A Literature-Inspired Writing Lesson from WritingFix

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Teacher's Guide:

Painting Places with Words

borrowing Steinbeck's sentence fluency to describe a new setting

This lesson was built for WritingFix
after being proposed by Northern Nevada Writing Project Consultant Madelyn Read during an AT&T-sponsored in-service class for teachers.

The intended "mentor text" to be used when teaching this on-line lesson is the novel Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Before writing, students should listen to and discuss the writing style of this book's author, especially from chapter 1 of the book.

To our loyal WritingFix users: Please use this link if purchasing Of Mice and Men from Amazon, and help keep WritingFix free and on-line. We thank you!

A note for teacher users: 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 (sharing the published model):  Like "Show, don't tell,"  the expression "Paint a picture in your reader's mind" has become almost cliché in the writing classroom.  If you've ever caught yourself saying those words to your students, ask yourself, "Have I really shown them what that means in an actual piece of writing?"  If not, use the first few paragraph of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men to show them the meaning of "Paint a picture in your reader's mind."

In those very first two paragraphs of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a picture is painted through words:

A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees--willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter's flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool. On the sandy bank under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of 'coons, and with the spread pads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark.

There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water. In front of the low horizontal limb of a giant sycamore there is an ash pile made by many fires; the limb is worn smooth by men who have sat on it.

And this is just a start of what lies ahead in this marvelous novel. The words that Steinbeck chooses:  the adjectives, excellent and thoughtful; the nouns, precise; the color words; the texture words; the fact that we not only see, but hear this setting make these paragraphs stand out as an example of classic writing. 

Talk about the details in these paragraphs with your students.  Have students analyze the details using this organizer, which was shared with us by teacher Nancy Thomas. Call on students to share and make a classroom chart that classifies into columns the most memorable images, the texture words, and the color words.  Draw a line underneath Steinbeck's final word in these columns, and then add original ideas for images, texture, and color words through a class brainstorm.

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.

Have students, in small groups, write an impersonation of the entire first paragraph (or at least the first few sentences of it).  Their group impersonation needs to borrow the sentence structure and some of the verbs, but change the images and adjectives by describing a completely different place.  Here is a teacher model of the first few sentences being impersonated:

A few blocks away from my house, a lonely highway drops too close to one of my neighbor's fences and runs black and yellow, black and yellow. The asphalt is warm to the touch, for it has baked and twinkled under the summer sun before creeping so close to my neighbor's yard.  On one side of the highway the various litter piles thrown from cars march towards to the strong and lonely fence, but on the opposite side of the road the bushes are lined with blossoms... (etc)

Have each group share its impersonation while other groups follow along with the original Steinbeck text.  After each group shares, require other groups to share what they thought the best original image was in the other group's impersonation.  Write those images down where all your students can see them.  Also...keep a list of all the settings the groups have used in their impersonation paragraphs.

Inform your writers that each individual will now--without using Steinbeck as a guide--describe one of the places described by another group with its impersonation paragraph.  They will not be allowed to look at either Steinbeck or the group's impersonation paragraph as they write.  Their task is NOT to remember the exact sentence structures used; instead, their task is to remember some of the most powerful images and to put those images in a paragraph that a) paints a picture of a place with words while it b) maintains flowing and original sentence structures.

Step two (introducing student models of writing):  Before students start writing individual setting descriptions, you might have them look over any or all of the students models that come with this lesson.   Have students talk about how the sentence fluency in these samples is similar to Steinbeck's, but how it's different too.  The impersonation paragraph was inspirational to these student writers, but it did not turn them into plagiarizers.  Impersonation is very different than plagiarism.  Talk about that with your writers.

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): After the groups have shared, put the Steinbeck passage and the group impersonation paragraphs away.  Have students compose their paragraphs on the drafting sheet below, in order to keep them thinking about sentence fluency as they write.

Step four (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 five (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 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. 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 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 John Steinbeck by clicking here.

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