A Picture Book Writing Lesson from WritingFix

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using just seventeen syllables to create a riddle for your reader

Piñon Poetry Festival presenter, Heather Clark, inspired this on-line WritingFix lesson.

The intended "mentor text" to be used when teaching this on-line lesson is the picture book If Not for the Cat by Jack Prelutsky. Before writing, students should listen to and discuss the writing style of this book's author.

To our loyal WritingFix users: Please use this link if purchasing If Not for the Cat 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 (sharing the published model):  The best book to showcase when teaching the haiku format?  Jack Prelutsky's awesome and beautifully illustrated If Not for the Cat.  Once students understand the form and the structure, they can write haikus about anything--math, science, history, literature--celebrating our amazing language as they go!  First read the book without showing the pictures.  Let students guess what animal Prelutsky's seventeen syllables are capturing.  This is an amazingly fun book to share out loud in this manner.  Students will appreciate the haikus as riddles. On your second read, show the pictures, but first explain that each poem is only seventeen syllables; after each page, have students repeat the haikus and count out the syllables on their fingers.

Suggests Heather, "On your third read of If Not for the Cat, don't show the illustrations or the poems, and require your students listen for really great words and attempt to write them down.  You will need to assure them that spelling Prelutsky's best words is not an issue at this point of the activity.  Have students share their favorite words from the book, and you can write them on the board.  Demonstrate good 'pre-writing spelling practice' by labeling words whose spelling you're not sure about with an sp, so the students don't see you come to a dead stop because of one possible misspelling.  In small groups, have students attempt to discover how many syllables every word written on the board has.  Talk about disagreements; assure them that syllabication can be hard."

Heather's students then play her "Syllable Game," which is briefly describedbelow.  This is an excellent way to teach syllables in words in a way that is fun and group-supported.


Heather's Syllable Game, in brief:

  1. One student volunteer goes into the hall.

  2. The class decides on one word from the book we've listed on the board, and we quickly double-check the dictionary for syllable-division (and spelling!).

  3. The class is quickly divided into the same amount of groups as syllables in the word.  Each group begins chanting its assigned syllable over and over.

  4. The words from the board get hidden.  The student in the hall re-enters.  The class continues chanting.

  5. The student walks from group to group, attempting to figure out what word has been broken into the pieces he/she is hearing.

"After the syllable game," says Heather, "have your whole class create a list of awesome adjectives that they might use if they were describing animals that pop into their heads.  Create and post this list where everyone can see it.  Encourage the best words by asking for synonyms for student-suggested words that could be more interesting."  Have students each write (at least) one animal "riddle haiku" that uses a marvelous adjective somewhere inside it.  Students can certainly illustrate their poems, but make sure they test them out as "riddles" on their peers by reading their haikus aloud and seeing if a friend can guess their animal based only on the seventeen syllables.

Post some of your students' animal haikus.  Once your class understands a haiku as a format or structure, come back to the haiku every week or so.  At the end of a lesson on fractions, have students write a haiku about a fraction.  At the end of a lesson on amoebas, have students write an amoeba haiku.  At the end of a lesson on spontaneous combustion...well, you get the idea.

Haikus can become a marvelous way to reflect on learning in any curriculum area.  As author Barry Lane suggests, "Haiku everything!"

Step two (introducing models of writing):  As you continue to require students to compose haikus after learning concepts, share with them haikus from other student writers

As your students become more efficient with the format, remind them that a true haiku makes a connection back to the natural world.  The example haikus found on the student instruction page celebrate this notion.

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 (sharing more mentor texts with haikus):   Here are two more Northern Nevada favorite book titles that celebrate the haiku:

Least Things
by Jane Yolen

Introduced to us at the 2006 NCTE conference, this is another marvelous book of animal haikus by another of our favorite authors and poets.

If you know of other haiku books that teachers should know about, e-mail the title and authors to us at Webmaster@writingfix.com.

the haiku year
by Michael Stipe, Douglas A. Martin, Grant Lee Phillips, et al.

Introduced to us by Northern Nevada Writing Project Consultant Sparrow Malvino, this haiku collection showcases unique haikus sent by postcard between prolific friends for a year.  Some of the haikus are adult-oriented, so a teacher would need to hand-select which ones can be shared with students.

Click on the book covers to view these two books at Amazon.

Step four (publishing for the portfolio):   If your students keep a journal, a writer's notebook, or a learning log, you can ask them store their haikus throughout the school year in those places.  At the year's end, ask them to flip back through their pages and find their five or ten best haikus from the year.  These can be published together on a page in their student portfolios as "snapshots of what I've learned about this year."

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 poet Jack Prelutsky by clicking here.

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