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Pre-Writing to Help Students Practice for a Writing Exam
teaching useful processing skills while students learn to perform for on-demand prompt writing

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A Fifth Grade Narrative
Practice Prompt:

School Scenes
in "Slow Motion"

This activity was designed for Nevada 5th graders preparing for Nevada's Writing Test, which happens halfway through their fifth grade year.

Nevada's New Narrative Resource:

Coming to Northern Nevada teachers April 1!

How this Exercise Assists Nevada Students in Preparing for their Writing Exam:

Nevada fifth graders take their writing exam halfway through the school year, and the prompt they are given is designed to inspire narrative (descriptive) writing from the students. During three 45-minute sessions, our Nevada writers brainstorm, draft, revise, and edit a piece of writing that can fit on this answer sheet.

The writing is scored based on these traits: idea development, organization, voice, and conventions. Clicking the links will allow you to open/print the rubrics.

While we don't believe three 45-minute sessions based on an on-demand prompt produces the most authentic writing from our students, we respect that our students must be tested. We also believe they must begin preparing for their fifth grade test much earlier than fifth grade. In fourth grade and again in fifth grade, we suggest students be given three on-demand practice prompts and that teachers learn to score these prompts in a way similar to that of the test. Between these prompts, teachers should be presenting crafted lessons that teach authentic narrative writing skills.

This exercise was designed to serve as a pre-writing activity for one of our three designated fifth grade practice prompts. The prompt is:

Think about a time when something special or unusual happened at school. It could be a time when something unexpected happened in your classroom. Or it could be any event at school that you remember well. Write about what happened and why it was special or unusual.

In Nevada, we suggest to teachers that this prompt be given in August or September of our students' fifth grade year. To see all of our fifth grade prompts, click here.

Four Days Before Students Write:

A Rationale: The great writing teacher and author, Donald Graves, once suggested that when the writing process is truly being honored, 85% of a students' time could easily be spent in the pre-writing step. Although our writing test doesn't allow for this length of pre-writing, the more opportunities students have before the test to pre-write well, the more skilled they will be when given limited pre-writing time in the future.

Pre-writing is not just about filling out a graphic organizer; it also includes asking students to simply think, then talk with others about what they've thought about.

Beginning the Lesson: Ask students, “Why do they sometimes show scenes in slow motion on television or in the movies? What purpose does slow motion serve?” Life goes by pretty fast, even for fifth graders. Slow motion is an effect that allows a movie director to slow down a moment so that the audience can take in a few more details. The idea behind the visual effect also works when writing narratives, and teaching students to create “slow motion moments” during pre-writing is a powerful way to help them show relevant details to their readers.

Set up this scenario for your students: “You’re a student and you’re really hungry and it’s lunchtime. You have your cold lunch sack with you in the lunchroom at your table, but you haven’t opened it yet. You have a sneaky suspicion that your mother accidentally gave you your brother’s tuna fish sandwich when she packed the lunches this morning, and you hate tuna fish. You know your heart will sink if you discover your peanut butter sandwich is not in the sack.”

Ask, “If you, as student, open the sack and examine the sandwich, how long would that take in real time?” Have your students pantomime the action of opening a lunch sack and unwrapping a sandwich to see how very little time it takes.

Tell them, “A good writer can take ten or fifteen seconds of everyday action and slow it down…turn it into a slow-motion writing moment, if you will.” Show them this passage:

Slow-motion example: The lunch bag sat in front of me, and my stomach growled. I wondered, If Mom accidentally gave me the tuna fish sandwich, what will I do for food? I don’t have money for a hot lunch. I looked to my left. Stephen had his usual peanut butter sandwich. His mother hadn’t messed up. I looked to my right. Jack had his usual bologna sandwich, because Jack doesn’t like peanut butter. What was in my bag? I unfolded the brown paper once, then twice, and I leaned forward, squinting into the open sack. Beneath the napkin I could see the tin foil that my sandwich was wrapped in. I smelled inside the sack, but it smelled like a bag, not like peanut butter or fish. There was only one way to know for sure. I reached in, and the paper crinkled. I could feel the sweat forming on my brow as I unwrapped that foil. And there it was, the tell-tale smudge of peanut butter on an edge of the crust. I was safe. I would not go hungry today.

