Category: Descriptive Writing

Picturing Writing: Empowering ELLs with Writing through Pictures – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 13

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.


Today’s second demonstration lesson comes from published author Natalina Bell. She’ll talk to us today about using pictures to enhance and empower ELL (English Language Learners) writing.

She gets us started with a freewrite.


Normally, Natalina would provide a word bank and sentence frames to help her ELL students get started. We go to work.

Ok. So what can I write about looking at this? I see presumably a man almost fully obscured by newspaper/news/things external to the moment. I also see a woman, presumably his wife, staring longingly/wistfully/somberly at an unknown point outside the frame. To be honest, I don’t really like Normal Rockwell images. I don’t actively dislike them, but they don’t do anything for me. I feel weird saying that, because I know a ton of teachers who find success using them in the classroom. I’ve used a few of them myself. But personally I don’t find anything to connect with. Ok, it’s a freewrite, so keep writing. I just zoned out for a second. Gotta practice what I preach! The stain on the table cloth is a nice touch, as is the depiction and positioning of her heels. She seems to be balanced somewhat precariously, pulling back from the husband’s angular and obtrusive presence. I can’t find much to connect with emotionally here, not much seems compelling. Nice details and etc. etc., but the subject doesn’t get me going. Instead my mind keeps pulling away into the psychic realm of worries, errands, and random thoughts. But I’m going to keep writing. Others in the room are bent forward, diligent in their completion of the warm-up. I wonder what they’re writing. When were these images popular, again? I’m sure there’s a ton of quality scholarship on Rockwell and his life/times/work. Maybe that would help me connect. Ok! 

We share out. I’m in awe of the creativity in the room! A few of us created fictional stories from the image. Was I supposed to do that? I need to up my fiction game. Natalina tells us why she often starts with (and sticks with!) images:


ELL teachers face many challenges in the classroom. They must teach a room full of students with drastically different levels of English proficiency. Some ELL students come to the states without much experience in their ‘home’ language. ELL students also have different cultural experiences, making working from previous experiences and schema difficult. The difficult and essential and complex role of socialization. This is the dream of American compulsory education. No matter what or who or how we try to educate. This falls on teachers, as inequitable funding formulas and histories of racism make providing equitable education to all quite challenging.

Today’s lesson starts with one of 2nd grade classroom’s favorite books: Aliens Love Underpants. Great title! She reads it aloud to us. Who doesn’t love that? Today we get to create our own alien!


We only have five minutes. Here’s mine:

File_000 (3).jpg

Next we present the alien in writing. We use the sentence frame that Natalina provides to her students to help scaffold. Sort of like Madlibs only minus the parts of speech. You can probably figure out the frame.

My name is Goopy, but most of my friends call me Lil Goops. I come from a solar system a billion light years away. I was born among the stars, as are all of my kin. I don’t have legs (what are those?); I float softly through the air, trailing a quiet melody behind me. I love eating space trash. That’s what brought me to this place! You all have so many delicious tidbits of space junk. And when I don’t have to go to school I like to tumble around in the atmosphere and feel the clouds tickle my fur. I hope we can be friends! 

We share out. We love this. Natalina tells us normally she would videotape every presentation so she can share it with the student later. Students can use the image as a reference for what they will write. This is a neat point. The writing helps them generate the language. Natalina plays a few clips of her students presenting on their aliens. They’re wonderful. Many of the students project aspects of themselves onto their aliens. They map their strengths, weaknesses, and origin stories onto their creations. Natalina also uses images on notecards to help students practice sequencing stories and creating a logical flow from which to write. She has her students illustrate and describe nearly every aspect of the stories they read together.

Natalina ends up by sharing some resources with us. Sorry the links aren’t clickable!



Stretch A Little, Stretch A Lot: Using Hyperbole to Enhance Memoir Writing – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 11

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.


Today’s first demonstration lesson comes from Katlyn Bennett, an amazing colleague. She’s going to show us how to study a mentor text, Roald Dahl’s Boy: Tales of Childhood, in order to use hyperbole to enhance details in a personal memoir.

The context of this lesson is an author study unit. Students pick an author they’re interested in and then read a variety of works by that author. This helps students tease out a particular author’s voice (syntax choices, literal/figurative language usage, tone and mood, etc.). Katlyn uses Roald Dahl as the mentor author for this project because his collected works run the genre gamut. She got the idea from Roald Dahl’s website. Today’s demonstration lesson comes from a unit with the following objectives and essential questions.


Katlyn links this unit and lesson to Kelly Gallagher’s two central premises from Write Like This:
1. Introduce young writers to real-world discourses (express and reflect)
2. Provide students with extensive teacher and real-world models.

She also discusses reading as a process. First draft reading is for meaning and second draft reading is for techniques/craft/nuance/etc. Another way to think about this is as reading as a reader (immersion) vs. reading as a writer (analysis of rhetoric). This assignment and this unit focus heavily on reading and writing on process.

