Set the Stage

Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3

Mentor Text: The Relatives Came, by Cynthia Rylant

What They’ll Learn: Setting

What To Do: In Amanda Broadnax’s classroom at Craig Elementary in Lawrenceville, Georgia, The Relatives Came provides the perfect backdrop for teaching how to craft a story’s setting. Broadnax, a blogger at Collaboration Cuties, reads aloud the following sentence from the first page of the book: “They left when their grapes were nearly purple enough to pick, but not quite.” Then, Broadnax and her students discuss why the author might have chosen to include that line. “The way that Cynthia [Rylant] describes the setting provides the opportunity to discuss different ways to use your senses to build a picture in the reader’s eye,” Broadnax explains. As they talk, the class works to pinpoint other strong examples of description in the text.

To encourage students to use descriptive language and draw upon their senses as they set their own scenes, Broadnax suggests having kids write stories about traveling to visit their relatives. To get started, hand out Broadnax’s Describe the Setting graphic organizer. The organizer contains boxes with sensory labels (looks like, sounds like, smells like, feels like) that students fill with descriptors and similes based on their experience. They then incorporate these descriptions into their narratives to transport readers to the scene.

The Power of Persuasion

Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.1

Mentor Text: Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, by Doreen Cronin

What They’ll Learn: Persuasion in opinion writing

What To Do: To help her students improve their opinion-writing skills, Abby Alley relied on one of their most-loved reads, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. The former Chicago Public Schools second-grade teacher and blogger at Ms. Alley's Class, and current learning resource teacher at Chicago’s Christian Heritage Academy, began her lesson by discussing the various methods of persuasion used by characters in the story. “We talked about how the cows used going on strike as an ultimatum to persuade Farmer Brown to give them electric blankets,” says Alley. “Then we talked about the ending of the book and how we thought Duck must have persuaded Farmer Brown to give them a diving board.”

Following Alley’s lead, try discussing what types of persuasive words Duck might have used and what tone he would take. Once your class comes up with a few strategies (emotional appeal, finding common ground, asserting credibility), suggest that students pretend to be Duck and write a letter to Farmer Brown persuading him to give them a diving board. The letters should draw upon both the strategies Cronin employed and those you brainstorm as a class. By the end of the lesson you’ll have some pretty persuasive authors on your hands!

Reel ’Em In

Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3

Mentor Text: Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson

What They’ll Learn: Great beginnings

What To Do: “Once upon a time I taught second grade, and many students had no idea how to start their narratives,” says Kate Daniel, a sixth-grade teacher at Torrey Hills School in San Diego and blogger at Elementary Sparkle. To help her second graders craft a compelling hook, Daniel wrote a few not-so-great beginnings of her own. Then she asked students to help her spice up the humdrum openers.

To get the conversation started, she asked a few pointed questions, such as “Can you visualize it?” and “Are you interested in reading the rest of the story?” Once students were able to grasp the weak spots in her writing, Daniel turned the discussion to what makes a great beginning. First, she created an anchor chart describing five strong ways to introduce a narrative: dialogue, action, question, sound effects, and thought. Each time Daniel introduced a new strategy, she read a short excerpt from a mentor text. For a story that opens with sound effects, Daniel read the first lines of Bridge to Terabithia: “Ba-room, ba-room, baripity, baripity, baripity, baripity—Good. His dad had the pickup going. He could get up now.” (See sidebar for four other mentor texts to use with this method.) Once students internalized a few examples, Daniel gave them a short narrative prompt and asked them to write only the beginning of the story. Encourage your students to try out different great beginnings until they are hooked.

Choose Your Words

Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.2

Mentor Text: Locomotive, by Brian Floca

What They’ll Learn: Word choice in informational writing

What To Do: Too often, we save the clever diction and descriptive language for creative-writing class. But it can be used in nonfiction writing, too! “We must start to think of writing craft across genres,” says Dawn Little, a staff development teacher at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and blogger at Picture This! Little breaks out Locomotive, a kid-friendly exploration of America’s first transcontinental railroad, as a model for writing informational texts. She reads the story aloud twice, once for enjoyment and once to focus on Floca’s use of onomatopoeia. Then, Little asks students to consider how the author’s choice of words helps the reader understand the text. For example, what do phrases like “Whooooooo! Whooooo!” and “Huff huff huff!” tell the reader about the speed of the train?

After mastering the concept of onomatopoeia, students listen to audio of various methods of transportation (cars, airplanes, boats), analyze the sounds they make, and then write down words such as zoom or whoosh that match the sounds. To complete the lesson, each student selects a transportation method and writes a paragraph about it, using onomatopoeia to help readers understand their page-turning descriptions.

Act the Part

Standard Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3

Mentor Text: Too Many Toys, by David Shannon

What They’ll Learn: Voice

What To Do: When Meghan Mayhew introduces the writing trait of voice to her students, the class becomes a whirlwind of emotions.

Mayhew, a second-grade teacher at Garrison Elementary in Dover, New Hampshire and blogger at Inside the Classroom, starts by asking each student to write an emotion word on an index card (for example, overjoyed, angry, jealous). Then, she collects the index cards and invites students to choose an emotion and take turns acting it out.

“The activity gets kids thinking about the different ways to convey feelings using voice,” says Mayhew.

To extend the activity to writing, Mayhew recommends reading David Shannon’s Too Many Toys. After reading the book aloud, she encourages students to write to Spencer, the boy with too many toys, from the perspective of various people in his life, including his parents, friends, and principal. Mayhew asks students to explore how each of these different people might talk to Spencer. (Some prompting questions include: “What tone would they use?” and “How would the reader be able to differentiate among voices?”)

Mayhew adds, “It’s great to see the character voices my students come up with!”


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