(Click here to open/print this slow-motion sample for Xeroxing or for an overhead.)

It’s fun to call a student up to the front of class to act out the scene above. It provides a nice visual example of a moment being slowed down when describing it well with words. Be sure students notice what the writer of the passage did to make the moment last: 1) used relevant sensory details, 2) included others in the scene, 3) zoomed in on interesting smaller details, like sweat and bread crust.

Tell students they will be working with a partner, and based on the model, they will write about a moment using slow-motion writing techniques. The moment they are going to write about should—in real time—last only 10-15 seconds. When reading the scene out loud, the story should last over a minute. Here are five short moments that fifth graders seem to enjoy choosing from, but they can certainly come up with their own ideas for this:

  • A coin has been flipped and the outcome if it comes up heads is important.
  • When a classroom window is opened, a gust of wind blows the papers off of someone’s desk.
  • A sports moment, like saving a goal in soccer or dropping a pop fly that is coming towards you.
  • A romantic moment, like the first time a boy is brave enough to hold a girl’s hand.
  • An anxious student watches the classroom clock tick down its last fifteen seconds of the school day.

The important thing that needs to happen on day one of this activity is that partners quickly choose an idea and begin talking out its possibilities as a written story. They won’t write until tomorrow. Have students create a list that answers this big question and the three questions that follow:

During your slow motion moment, what interesting details will your “writer’s movie camera” be able to take in that a person watching the scene in real time might miss?

  • Are there sensory images that might be more interesting with the “writer’s camera” running in slower motion? Sounds? Smells? Sensations of touch? etc.
  • Are there minor characters that might be noticed by the camera now that the scene is being written in slower motion?
  • Are there smaller details that might, when noticed and added to the description, help slow down the motion?

Show students the sandwich example again, having them look for the three bulleted questions again in the text. Then give them some time to fill out this brainstorming worksheet.

Collect or have students put their worksheets in a safe place. Challenge them to replay their chosen scenarios in their heads several times between today and tomorrow’s writing time. By visualizing their scenes more than once, they will be able to think of details that they might have forgotten to add to the worksheet in class.

Three Days Before Students Write:

Give students a moment to share any new details they might have thought of since last class to add to their brainstorming worksheets. Tell students not every detail they brainstormed should make it to the seven or eight sentences they write today with their slow-motion partners; only the best ideas should be included, because that’s the purpose of brainstorming --to think up more ideas than they could possibly use so that they can “sift out” less interesting ones.

Have the partners talk and circle the five or six details they put on the brainstorm sheet that they think are their very best details. Ask, “Which details, if written about well during a slow-motion moment, might help your reader visualize the scene better? Which details might they miss if the scene was happening in real time?”

Before drafting, it might prove beneficial to break the partners up and have each writer explain his or her slow-motion scene to a member of another partnership in the room. Don’t let them take their brainstorming sheets with them; instead, challenge them to remember the very best details from the sheet and include them in their oral explanations to each other. Hearing one’s own ideas aloud before writing them gives a writer an opportunity to play with the language out loud before writing it, and the writer might hear a detail from a different partner that triggers a quality detail in their own stories that they forgot to include on their brainstorms.

Have them share what they told another student when they come back to their writing partnerships (so that they hear their story ideas aloud once more). Then, have them write their scenes together, alerting them that some of the scenes will be performed for the whole class.

Chances are you’ll have a few partnerships who really struggle with the very first sentence, which will slow down their writing process completely. An experienced writing teacher has at the ready, especially if there were some suggested topics listed for students, first sentence options that would jump-start those students who get lost in the opening line. Remember, this exercise is really an exercise in idea development skills, so providing a little help with an opening sentence (which is part of the organization trait) is not against the rules here.