Quickwrite: Look back in your memory. Think about a time you got in trouble, were injured, were angry, were happy, etc. Now write down what happened. This is a no-nonsense summary of events. 

When I was in 7th grade I wrote stories back and forth with a classmate and friend. These stories tended to be pretty gross depictions of comical sexual acts and explosions of bodily fluids. This is pretty standard stuff for hormone-addled middle school boys. I know this because I teach 7th graders. Oh wait, this is supposed to be no-nonsense.

I wrote a gross note to a friend. My English teacher confiscated it and I went to the principal’s office. I had to read it to my parents, apologize, and write an apology note.

Katlyn sets our purpose for reading (an excellent technique). What details stick out to us?

time to read

The section she reads is amazing. Dahl presents a truly grotesque depiction of a mean-spirited candy store owner. He knows how to zoom in on a key detail and then twist it into a disgustingly wonderful description. Dahl is also adept at immersing the reader in the memory and then sliding out of it to address the reader in a more authorial fashion. We discuss what we notice. Voice, point of view, hyperbole, characterization, and perspective are all mentioned. This is our first draft reading.

After she finishes we read the section again ourselves. At what point do we question the truth of Dahl’s writing? What images stand out? Is it okay if he’s not telling the 100% truth in his memoir? Katlyn comments to us that middle schoolers have a much harder time believing the veracity of every word or phrase, whereas adults don’t. Our conversation about truthfulness in memoir becomes wonderfully complex. Personally I believe that exaggeration and detail-massaging are not only acceptable techniques in a memoir but are essential to crafting an interesting narrative. It’s possible to tell the truth of the moment without being 100% factual, I think.

Now we return to our original quickwrite and look for details.


I wrote a gross note to a friend. It was funny! My English teacher confiscated it and I went to the principal’s office. He grabbed it from a kid. I had to read it to my parents, apologize, and write an apology note to the teacher. I got in trouble. It was embarrassing. 

Katlyn puts up the following organizer to help us pick out details to stretch, and then stretch a lot. We’re looking for specific details to exaggerate. This is a great way to help children begin seeing writing as a series of rhetorical decisions. You can see the way she exaggerates and then hyperbolizes the facts.


Here’s mine! 

-The note was gross ->
-The note was the stuff of schoolyard whispers. ->
-The crumpled paper oozed/was soaked the blunt, comical perversion of early adolescence.

-My friend sat on the other side of the room. ->
-I could barely see Jackson’s flat top across the tiled expanse of the class. The note had to travel quite a distance to reach him. ->
-As Jackson and I sat on opposite sides of the room (a familiar teacher tactic for dealing with disruptions), our notes had to travel the precarious distance of the entire length of the room.

-The teacher was watching us. ->
-His eagle eyes scanned the crowd for morsels. ->
-The teacher’s eyes swept over the class like searchlights hunting down an escape prisoner.

I realize that I exist in the hyperbole zone. This is my truth, the way my brain perceives and processes things. This makes sense with my earlier position on being liberal with the ‘truth.’ Oh, this is just so much fun. It really makes you focus on the purpose of every word. What choices would a journalist make? What about a comic? How do expectations about audience play into word choice? It’s probably best to finely tune the writing so it’s not either 100% over the top or 100% dry. Katlyn ends her presentation with a couple samples of student work.



Student Made Standards Based Rubrics – NVWP Summer Institute – Day 12 pt. 1

Now we have Nick Maneno. He’s one of the many rockstars of the Writing Project. He is a model for pretty much all of us. He apparently begins most of his emails with, “hmmm..” I think I’m going to start doing that.

Nick cover

Student Made Standards Based Rubrics: An Inquiry Approach to using a Mentor Text to identify standards, develop a Rubric, craft and score a poem. 

What a title!

Nick begins by talking about how he isn’t really that into rubrics. But he works in a school system that uses Standards-Based Grading (want to learn more about it? Look up Rick Wormeli. He’s sort of like the guru). Nick says he likes neither rubrics nor standards, but he has to make it work. So this demo lesson is an attempt to make all of this work. Please note that this demo lesson write-up will be devoid of any authorial commentary by yours truly.

Quickwrite1: List some things you do for fun and recreation.
-video games
-pretend to exercise

Now, pick one thing from the list and keep it in your head while reading the following poem. (An intention for reading)  

Sorry about the poor quality!

Sorry about the poor quality!

Then he tells us to read it again, only this time looking for literary elements and text features. What standards do we see being used here? We discuss movement, font size changes, capitalization, onomatopoeia, author’s purpose, exaggerated spellings, non-standard use of line breaks and white space, (link here to Katie’s presentation), alliteration, strong verbs/word choice (link here to Janique’s lesson), a title (link here to Michele’s lesson), parallelism with the ‘ing’ forms, we gerunds.

