A short piece of writing goes through the entire writing process:
Transitioning through a Machine
teaching transitional phrases and revision skills based on a Writer's Notebook entry
Overview of this Writing Challenge:
First, students brainstorm and design an original machine in their writers' notebooks--inspired by the automatic donut-making machine in the first mentor text at right. Next, students create a rough draft describing their machine at work, trying to use interesting transitional phrases as they draft one or two paragraphs. To inspire revision, students analyze a passage from the second mentor text at right before, attempting to improve the quality of their transitions, verbs, and details.
Start with a Mentor Text-inspired Mini-Lesson for Writing:
Every writing mini-lesson should focus students on a specific writing skill; this is one of the seven elements of a quality writing lesson I demonstrate during my teacher workshops on differentiated lesson design. Most teachers I meet design their writing lessons first and foremost with a product in mind, a product like an essay, or an acrostic poem, or a hamburger paragraph or a summary paragraph. Research says that it's much more effective to focus on a writing skill before one decides on a product.
That said, the focus skill here in this lesson is using a variety of transitional words and phrases, which is part of the organization trait. After we've gone through the whole lesson, when I assess the students' partner-writes, 80% of the grade is based on the transitional words and phrases (which the students will underline for me before turning their revised drafts in!). Having that kind of focus makes the time needed to grade these short-writes go amazingly fast. I learned about twelve years into my career that--when assessing writing--you do not have to grade for every possible skill every time. Mini-lessons are the perfect way to focus students on one or two skills.
For this mini-lesson, I make use of a mentor text that only does an adequate job of using a variety of transitional words and phrases in the excerpt I share with them. We read that passage, we discuss its strengths and its weaknesses, and we write something better that accomplishes the same thing with our writing partners. Now please don't get me wrong: I absolutely adore the mentor text in this mini-lesson for writing; it was one of my childhood favorites, but it was written to be an easily-comprehended adventure book for third or fourth grade readers, and my students are required to read and write things that demonstrate skills that are a bit more sophisticated. This is a perfectly legitimate use of a mentor text.
To start this lesson's brainstorm, I share with my students my fond memory of reading Homer Price when I was in fourth grade. At Amazon, there are several different covers/versions of the book out there, but the one in my classroom library is the one pictured above at right. I like this particular cover because it shows Homer standing next to the famous automatic donut-making machine that most people remember as the best chapter from this book of short adventures. As I tell my students, I read this in fourth grade, and then I didn't re-read it until I was an adult. In between the years that I originally read it and the time I re-read it, my imagination did something amazing, in my humble opinion. McCloskey's description of the machine in the book is incredibly basic and repetitive; over the years, however, my brain remembered the machine as much more fantastic than it ever was. If asked before re-reading this mentor text as an adult, I would have described the machine from my memory of the book as nothing short of a Rube Goldberg invention. Below, however, is the most detailed description from the famous donut chapter by the great Robert McCloskey:
|“Homer got down from the chair and pushed a button on the machine marked, ‘Start.’ Rings of batter started dropping into the hot fat. After a ring of batter was cooked on one side an automatic gadget turned it over and the other side would cook. Then another automatic gadget gave the doughnut a little push and it rolled neatly down a little chute, all ready to eat (page 56 in my copy).”
I ask my students if they've ever re-watched a fantastical movie from their early years again only to find it less impressive on the second watch. We talk about how our imaginations, which are so very much active when we're children, often invent detailed memories that were never actually there, especially when we're remembering something we personally find fantastic. This is the case with my own memory of the wonderful chapter about a donut-making machine that went a little haywire from this chapter book from my childhood.
And now it's time to start the writing task. On a piece of scratch paper, working with their sacred writing partners for the day, I ask students to create a quick sketch of the machine as they have envisioned it in their brains from the limited details from the author. To inspire their sketches, I show them the image of the orange juice-making at right. I ask them to be sure to number the "steps" the machine must take to make the donut, as they see in the example image.
Some students will want to take the whole period to draw their donut machine sketches, so you must set a time limit. If I set my visual timer for five minutes on the SmartBoard, and they can see it clicking down, they usually come pretty close to having a rough sketch made in no more than six minutes. I like to stress in my authoritative voice, "We're doing a writing lesson today, people,--not a drawing lesson--so we need to get to the writing! Don't belabor the drawing."
With the sketches complete, I break up the initial partnerships. I say, "Decide who is a 'one' an who is a 'two' in your partnership. Two's, take the drawing and find a new partner to sit with in less than one minute. Go!"