  • Coin flip opening suggestion: “I should have called tails, but now it was too late.”
  • Window and wind opening suggestion: “It didn’t look windy outside. We just knew it was too hot inside.”
  • Sports opening suggestion: “The bat cracked and I knew the ball was headed straight for me.”
  • Romantic moment opening suggestion: “He had brushed his hand accidentally against mine the day before. Today I knew it was going to be different.”
  • Class clock watcher opening suggestion: “I could have sworn the little hand on the clock was moving backwards, not forwards.”

Keep the peanut butter sandwich example displayed, and when partnerships seem to lose direction, suggest they re-read it with this question in mind: “What did that author remember to do that maybe you haven’t done yet?”

As you wander among your writers, seek out three or four well-written slow-motion moments that you can ask the students to perform to the class during writing time tomorrow.

Two Days Before Students Write:

Before having some students perform their slow motion moments, show them the prompt they will be writing about in two days.

Think about a time when something special or unusual happened at school. It could be a time when something unexpected happened in your classroom. Or it could be any event at school that you remember well. Write about what happened and why it was special or unusual.

Fifth graders often have interesting interpretations of the words special or unusual. If it didn’t involve recognition being given directly by the president or the principal, it wouldn’t be special to many fifth graders. If it didn’t involve aliens landing during recess and abducting the entire kindergarten class, it wouldn’t be in unusual. “Nothing special or unusual has ever happened to me at school,” you will hear from more than one student.

That’s your cue to talk about the importance of knowing about slow-motion moments. Special and unusual can (and should) be based on small events for fifth graders, not world-changing events. Say, “The first time a teacher let you help her teach the lesson was pretty special to you; you may have only taken the pointer and helped the class read the poem word-for-word, but you felt pretty special that day. The first time you were allowed to check out an actual book from the library might have been special. The first time you got to be captain and choose sides for the kick ball game was special too. All of these were special, and if you know about slow-motion moments, you can write about them in really interesting ways, even if you don’t remember every detail about them. People who say nothing special has ever happened to them at school, they’re comparing their lives to characters in action and fantasy movies, but for the fifth grade writing test, you don’t get to pretend to be a movie character. You have to be you. And you have to know tricks—like slow-motion writing—that help you take something small but personally important and fill a page with interesting details about the moment it happened. Good narrative writers know how to make themselves ‘stars’ in their own written ‘movies,’ the personal ‘movies’ that play in their minds when they remember special or unusual moments. This prompt is asking you to share a true-life movie in your mind on a piece of paper. If you know about slow-motion writing, you’ll have that paper filled in no time.”

Ask several of the student partners to perform their slow-motion paragraphs from the day before. One student should be the reader, and the other should be the actor; if their paragraphs included other people, they can recruit other students to play those parts.

Before students leave that day, hand them a blank index card. On one side, they are to write the word special and on the other side they are to write the word unusual. Show them the topic again, reminding them that their stories must take place at school. Between now and the next writing class, they are to look at those two words and think of one or two true times they could apply either word to an event at school.

One Day Before Students Write:

This prompt comes with five “sparklers” by Nevada fifth graders who showed better-than-average writing skills while writing to this same prompt. We suggest students look at these Sparklers before they write to the same prompt or immediately before they revise the rough drafts they will write. With five “sparklers,” you have enough to take two or three on the day before your own students write and do a jigsaw with them. Have different students read different “sparklers,” first discussing the sample’s strengths and big ideas with students who read the same sample, then repeating the process with students who read a different sample.

Ask students, “Where might the writer of the ‘sparkler’ improve his/her writing even more by adding a slow-motion moment? What part of the narrative would make the most sense to slow down and describe a little more? How would you help that writer craft a few sentences that help make a slow-motion moment?”

After that discussion, send students home again with their special/unusual index cards. Tell them they need to come to class tomorrow with a true story that happened at school that was one of those words. Tell them they also need to have thought about where in their narrative they might include a slow-motion moment. “Tomorrow,” tell them, “you write!”

You might even send them home with a blank copy of the “Slow Motion Moment Planning Worksheet” so they can brainstorm some ideas on it about the special or unusual moment they are thinking about for the upcoming writing prompt.

