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A Right-Brained Writer's Notebook Lesson from WritingFix

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Publish your students at our Ning!
(You must be a member of our "Writing Lesson of the Month" ning to post.)


Other great Mem Fox picture books:

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge
(Click here to see WritingFix's poetry lesson based on this book).

Koala Lou

Whoever You Are


Inspiration from Student Choice!


building a writer's notebook page based on an interesting character you'd like to show to a reader

This prompt was revised in 2010 as part of our "Year of Writer's Notebooks" Project.

The Mentor Text:

Tough Boris is an amazingly well-crafted picture book that tells two characters' stories: one with its words, one with its illustrations. This book will make your students want to write about interesting characters.

Serendipitous (adj): describing a fortunate discovery made by accident.

"I think a lot more decisions are made on serendipity than people think. Things come across their radar screens and they jump at them."

     --Jay W. Lorsch, Harvard Business School

This is a writer's notebook-friendly lesson! This write-up has been recently revised to incorporate the creation of a writer's notebook page as part of its pre-writing process. A teacher model of the notebook page can be seen at left. Below, you can read the step-by-step instructions for this writer's notebook task , which makes use of our webmaster's "Margin Mascot," Mr. Stick.

You can visit WritingFix's Writer's Notebook Resources Homepage to access more lessons and prompts revised to inspire effective modeling of writer's notebooks for our student writers.

A marvelous classroom tool!

Overview of this Notebook Prompt & Lesson:

Students use the serendipitous character-building machine to create a unique character in their minds. In their writer's notebooks or journals, they create a word cluster inspired by the Mem Fox's picture book, Tough Boris. After illustrating the notebook page and imitating Fox's text pattern from the book, each writer--next--creates an original descriptive paragraph that moves beyond the text pattern.

This lesson comes with pre-writing suggestions and student samples to inspire your students to create original and descriptive paragraphs. If your students like the paragraphs they create during this lesson, they can be encouraged to create a longer, more detailed story about the characters they invent with this prompt.

The focus trait of this lesson is word choice; specifically, students should gain inspiration for their paragraphs by thinking of high-quality adjectives during pre-writing. The support trait of this lesson is idea development; specifically, students should be taught about the difference between general details (like those from the mentor text) and specific details (like those in the models provided).

Use our Interactive Prompt/Idea Generator:
(to create a class chart)

The button-pressing game in the blue box below was one of WritingFix's original twenty-one prompts that started our website in 2001. It was designed to help you inspire a class chart of words and phrases that can be used to inspire independent writing about a unique character.

If you have the ability to project this page for your students to all see, you can do a whole-class demonstration that helps them all find one character idea to put in their writer's notebook. Simply ask your students to help you choose a button to click on; keep doing this (several dozen times) until all your students can piece together one adjective with a character idea and a phrase that gives them all a unique character to write about.

You can also--if you have a designated computer lab time at your school--have your students find this page and independently click the buttons, recording favorite ideas on a piece of paper to carry back with them to class and do the writing assignment at their desks.

If you don't have the ability to project or computer lab time, look below the blue box for suggestions on replicating the interactive prompt with less technology.

Press the three buttons until you create an idea for
a character you'd be willing to write about!



Ways to replicate this interactive prompt without using technology: It's simple; make three columns on your whiteboard or chalkboard or on chart paper, labeling them adjective, character, and phrase. Write four or five adjectives, characters, and phrases (borrowed from the button game above) to give your students a model; then, have your students work in pairs to create more words and phrases that could go in each column. When students share their ideas out loud, record the very best ones on the classroom chart. With a chart created, tell students they are to all create an original character by choosing an adjective, character, and phrase that are in different rows.

Example class chart:
a precocious pirate playing pinochle
an angry doctor digging in the dirt
a giddy child scratching his/her head
a hilarious comedian dripping with sweat
a frightened dog-catcher shining a flashlight
a bored teenager playing a video game

So, by asking students to create a character based on words in different rows, you are not allowing them to go straight across. With the above example, an angry pirate scratching his head is an acceptable choice of a unique character because different rows are represented in the choice. Make sense?

Analyzing the Mentor Text:

Tough Boris is a pretty great little mentor text. The text is presented in a simple pattern that students can easily imitate; the illustrations, on the other hand, tell a more sophisticated tale about a young stow-away who learns lessons about pirates and human nature. Be sure to study both the text and the pictures as you share this story. A mentor text that is both simple and sophisticated can be the foundation of a strong differentiated writing lesson.