We get ourselves together in groups of three. Three is the perfect number, he says. You get a diversity of opinions while still allowing a space for everyone to give their opinion. We add polysemous words, some repetition, the form paralleling the content of the poem, and more. (Nick says here that collaborating and turning and talking with partners is the most important part of his classroom. Nick gives a plug for “Teaching with Your Mouth Shut [which I’ve never heard of! Amazon, here we come]). I’ve already learned so much from just this conversation.

So we’re all noticing here. Nick shows us what his fifth graders noticed:

Student stds

Nick is going to have us write our own poem using the Kwame Alexander as a mentor text.

The first step is to compose a rubric for the poem we’re about to write, using the Virginia writing standards of ‘Composition,’ ‘Expression,’ and ‘Mechanics.’ I don’t get very far. We work on our rubric individually, then we go back to our group of three and try to put it together. Nick tells us that he doesn’t really care that much about the rubric. The important part, he says, is the dialogue parsing out what it is that makes a poem successful or not. Nick ties this into the Inquiry model. Immerse students in the genre, and then have them create a rubric for what they’re about to create. Here’s the rubric Nick’s class came up with.

Class rubric

I am again, for the enteenth time this summer institute, reminded of Katie Wood Ray and “writing under the influence.”

Nick wants us to now write a poem emulating Kwame Alexander’s poetic form following the class’ rubric. I’ve written mine about one of my hobbies: watching Northern Lion’s YouTube Let’s Play videos after work. I do this religiously every day. I’ve been watching his videos for months, and by now I feel like part of the family. Interesting connections here with online communities, video games as an industry, YouTube as a public sphere, etc. Here’s my draft!

My Poem

Now he has us ask ourselves the following questions: What did I learn by doing the rubric? Did it help me learn? To be honest, our group was more interested in gabbing about our poems than we were discussing the rubric portion. Nick then shows us a powerful slide reflecting what his students thought about the rubric process.

Student Refl

Next up is Essaying. Nick sets us up with a T-Chart. He calls this the Chronologic method, which I love. Chronologic writing comes from Paul Heilker. Left side is “What I think the poem is about” and the right side is “Why I think Like I do.” He then reads us a poem line by line. After each line he stops reading and we keep a running log of what we think it’s about and why I think the way I do.

T Chart

The evidence falls into five categories: logic, life experiences, intuition, emotion, and text evidence. These are the five paradigms of essay writing, he says. This type of line-by-line analysis is an excellent way to promote the essay as a tool for understanding. Nick is interested in reclaiming the essay for ‘writing to learn’ instead of ‘a record of learning.’ He mentions that the French verb ‘es say’  is ‘to try.’ So he encourages us to use tentative language (instead of the authoritarian language often taught alongside the essay). Coming to understanding through stages of measured analysis and thought. After each stage the class discusses our various interpretations and reasonings. We’re encouraged to ponder each new perspective, adding it to our own if we want. The essay becomes the combination of the Chronologic thinking. Claim and evidence moving forward towards a new point of understanding.

Cheese and Chocolate – NVWP Summer Institute – Day 3 pt 2

Next up is 2k14 Teacher Consultant Janice Jewell.


Cheese and Chocolate: An Activity for Creative Writing

Going beyond imagery and metaphor to allusion, extended metaphor, narrative, and synesthesia to enrich students’ writing.

Janice first has us read In The Dairy Case, Ripe Prose. An excellent NYTimes article about cheese mongers and the power of description. She talks to us about reading with purpose. About the importance of going into a first read with a specific reason. Whether or not I agree with this I’ll ignore for now.

This article is a masterpiece of descriptive writing. You should read it.

After discussing the use of literary devices in the article, Janice hands out chocolate. She has us taste it and write down three adjectives. I went with Hershey’s Kisses because they’re a decent standard. As someone who isn’t necessarily a foodie, or even gastronomically inclined, chocolate conjures up no more or less arousal than say cookies or Twizzlers.

-mildly disappointing

Then, she has us “riff” on the adjectives independent of why I chose the adjective in the first place.

-reliable boy scout
-chalky medicine
-mildly disappointing sex

Then, in the third column, add something more abstract to each combination.

-reliable – boy scout – walking old ladies across the street
-chalky – medicine – staying home from school playing hooky
-mildly disappointing – sex – marriage

Then, write a 4-5 sentence description/scenario that stretches from a typical understanding of the way your chocolate tastes or smells. Think about the devices/language used to describe the cheeses in the article. Here is mine:

Hershey’s Kiss: Somewhere in between losing your virginity to your final lay. Neither your first nor your last. A sensate pleasure rendered prosaic by the enervating forces of a 40 hour workweek existence. There is no danger or excitement here.

This is a tiny lesson that works so well. The compactness forces you to do the most with the least amount of words. I love the scaffolded process of going from adjective to noun to riffing on a concept. The process leads both the reader and the writer outside the realm of the quotidian in a stepwise fashion. So, for those who struggle with writing “creatively,” this sequence offers a way.


This is a nimble exercise that highlights the value of mimicry (think Jeff Anderson’s work on inviting students to emulate other authors’ style). Talent and originality can be taught (within a certain range, of course).