On the Day the Students Write:

First of all, show them the prompt again. Discuss it thoroughly.

Think about a time when something special or unusual happened at school. It could be a time when something unexpected happened in your classroom. Or it could be any event at school that you remember well. Write about what happened and why it was special or unusual.

Students have a choice of special or unusual, and the writing test scorers would expect them to write about one or the other in great detail, not tell one story on something special and another story about something unusual. If students are still struggling with the words special or unusual, then they actually have an out here with the sentence Or it could be any event at school that you remember well. The last sentence tells them they have to address what happened and an explanation of the event’s specialness, unusualness, or memorable-ness. The introduction and/or the conclusion would be appropriate places to discuss the why.

You might review with your students how the “Sparkler” samples you’ve already looked at began and addressed both the what and the why. The Interactive Task and Challenge boxes below each “Sparkler” contain great advice that can help your students create a stronger rough draft. The “Sparklers” also are a great tool to show to and discuss with your students right before they begin revising.

Revising & Editing & Assessing:

A day after they write their rough drafts, have all students analyze their use of narrative skills using our narrative writing Post-it® Note-sized templates.

The important thing to note on this tool is that it asks 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 kids end up doing because that’s an easy way to fill out the Post-it-sized note. Ranking requires the students to decide on their absolute strongest skill from the list, and to give that skill a ‘5’; the next strongest skill receives a ‘4,’ then a ‘3,’ etc. Ranking is harder 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.

Our Common Core State Standards require us to start pushing our students to analyze and evaluate what they’re reading and writing, and these Post-it® Note-sized templates are a small tool that—when modeled well and monitored carefully during the first few uses—can begin to help your students learn to independently create revision plans that match their own drafts’ strengths and weaknesses.

When using these Post-it® Note-sized templates for response and revision, most students will claim that ranking the skills in someone else’s draft (instead of their own) is easier, so it might be a good exercise to have them first work with partners to rank the skills in any of the student samples that come with this practice prompt.

With a ranking of their own skills on a Post-it, students can then be challenged to look at the one or two lowest-ranked skills and use them to create a revision plan. This, too, needs to be modeled well.

Ask students to carefully copy their final drafts, checking for conventions, onto the answer sheet. If you’re planning to use our set of annotated samples to assist you in scoring your students’ practice prompt writing, use that as an incentive to encourage more careful editing. When students know they’ll be given a score that will help them understand their chances of passing the upcoming state test, they are often more willing to check conventions a second or third time.

For editing, you might teach your students to find a corner and read aloud their own papers to themselves before turning them in; many careless conventional errors are often discovered by students doing this.

You might also teach them to read their drafts backwards, starting with the last word and going backwards through each sentence. This is good for students to learn to do, especially if they are prone to making careless spelling errors as they copy a rough draft onto a final draft page, as they will be expected to do when they take their actual test.

Publish Your Students' Sparklers for this Prompt:
We're seeking new student samples to post here!

WritingFix Safely Publishes Students from Around the World! In 2008, we first began accepting students samples from teachers anywhere who use WritingFix lessons and prompts. Hundreds of new published students now go up at our site annually! We're currently seeking additional student sparklers for the "Unusual or Special School Event" that we can feature at this page to promote furrther discussion from fourth graders using this lesson for state exam writing practice.  Help us obtain up to three from your students, and we'll send you a free copy of the NNWP's "Show Me the Story" Narrrative Writing Print Resource

You can post your students' finished stories at this posting page set-up for this on-line lesson.


Extending the Learning with a Narrative Follow-up:
A lesson we suggest fifth grade teachers use between this practice prompt and the next.

Overview: Inspired by Barack Obama’s book, Of Thee I Sing, students will write their own friendship songs, choosing as their friends a peer, a relative, or an adult friend. After the students make their lists of telling sentences, “singing the praises” of the chosen friend, they then develop three to four of those sentences into showingparagraphs. By modeling after Obama’s book, using the frame, “Have I told you that…,” students create a predictable text which is intended to read almost like a song.

The mentor text
for this lesson


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