When you share the book, inform your students that they will be imitating the text pattern during pre-writing, but for their actual assignment, students will create a showing paragraph that follows no text pattern.

With that said, enjoy the story out loud. Read it twice. Perhaps three times. Challenge students to say out loud what sentence will be found on the next page before turning it; with the text pattern established , they'll be able to do it.

You might show them this cluster, discussing how Mem Fox's book is mostly inspired by these six adjectives; discuss how she chose (word choice!) six interesting adjectives that all mean different things. Ask, "Which adjective is the most interesting?" and, "Which adjective might the author have chosen an even better synonym for?"

Tell students they will pre-write for their character descriptions by creating a six-adjective cluster based on the original character idea they created from the class's interactive chart.

Creating a Writer's Notebook Page:

Have students create a page in their notebooks or journals for this lesson. They should title the page My Serendipitous Character, and they should partition it as follows:

A Writer's Notebook Page:
My Serendipitous Character:

An adjective cluster:

Require students to provide an illustration next to their cluster or next to their showing sentences below!

Three Showing Sentences about my Character:
  • Sentence #1


  • Sentence #2


  • Sentence #3

For the top-half of the page, they are to create a cluster of six adjectives based on their original character. Like the mentor text cluster, theirs needs to use quality adjectives. Don't allow nice and good and fun as adjective choices; require stronger synonyms.

You will undoubtedly have students try to add cluster words that aren't adjectives. As you see this happen, stop the whole class and teach a mini-lesson on what an adjective actually is. Remember, if they can put the word directly in front of their character noun word, they should have a noun phrase that makes sense, if the word they have chosen is indeed an adjective.

  • a devoted dog catcher
  • a patient dog catcher
  • a broiling hot dog catcher
  • etc.

If you allow students to work in pairs (both working on a different character cluster), they can usually double-check each other to make sure the words in the cluster are indeed adjectives.

For the bottom-half of the page, they are to take three of their favorite adjectives and create a showing sentence for that modifier. The most important element of a showing sentence is that it uses an action verb to show an idea, not a linking verb (was/is/were/are) to simply tell the detail.

Telling sentence: The dog catcher was broiling hot.
Showing sentence: The sweat poured from the dog catcher's brow.

For inspiration as they create their own pages, continue to show students your own model of a finished notebook page and/or our webmaster's teacher model, which we have included (at left) with this lesson as our attempt to inspire you to create your own, but we will be understanding if you want to use ours as yours. If you are teaching your students to use Mr. Stick in notebooks to serve as a journal or notebook mascot, it can actually be really fun to make your teacher model to show them. Your kids can gain real inspiration from having proof that you had fun as you created your own notebook page; we truly believe kids can have fun while learning as long as the teacher is modeling what smart and fun looks like at all times. Sample notebook pages from a teacher are inspirational! Click here for a really large version of our webmaster's notebook page, which allows you to really zoom in on details or print on a poster, if you have that ability.

Here is the showing paragraph--inspired by the featured notebook page--that our webmaster shares with students:

Chet was the kind of man who took his job seriously. He was a dedicated dog catcher, and today he was determined to catch the sneaky, stray dog that had eluded him since his first day on the job. With his trap set, he waited in the shadow of the tall, city building. The sweat poured from his brow on this August afternoon. Around the corner, Chet was sure he heard sniffing, and he gripped his net even tighter. The sniffs came closer, definitely closer--and the dog catcher smiled. Was his career-long quest to catch the worst dog in town about to come to an end?

Student Models of the Assignment:

A few days after they have created the notebook pages, explain to students that they are now ready to create a paragraph description about their character. They are to pretend they are writing a longer story about the character, and their job is to write the paragraph that will introduce the reader to the person they clustered about in their notebooks. They can certainly use their three showing sentences as part of their paragraph, but they should be encouraged to "start over from scratch" to really practice showing skills in a paragraph whose sentences flow together.