With their new partners, I ask them to look at the underlined words in the original passage (look above at the box in yellow) and to come up with a theory of why their teacher has underlined them. Entertain a few answers, and if no one sees the pattern, explain that these are transitional words and phrases, which is a fancy way of saying they are the words that show the progression of steps through the machine. "Good writers," I explain, "use a variety of transitional words and phrases, and great writers really try to make 'progression' words come across as interesting."
- "Are there any repeated transitions here?" The answer is yes, and we talk about how "and," which is often combined with the word "then," is the most common transitional combination we use, but if we only said "and" and "and then" between the steps of a story, we would be telling a pretty awful version of that story.
- "Which transition is the most interesting?" The answer the students decide upon is--almost always--the really long one because it includes details that help us visualize the movement of the donut through the machine. A transition becomes more interesting when you combine it with details from what you're describing. Here are two more things you can talk about when discussing using longer and more detailed transitions:
- Compare "Before this can happen,..." as a transition with "Before the orange can be crushed by the lead weight,..."
- Compare "After that,..." as a transition with "After the weight has crushed the pulpy orange,...
Now it's time for the students to try. Using the sketch of the donut machine they have in front of them, the two partners must work together to create a better, step-by-step description of the machine than McCloskey provided. They are allowed to add additional steps and features of the donut machine, but a cooked donut must be their end product. They can borrow details from the original passage above, but they must create a more detailed description that tries to be more interesting with its use of transitions. Remind students that good writers don't ALWAYS use lengthy, detailed transitions; they create a BALANCE of regular transitions and detailed transitions. This is what the skill of using a variety of transitions is all about--finding that balance.
Discussing past student models before your current students do any writing is another one of my seven elements of a differentiated writing lesson. Below are three student samples from the first few times I taught this lesson; I often ask the current group of students I'm working with to compare the three pieces before they do their writing, asking, "Which student sample shows the best understanding of the skill of using a variety of transitions?" and "In each sample, where would you suggest the author might have included a more detailed transition to make the writing sample just a little better?" It really pays to save your former students' samples; they launch great discussions that prompt your current students to create even stronger samples. A competent student sample--when well-discussed--will inspire even more competent samples the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.
A third grader's initial sample:
A fifth grader's initial sample:
A sixth grader's initial sample:
| The Multi-Donut Restaurant
by Quinn, third grade writer
In the first step, the machine will pound and punch the uncooked dough into shape. This is followed by the dough falling into the oven to bake. After baking, a conveyor belt will take the dough to cool under two fans hovering over as they slide under the fans. Next, the doughnut will go to the "choosing bar" for people to choose what they want to eat. They can choose glaze, sugar, or sprinkles and flavor with one of those. Then, they choose filling or no filling. If they choose filling, they will choose the flavor of the filling.
| The Donut O’ Pounder
by Sydney, fifth grade writer
In the beginning, some moist sticky dough gets tossed into a giant white machine, also known as the “Donut O’ Pounder." When the dough enters the machine, monstrous knuckles come down from the top of the machine and start pounding the dough at a fast pace. Afterwards, tiny, tiny blue jelly people arrive in their jelly mobiles and squirt yummy grape jelly into the fluffy circles of dough. Eventually, they wiggle into a dark chamber and white flakes of sugar fall from above and place a thin white layer of sugar on top of the dough. Finally, the moist, sticky dough is now cooked and soon takes a quick trip to "Stomach Road.
| Moving Through a Donut Machine
by Orlando, sixth grade writer
First, the machine flips on and starts to grow hotter and hotter, getting ready to cook the doughnut. Next, a metal arm comes shooting in with a measuring cup at the end, and it scoops the dough into a round mold. It seems to stay in the machine for an eternity. Eventually, a little white needle impales the doughnut and fills it with cream. In the meantime, the machine smothers the doughnut with chocolate. To finish, you put it on a cooling rack to cool off and then eat it.
Inspired by the original donut-machine passage by McCloskey, student partners create a new, more-detailed donut machine description that attempts to use a variety of transitional words and phrases. I require both students in the partnership to write down their collaborative passage on separate pieces of paper as they co-create so they can each take the words back to their original partners and each have a personal copy of the writing. At the end of the period, students return to their original SWT partners and compare their machine descriptions. They are required to give each other one piece of advice to strengthen the passage's use of a variety of transitional words and phrases or its use of details. At period's end, each student submits their paragraph/passage for a participation grade.
