fine. If they finish early, challenge them to start adding interesting adjectives and other modifiers to the nouns they recorded that they know they'll use in their descriptions. This alphabox can certainly go home with them as homework so they come back with more treasures recorded that were "out of sight and out of mind" while sitting in class.
Inform your students that, when they revise their original room descriptions, they will now also include treasures from their alphabox brainstorm. They will NOT include all the items from the sheet--just the very best ones, the ones that best show who they are to a reader. With good idea development, writers choose quality ideas over sheer quantity of ideas, and this is an exercise in determining the best treasures to share. Stress that this is one of the focus skills of this narrative writing lesson.
You might consider having students share their "personal treasure alphabox" items with one another. They can be told to ask each other detail-probing questions like "Where did you get that from?" or they can help the writer select four to six items that might be the most revealing of personality to include in the actual description.
To help them display and describe their best alphabox treasures before actually re-writing their original room description, require them to set-up a writer's notebook page in honor of this pre-writing. Inspired by Old Black Fly's actions, students will create a page that shows another old black fly landing on a variety of treasures (4-6 of them) from their rooms. Show them your own model 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 page, but we will understand if you want to use ours as yours. Here is a really large version of the page, to zoom in on the details or to print on a poster, if you have that ability.
And here is a planning worksheet that you can Xerox for each student or put on the overhead or Elmo to show them how to divide up their page into parts. Give them ample time to draw and include interesting details around their pictures.
Step three (Analyzing Student Models before Writing): Distribute to students the “Olympic Committee Task” worksheet at right . Have them work with partners to award two medals to the three pieces of student writing. Students are to imagine that these pieces of writing have competed in the finals of the “Writing Olympics.” All three samples will win a medal in both events (since there are only three of them), and students have to work together to decide where the gold, silver, and bronze medals are deserved.
The first event is “Use of specific and memorable details in writing.” Students need to analyze all three descriptions and decide gold through bronze placements. The second event is “Strong personality comes through because of the word choice and writing style.” Students need to analyze all three pieces of writing and decide gold through bronze placements.
If there is time, have student partnerships shuffle themselves (at least once) so that students can share their different or similar Olympic Committee rankings with each other.
Tell students they are to try and incorporate some of the techniques and style from their favorite student model into their own writing when they draft.
Step four ( Drafting a Structured Piece of Writing): Have students place their writer’s notebook pages, their alpha-boxes about their own personal treasures, the analyzed student samples, and the mentor text where they can refer to them as they draft. Their drafts—like the mentor text—are to begin with “Here is my room.” And they are to end with “I am rich beyond measure.” In between, they are to describe—using specific and memorable details—the treasures they want people to know about.
For students who may not have their own rooms, they can begin with “Here are my treasures” or some variation of that idea that better matches their personal situations.
Remind them to use their pre-writing notebook page to help them draft. Strongly suggest that they will have better pieces of writing if they choose a limited amount of items and describe those really well, rather than try to put every item from their original alpha-box into the draft. You want this draft to be much more than a long list of items the student owns.
Move around the room, reminding students, at point of need, to use rich language and to choose details which really tell readers important things about themselves. If you spot a really great description or a strong simile used in a student’s draft, write it on the board up front and draw everyone’s attention to it.
Step five (revision with specific trait language): For this piece of writing, I pulled each student for one-on-one response where together we examined the telling sentences and the showing paragraphs. Sometimes, I probed for more exemplars and more clarity. We discussed the similes to see if it supported the text. Each time we re-read the text several times so that we could focus on the sound of the text---Did the piece read like a song of friendship? Helping students become aware of the sound behind their writing is a great initial step in teaching them to be more conscious of voice.
If this kind of one-on-one response is not possible, refer to the two Post-its for revision, which are provided here. You can use one or both, depending on how much time you have to spend on this assignment.
