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A Right-Brained Writer's Notebook Prompt from WritingFix
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Inspiration from Student Choice!


learning to create and punctuate complex sentences that use participles to show extra action

This prompt was revised in 2011 as part of our "Year of Writer's Notebooks" Project.

This writing prompt inspired by

Roni Schotter's picture book:
The Boy Who Loved Words

"When educators appreciate my books it is so special for me.  You are the gatekeepers--the people who introduce children to the world of words and literature--a sacred trust, if you ask me."

--Roni Schotter, author of The Boy Who Loved Words

Greetings, fellow teachers! My name is Corbett Harrison, and in 2001, I helped the Northern Nevada Writing Project launch this WritingFix website. For ten years, we sponsored lesson-building workshops throughout our region, and the best-of-the-best lessons created by our participants were posted at WritingFix for all teachers to freely access.

The prompt you find here is one that I personally created as a demonstration lesson for my Common Core State Standards Workshop: "Critical Trait-Thinking". I am devoted to developing writing lessons and writer's notebook challenges that teach my students grammar and punctuation rules in the context of an actual writing lesson, not from a worksheet or D.O.L. drill.

If you enjoy this lesson's big ideas and want to hear more about the work that I do to inspire student writers of all ages, I invite you to visit my personal you can access the new lessons and training materials I have been developing since 2009.

Overview of this Notebook Prompt & Lesson:

Our Language Arts Common Core State Standards seem top-heavy with "language standards," which are the ones that pertain to the conventions trait in writing, especially grammar and punctuation. While many teachers solely rely on lecture and worksheets to teach elements of grammar and punctuation, at WritingFix we believe the best opportunities to really learn about grammatical terms and punctuation rules are when students apply them to actual drafts they have written...or to pre-writing tasks, like those students can do in their writer's notebooks.

This notebook prompt has students show their knowledge of participial phrases by creating a one-page celebration of correctly-punctuated story-starters that happen to contain participles. During future writer's workshops, students can be directed to look back at this notebook page for a) an idea for a future rough draft, or b) a reminder to punctuate/use participles in the other writing they are doing.

Playing with Participles from the Mentor Text:

A lot of teachers I meet are unsure of what I mean by participle or participial phrase. There's no shame in that; traditional schooling's methods of teaching grammar doesn't often stick to the learner, which is why it's kind of sad to see grammar still being taught in exclusively traditional way. It didn't work for many of us who are now teachers; why should we expect it to work for students?

Here's my layman's explanation of how to identify a participle: A participle is a verb phrase that begins (usually) with an -ing verb; it attaches itself to a complete sentence, where it actually serves as an adjective phrase, and it is (usually) separated from the main sentence with a comma or two. I have put in italics the participial phrases in the following sentences:

  • Dropping like a stone, the unconscious boxer hit the mat hard.
  • The car, gaining speed on the straightaway, fought hard for the lead in the race.
  • The politician stepped to the podium, clearing his throat and unfolding his speech.

Remember, participles are officially adjective phrases, modifying a noun from the sentence's main subject + predicate section. They are a clever tool for inserting an extra verb into one's sentences, and we all know extra verbs are advantageous when showing writing, and showing is highly dependent on action verbs.

If you have a mentor text--like Roni Schotter's The Boy Who Loved Words--that contains a lot of participial phrases, you can teach students to 1) deconstruct those participles and 2) modify them to create different sentences; both these activities I find much more effective than giving students a lecture or a worksheet on participles.

By the way, any picture book with participles in it will work; I favor this Roni Schotter book because I love the big idea of the story: collecting words is a lifelong learning process. You can probably find a picture book on your shelf that contains several participles, if you don't have a copy of The Boy Who Loved Words.

A few days (or weeks) after sharing The Boy Who Loved Words, bring it out again. Explain, "Today we're going to focus in on a few interesting sentences Roni Schotter used to tell her story. These sentences contain participial phrases." Share any or all of the sentences below, or share ones you have found on your own.

Three pretty basic sentences (with participles) from the cited mentor text:

  • Reaching skyward, the distracted poet caught them. .
  • Wiping the sleep crumbs from his eyes, Selig scrambled down the tree and saluted the poet.
  • Pursuing the perfect note, Selig found a young woman seated by a lake.

Three more sophisticated sentences with from the text
(for students who appreciate a harder challenge):

  • Dusk, Selig noted, adding that short and enchanting word to his collection.
  • During the night, a pacing poet, unable to sleep for want of a word, found himself under the same tree, gazing hopelessly at the moon. (This sentence contains two -ing words that might be mistaken for participles but aren't; this can be an interesting discussion.)
  • "The moon," he wrote in his notebook, growing more andd more excited with each word, "melted like a lemon lozenge in the licorice sky."