Designing an Original Automated Machine for the Writer's Notebook:
A writer's notebook is a place to capture ideas that cry out to be explored in more detail at a later date; notebooks are an essential element in my writer's workshop routine. Every day in my classroom, students free-write for ten minutes to capture and explore brief thoughts and observations, and when we have a workshop day, students can transform an initial idea from their notebooks into an actual rough draft. Writer's notebook passages serve as one piece of the brainstorming process in my classroom, but so too do the mini-lessons on writing we do, like the one described just above. I've had students love the idea of creating an automatic-somerthing-making machine enough to turn it into one of their required narrative writer's workshop pieces; I have also had students create descriptions of how real machines work based on this lesson, and they use those pieces as one of their required expository writer's workshop pieces.
After our daily ten minutes of Sacred Writing Time, we typically work on reading skills or writing skills for the remainder of class. When we focus on writing skills, I occasionally have the whole class create a special page in their writer's notebooks that will help them brainstorm and prepare for the writing mini lesson I have in mind. My favorite author who uses a writer's notebook--Ralph Fletcher--says a teacher shouldn't assign required pages in a student's notebook, but I do once or twice a month anyway, and I justify this action because it helps me teach my students the purpose of a writer's notebook more efficiently. When we can all begin the same way in our writers' notebooks, then each turn the initial ideas into totally different pieces of writing that can be discussed and analyzed, we collectively learn how a piece of writing begins and is taken through an individualized process based on our common experience. I do have some students who separate (with tabs made out of masking tape) my assigned notebook pages from their notebooks' free-writes, and if you invite students to do that early on and they choose to, then I believe you are honoring Ralph Fletcher's intent when he said a student's writer's notebook should never have a page that's been assigned. Anyway, you need to choose if you want this activity to go in their notebooks, and remember, they can certainly do the brainstorming task on another piece of paper; the trick is the brainstorm has to be saved somewhere easily accessible, and in my class, the notebook is our best option. I also find by designing something like an original machine in the writer's notebook, students come back to the idea during future bouts of SWT, designing new and more original machines than they did for this initial assignment.
A few days after we complete the partner-write with the donut machine, I ask students to find a fresh two-page spread in their writer's notebook and to get a piece of scratch paper. After these supplies are on their desks, I ask them to discuss with their SWT partner for that day what they remember about the skill known as using a variety of transitional words and phrases. If you follow my strategy of having students have four different SWT partners, I find it's important to ensure they are sitting with a different partner this day than they did on the day we designed donut machines with a partner. That way, they can hear another person's answer instead of the exact answer they may have heard a few days back.
I announce, "Today, you are going to get the opportunity to design an original machine that does something automatically--but not a donut making machine since we've done that. After we design the machine, you're going to create an amazing-but-short piece of writing about your original machine that makes use of a variety of transitions--both words and phrases. No partners this time; instead, you have to show great knowledge of transitions on your own so that I can start seeing you use them better in all your your writing workshop pieces."
My kids love You-Tube inspirations, and I can think of no better thing to show them to have them start brainstorming than a certain wonderful scene from Pee Wee's Big Adventure--the one directed by Tim Burton. I find half of my students laugh with delight when they meet Pee Wee, and the other half totally don't understand the sense of humor in the clip. The clip below shows an automatic breakfast-making machine whose actions are interspersed with scenes of Pee Wee completes his morning hygiene and routine tasks. Before I show the clip, I explain the purpose of watching it: "You will be creating an automatic machine--perhaps like the one featured in this clip; yours certainly doesn't need to be as crazy or Rube Goldberg-ish, but your machine needs to complete a task automatically by going through a series of steps. I will honor those who are extra creative with these machines with the gift of not grading your writing as hard as I grade those who are hardly creative and rush to just get this assignment done. Now, please enjoy this clip from one of my favorite silly movies from my youth:"
(Click the image above to access/show the video with the Rube Goldberg-inspired Breakfast Making Machine from Pee Wee's Big Adventure.)
Always preview a video and its accompanying ads before showing it to your students!
After we've laughed at Pee Wee's four-minute video, we start brainstorming other machines that would benefit our lives if they did things for us automatically. "What automatic machine would make your life better, easier, or just more entertaining?" is the question that drives our five-minute brainstorm. In the interactive idea generator below, you will find some machines my students have enjoyed creating in the past; I am always okay if several of my students in the same class choose the same type of machine to craft because those students can become great responders to each other as we create a rough draft and attempt to revise it so it's better for our final grade on this mini-lesson.