Attached to this lesson are two sheets of response & revision, Post-it-sized notes that work well with this lesson. The first is the Idea Development Post-it (at right), and the second is the Organization Post-it. The important thing to note on these tools is that they ask for students to rank the skills in their own (or a partner’s) writing, not rate the skills. When you rate skills, you can assign the same score to different skills; you could, for example, give all the skills a score of ‘4,’ which many students end up doing because that’s an easy way to fill out the Post-it Note. Ranking requires the students to decide on their absolute strongest skill from the five, and to give that skill a ‘5’; the next strongest skill receives a ‘4,’ then a ‘3,’ etc. Ranking is harder to do because it requires the students to apply their knowledge of these skills to their writing, then to analyze them by comparing them to each other. When planning revision, students focus on the skills that received the lowest ranking.
Our Nevada Common Core State Standards require us to start pushing our students to evaluate reading and writing, and these Post-its are a small tool that—when modeled well and monitored strictly during the first few uses—can help your students learn to independently create revision plans that match their own drafts’ strengths and weaknesses.
When using the Post-its for response and revision, most students claim that ranking the skills in someone else’s writing instead of their own is easier, so it might be a good exercise to have your students work with partners to rank the skills in one of the student models that comes with this lesson. Your struggling learners can practice with one or the other Post-its, but your advanced learners can and should certainly practice with both Post-its: idea development and organization.
Step six (editing as a community) First, before students edit their revised drafts, put them away for a while. Students need a little space between drafting and revising, and they need a little more space between revising and editing. Before having them edit, do a mini-lesson on the importance of correctness when sharing your writing publicly, including sharing it on a bulletin board inside or outside a classroom.
If you haven’t ever created a Community of Editors to make use of on days when the whole class edits revised drafts, it’s a fairly easy process. It requires that the teacher know enough about students’ conventional writing skills to place them into any of the following groups: strong spellers, strong end punctuation users, strong past tense verb users, strong capitalizers, strong apostrophe users, strong homonym users, etc.
On your assigned Community of Editors day, students all bring a complete working draft of writing. Once placed in one of the strong skill groups, students seek out four other students who must come from the other four skill groups. When paired with a student in a different skill group, they serve as an editor for the other student’s writing for just the skill they have been identified as a strong user of.
Students quickly read over each other’s drafts, lightly circling or high-lighting suspected errors just in the skill group they are assigned to. After both read and circle, they have a two- or three-minute clarification conversation, where they explain why they circled or highlighted anything in the other’s paper. The teacher is available for clarification of correctness, if there are disagreements. Students initial one another's Conventions Post-its when they are finished editing and discussing.
Then they meet with another student from another strong skill group and repeat the process. Once they have met with four editors, they are finished. They should be allowed to ask verification questions of each other or of the teacher (or of the dictionary) before beginning a final draft.
For those students who completely lack any conventional skills, you do have two options: 1) those students can meet with the teacher in a small, focused group while the rest of the class edits one another’s papers; 2) the teacher can invent a sentence fluency skill checker group as a sixth group. Having conventionally-challenged students circle just the first words in other students’ sentences, or having them count and record the number of words in each sentence from the draft (in the margin) can prompt students receiving this information to remember to use a variety of sentence beginnings and/or a variety of sentence lengths in their final drafts. It requires little conventional skill to circle first words on another student’s draft or to count another student’s words per sentence.
Step eight (celebrate published stories in ways that motivate) It’s so very important to find special ways to celebrate students who truly honored the entire writing process while creating this story. This special recognition will inspire students who haphazardly pre-wrote or drafted or revised or edited to honor those steps of the process a little more the next time writing is assigned. You can:
- Allow those students to share their writing using the class microphone;
- Place those stories in a special class book that honors the entire writing process;
- Publish those stories on a classroom bulletin board or website;
- Submit them at the online, WritingFix version of this lesson. Even though we've ear-marked this lesson for fifth graders, we would love to see samples from all grade levels! See the blue box below for details.