Before they began composing, show them some student models to inspire them.

a sample written during one of Northern Nevada's TWIST Camps

The Friendly Fish

from Carrie, first grade writer

Fish is playful and happy! He likes to play with me. Fishermen try to catch us, but we’re smarter than a fox. Fish and I are best friends, and we have fun. He is younger than I am, so I taught him how to swim. Fish is very scaly. Scales are all over him. Fish cracks me up, and Fish is faster than a lightning bolt. Also, he was sort of quiet. He doesn't ’t talk much. I think he is fantastic because he is funny. I love Fish, and Fish loves me.

a sample written during one of Northern Nevada's TWIST Camps

Detective Chet Gecko

from Wally, third grade writer

Chet Gecko is my friend. He’s one of the funniest guys I know because he’s a green gecko, super nice, and he's the detective of Emerson Hickey Elementary. Here’s one of his jokes: What’s the difference between a teacher and a train? A teacher says, “Spit out your gum” and a train says, “Chew, chew, chew.” Ha, ha! Also, he is very cunning, like you see him in the hall, and he sees his suspect, and then he’s off like a deer for a salt lick. Now that’s cunning! I like him because he’s so stubborn, like for instance we have the hardest case ever. It's called Mr. Nice. Chet's not gonna give up on it. That’s why I like him the most!

a sample from Ms. Davis' classroom

The Soldier
from Mary, fifth grade writer

As he runs down the hill, he hides his body from the enemy, as if covered with a cloak of invisibility. He hides his frightened nature with his fearlessness. He rushes to a fallen soldier, shot in action. His courage is strong enough to move a mountain as he carries the soldier uphill. He dodges bullets aimed for his body as he runs back to war. He is like an immovable wall and can endure anything. His persistence and his optimism helps bring victory to his fellow army brothers and sisters. He has a red, white and blue flag with an eagle sewn on his camouflage work suit. He is an American soldier.

a sample from Mrs. Theofiles' class

The Actress
from Jennifer, seventh grade writer            

When she appears on the stage, she becomes a different person. She is no longer just the kid in third period English class who no one notices.  She has transformed into someone else.  She is dramatic.  She becomes her character, a heroine from times long ago.  She is creative.  She and everything around her sparkle, as if by magic.  She makes everyone believe she is her character.  She believes it, too.  She is precise as she floats across the stage, pleasing to the eye.  She is artistic, not afraid to shed her cloak of invisibility and stand out.  She is entertaining. Every eye is focused on her, spellbound.  As the curtain falls, the audience roars with approval.  She lives for this moment, and that moment is now. She is passionate about what she does.  She wishes this could never end. She is an actress, and her dream is fulfilled.

a sample from Mrs. Esposito's classroom

The Cheerleader

from Amanda, eleventh grade writer

As she strutted out to the floor, she showed attitude and intimidation toward her competitors. She was confident, and knew what she was doing. As she stood in front of the crowd, she did not look scared or nervous. She was the one girl I became to hate. She was beautiful, preppy, intelligent, and well-liked. Then there was me--the girl in the crowd, the nobody--but her, she was and had everything: a car, a boyfriend, good grades, great friends. She knew what she wanted on that floor and it was to win. As she performed her routine everything was perfect. She hit her motions hard. Every move she made was on the right count and flowed well. As the music stopped, the crowd roared. She was perfect. Although I had learned to hate her at that moment, I realized how she was everything I wanted to be. Perfect to everyone around her, she would be everything I wasn’t.

An Invitation to Share Showing Paragraphs:
(Publish your students! It's incredibly motivating!)

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 student samples for all non-represented grade levels for this writer's notebook prompt!  Help us obtain some from your students, and we'll send you a free resource for your classroom!

You can post your students' finished stories (as well as photographs of the notebook pages that inspired them) at this posting page set-up for this on-line lesson.

Resources for Students Writing Longer Stories:

The goal of a great writer's notebook page is to inspire students to write an even longer (and better) story during an upcoming writer's workshop block. Encourage your students to come back to their notebook pages or their character paragraphs and write a longer story for their portfolios.

If they pursue this lesson's ideas in a longer piece of writing, here are some tools that will help them continue to explore idea development skills as they expand their ideas.

Recipient of the NNWP's
Excellent Writing Lesson Award:

Because of the quality of its resources and ideas, this WritingFix lesson was selected by the Northern Nevada Writing Project as December 2010's Writing Lesson of the Month. It was e-mailed to thousands of teachers who are members of the NNWP's Writing Lesson of the Month Teacher Network.

To quickly access all the WritingFix lessons that have been chosen as "Lesson of the Month," click here to visit the on-line archive. You can have a link to a high-quality writing lesson sent to you every month.


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