A Literature-Inspired Writer's Notebook Prompt from WritingFix

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Tasting an Oxymoron

mixing two unusual flavors in a writer's notebook to inspire future descriptive pieces

This lesson was created by NNWP Teacher Consultant Corbett Harrison. You can access all of Corbett's on-line lessons by clicking here.

The intended "mentor text" to be used when teaching this on-line lesson is the novel Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. Before writing, students should listen to and discuss the writing style of this book's author, especially from chapter 17 of the book. This is the chapter where Doc orders a "beer milkshake."

To our loyal WritingFix users: Please use this link if purchasing Cannery Row 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 you become an authentic writing teacher.

Teacher Instructions & Lesson Resources:

Step one (setting up a page for the writer's notebook):  Oxymorons are fun, and should be introduced to your students before writing to this prompt.  An oxymoron is created when two words that seem to be opposites sit next to each other.  One of WritingFix's original writing prompts has students create interesting oxymorons with words; these words can become great titles or lines in poems. Click here to see WritingFix's original lesson.

This lesson goes to a different place with oxymorons, which can inspire great writing, but might oxymorons be created with things other than words? Could two visuals be oxymorons of each other? Could tastes be labeled as oxymorons?

Explain to your students that taste is a powerful sense. As children and as adults, we often are suddenly struck by the need to taste things. We crave tastes. Our mouths may even water, if we really want to taste something that we crave.

Sometimes, though, we are un-explained-ly intrigued by the idea of tasting something that might not taste so good. This writing prompt is based on this idea.

Have students set up a page for their writer's notebooks. It can be partitioned like the example below:

Writer's Notebook Page Title:
Tasting an Oxymoron

Have students write down the definition of an oxymoron. I forgot to do this on my model, but I think


list sweet foods and
...rich or spicy foods
...sour or salty foods.
  • chocolate
  • syrup
  • spaghetti
  • salsa
  • applesauce
  • Lemon Heads
A fake "magazine advertisement" for an oxymoron food

Here, students will create a magazine advertisement that covers the bottom half of their page. It must sell an invented food that was inspired by taking words from two different food columns.

Students, for example, could create an advertisement for "Sour Applesauce Syrup," or "Salsa-filled Chocolate Balls," or "Lemon Spaghetti."

Their ad should contains words that explain and sell the product. Their ad should contain an illustration.


Show them your own model and/or my teacher model, which I have included (at left) with this lesson as my attempt to inspire you to make your own, but I will be understanding if you want to use mine 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; I believe kids can have fun while learning as long as the teacher is modeling what smart and fun looks like at all times. Click here for a really large version of my notebook page, which allows you to really zoom in on details or print on a poster, if you have that ability.

At left is my teacher's model. While I can't stop you from showing it off as your own, I hope my example inspires you to share model pages from your own notebook.

I explain to my students how I used my notebook page to start ideas that I think would fun to write about in the future. While--as of yet--I have not written a story about someone experiencing their first taste of Pete's Popcorn Flavored Ice Cream, I know it is an idea that I both invented on my notebook page and want to come back to some day and explore by writing about it more. "Today," I say to my writers, "I gave you an idea for capturing some original thinking on your notebook page. Most days, however, you will be expected to create your own ideas for original thought, inspired by things we talk about in class."

Step two (sharing the idea from a mentor text):  In Cannery Row, Doc is a charming character, who reminds me of my own father. One endearing thing that he does in chapter 17 is he orders a beer milkshake. He just gets this notion that a beer milkshake would taste interesting. I think my Dad--who considered this one of his favorite books--would have definitely tried a beer milkshake on a dare from his buddies.

Assure your students that you know they have never tasted beer because they are much too young. Explain to them that a beer has a sour taste to it, because it's made of fermented ingredients. Ice cream is sweet because it is made with sugar and cream. To combine sour and sweet (two opposites) creates a unique type of oxymoron: one that you taste. One that confuses your tongue!

Explain that you'll be sharing with them just one funny little passage from John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. In my class, we don't read this one--other than this small glimpse; I always hope the students like this passage enough to not be one of the "groaners" if it gets assigned to them in the future or--heaven forbid--they find it on their own at the library.

The character, Doc, is just over-intrigued by the idea of what a beer milkshake might taste like. The idea has intrigued him for some time. In chapter 17, he finally orders one at this diner he has never visited before. When Steinbeck chooses not to show us in great detail Doc's reaction to this taste contradiction, I seize it as an opportunity to say, "Why don't we write it out to review use of sensory details in writing? Or better yet, maybe you could invent your own oxymoron taste and write a short description of someone tasting it for the first time." That's the purpose of the page they made sections for in their notebooks!

Now share with your students from chapter 17, which is a short little chapter; you don't have to read it all but certainly highlight the beginning and end parts which talk about the beer milkshake. Be sure to point out Steinbeck's style of using specific details and memorable descriptions, and be sure to point out his amazing sentence fluency skills. I always "double dare" my students to write a sentence that would impress both Mr. Steinbeck and their humble teacher.

Next ask students, "What kind of details would you include if you were expanding on the scene of Doc drinking this oxymoronic taste?" Challenge them to write one interesting sentence about Doc at the counter that has the flow of a John Steinbeck sentence.

Step three (inspiring students with teacher and student models of writing):  Next, share with them this teacher-model of writing (written by me, but you can claim it as your own, if you'd like) that explores Doc's reactions to the taste of the oxymoron introduced by Steinbeck. The description comes in three parts, which is what students can ultimately create to demonstrate newly learned organization skills with this writing. Ask your students to see if they can figure out what this model's three parts are. Ask, "What was the writer dividing up in the action by placing his paragraphs here, here, and here?" [Answer: 1) this paragraph is focused on the look of the food, 2) the first taste and the second taste of it, 3) the decision not finish consuming the food.]

Then, 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 organization, but you might prompt your students to talk about each model's idea development as well.

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 all developmentally appropriate 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 four (a second mentor text and a graphic organizer for shaping a larger piece of writing): The interactive buttons on the Student Instructions Page will certainly give your students further ideas for oxymorons for their notebook page. The goal of the notebook page is for the student to create an original product that the student would enjoy writing about. Your job as teacher is to strongly suggest they plan an inspired story using your graphic organizer, so they can learn some skills or organization as they write.

Tell students this: "Your job is to invent a taste that you would like to watch someone else eat!" No poo, no alcohol, nothing that would kill the consumer. Everything else is probably fair game.

For more inspiration, you might have your struggling students flip through the non-fiction book It's Disgusting and We Ate It! True Food Facts from Around the World and Throughout History by James Solheim. It talks about all the weird things that people from around the world have eaten throughout history. While not oxymorons, you could certainly add chocolate sauce to any of the things from the book and have a starting place for this writing prompt.

Once students have selected an oxymoron from their writers' notebook to taste (or have a character taste) in a longer story, they can fill out the graphic organizer below, which will help them organize their descriptions into three parts (like in the teacher model). After they have brainstormed, they can write their drafts on the drafting sheet below, which gives them an organization checklist to complete when their draft is done. Keep telling students you expect them to be able to explain why they broke their paragraphs where they did; otherwise, they might not remember they're supposed to be paragraphing.

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 five (revising with specific trait language):   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.

Step six (editing for conventions):  After students apply their revision ideas to their drafts and re-write neatly, require them to find an editor.   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 seven (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. Most likely, your students will enjoy creating an illustration for this writing as they ready to place final drafts in their portfolios.

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 notebook pages and their revised and edited stories 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 John Steinbeck by clicking here.

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