Activity 1: Inform students that a sentence with a participial phrase usually comes from two combined sentences that share the same subject. Challenge them to transform the sentences from the mentor text back into their original two sentences. For example:

  • Selig wiped the sleep crumbs from his eyes.
  • Selig scrambled down the tree and saluted the poet.

Activity 2: Challenge students (in partnerships works nicely) to take the participial phrase from each sentence cited from the mentor text, and to add a different complete sentence than the one the author originally used. For example:

  • Pursuing the perfect note, the clarinet player adjusted her fingers again.
  • Pursuing the perfect note, the opera singer practiced her scales for seven straight hours.
  • Pursuing the perfect note, my teacher dug through her drawer full of intercepted student notes from the entire school year.

Activity 3: My favorite thing about participles is how they can be moved around in a sentence; learning to move them helps authors understand the power of crafting sentences that have variety, which is a skill of the sentence fluency trait. Challenge students to take their favorite "participle from the book + original complete sentence" from activity 2, and to manipulate them in two different ways. For example:

  • Pursuing the perfect note, the clarinet player adjusted her fingers again.
  • The clarinet player, pursuing the perfect note, adjusted her fingers again.
  • The clarinet player adjusted her fingers again, pursuing the perfect note.

Make sure students are very aware of the comma(s) that separate the participial phrase from the main sentence. Have them discuss and vote on which variation of their sentence they like best.

Talk about how a sentence with a participial phrase in it would make a strong introduction to a story for two reasons: 1) it launches the story with an action; 2) it contains two action verbs, making it an even stronger sentence.

Tell students they will be playing with two different participles today, trying to find ways to build them into strong introductions for stories they might write later. Tell students they will be creating a writer's notebook page that records and illustrates two sentences they believe would start a really great story.

Developing Original Sentences with Participles:

First, students must choose two participles they really like. They can certainly do this without the button-pressing game below, but I think the interactive choices will help students develop and choose stronger participles than they would have if they didn't use the choices here.

The task here is pretty simple: 1) choose a participle (inspired by the button-game below); 2) add a sensible sentence that would go with that participle, separating the two with the appropriate number of commas; 3) repeat this step two more times so that you have three sentences to go with each of your participles.

I have my students record their participles and their practice sentences on a piece of scratch paper.


Interactive Button Game
Press the button below to inspire two participles you really like...

...then create a writer's notebook page that adds to and illustrates for two sentences you believe would launch great stories!


Creating a Writer's Notebook Page:

Here is the frame I used to create my own notebook page to record my two "Participles as Story Starters." In my classroom, I have my students create three different sentences for both their participles, then I have them poll their friends in class as to which sentence they believe would start the best story. My students tally their results on the scratch paper they originally wrote their sentences on.

Two Participles as Story Starters
Illustration of best participial phrase sentence:

  • Participial Phrase sentence #1
  • Participial Phrase sentence #2
  • Participial Phrase sentence #3

Illustration of best participial phrase sentence:

  • Participial Phrase sentence #1
  • Participial Phrase sentence #2
  • Participial Phrase sentence #3

For inspiration before and while they create their own pages, show students your own model of a finished notebook page and/or my teacher model, which I have included (at left) with this prompt as my personal attempt to inspire you to create 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 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; at WritingFix, 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 my notebook page, which allows you to really zoom in on details or print on a poster, if you have that ability.

Give students several days to finish work on this page. I ask them to continue working on it if they find a free minute after we're done with a different project. Many of my students take their notebooks home and bring back finished pages. After seeing my example page, my students always want to add color, which I allow them to do, provided they do it when they finish another classroom task early. Colored pencils should be on hand!

Student Models of the Assignment:

I recently revised this writing prompt (it was one of WritingFix's original 21 interactive tasks) by creating a writer's notebook page for it, and I am planning to use it next school year when we are setting up our writer's notebooks. At present I have no student samples (of either notebook pages or stories they wrote inspired by the notebook page), but when I do, they will go here:

  • Corbett's future student samples will be available here!

If your students create great notebook pages (that can be photographed, like my teacher example) or great stories inspired by the notebook page, we hope you'll consider sharing some of them with the link in the blue box below. Thousands of teachers and students access WritingFix lessons every year, and having a your students' samples become part of this website is very motivating!

An Invitation to Share Participle-inspired Writing:
(Publish your students with us! 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!

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 to Help Students Writing Stories:
(These help keep your students trait-focused)


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