Students choose a machine to design, and they have five minutes to create a rough draft of a sketch of the machine on their piece of scratch paper. The great writing teacher--Donald Murray--once suggested that 85% of the writing process should be pre-writing. One of my favorite ways to increase pre-writing is to have students--with sketches in their hands--explain their thinking to different partners out loud. Talking about one's idea before writing actual words down is a wonderful way for students to hear their own ideas and question others' before they commit their ideas to paper. Here is my rough draft sketch of my Pigeon-Scaring Machine--in case you want to print it out and participate in the discussion that comes after your students create their rough draft sketches. I hope you're inspired to invent your own original machine though!
We end the period the day we do these rough sketches by having ten to twenty minutes to carefully add a more polished sketch of our machines on a page in our writer's notebooks. The sketch must include:
- a label/title for the machine
- numbered steps--similar to the orange juice picture above
- two- or three-word labels for the machine's steps, like "start lever" or "fresh orange crusher"
- a splash of color (if there's time only!)
I believe totally in showing teacher models of the writing task, so my notebook page's final sketch is at right; click on it to print it or show it on your SmartBoard. I have left it anonymous so--if you must--you can pass it off as your own. My hope is that you see how much more willing students are to take risks when they believe you are involved in the same writing process they are. Unfortunately, by using my model as your own, you don't have the benefit of being able to explain your own thinking/planning process because you didn't go through the thinking/planning that I did to make the model. Because I write with my students, I can predict and address possible pitfalls and make suggestions that other teachers could not do. I hope you'll consider making your own model of this task to show and share with your students.
Please note this as well: I spent a little more than 20 minutes on my sketch; I always want mine to set a high bar for my students' notebook entries. Not all do, but many will take their notebooks home after the twenty allotted minutes I gave them to make them even better.
The next class session, when we all have a different Sacred Writing Partner at our side, we spend 10-15 minutes composing a paragraph or two inspired by our drawings. This is writing we do after their 10 minutes of free-writing that we begin every period with. Since I try to avoid having my students write in silence for two back-to-back chunks of time, I usually sneak in a quick grammar lesson (you could do one on transitional words or phrases) or a quick poem for interpretation (here's a poem about a machine from Rudyard Kipling for older writers and here's a poem about a machine by Shel Silverstein for younger writers) to break up the period's two silent writing chunks.
Before they write, especially if they're not the strongest of writers, you might also consider having students analyze other students' samples. Here are several from the first three or four times I taught this lesson. Again, you can ask students to suggest improvements for the transitional words and phrases that were used. By looking at a finished piece of writing before they write themselves, students are often "pumped up" to out-write the samples they have seen when they do their own writing.
A third grader's initial sample:
A fourth grader's initial sample:
An eighth grader's initial sample:
| The “Robo-cricket” Maker
by Joseph, third grade writer
First of all, a small metal plate with two tabs is shaped into a tube by a metal claw; tab-side-in so the tabs touch at the end. Next, some small iron screws attach a shiny, metal dome to the tube. Now three fragile legs are attached to each side of the tube. Fourth, a rounded metal bar puts a tiny circuit board onto the tabs inside the tube. Then the circuit board is wired to two working eyes and an antenna on a metal head. Two working microphones go on the sides of the tube plus all the legs before the head is attached. To conclude, a jolt of electricity activates the completed "Robo-cricket."
| Dog Washer 3000
by Brooklyn, fourth grade writer
Washing dogs is dreadful, but now you don’t have to with the Dog Washer 3000. To begin with, a robotic arm grabs a dog that needs to be cleaned. After that, the dog is locked into a harness so that the dog won’t run away. Soon, two robotic claws mix soap and water that is poured onto the dog. Next some wipers wipe off all the mud or other things off the dog. Then some water is poured onto the clean dog. Lastly another robotic claw grabs the dog and a different claw grabs a hair drier and the dog is dried. Results: The cleanest dog in the universe!
| The Hydro Reformer
by Austin, eighth grade writer
To begin with, the Hydro Reformer is a mechanical and complex machine made to create H2O. Initially, using the nanofiber web, the Hydro Reformer catches the oxygen and hydrogen atoms like a spider web would do with flies, simultaneously separating them into groups of two in different chambers awaiting the fusion process. Later on, when enough hydrogen and oxygen atoms are processed, they are sent to a fusion vault to be compressed together to make H2O, or water. Eventually, after an abundant amount of condensation is collected, it is sent spiraling down the airtight lock tube into a drip system. Pursuing this farther, the drip system combines the molecules of water into to drops and drips down to the bottom of the container, hence the name, drip system. Accordingly, the water is sent through carbon filters, materials, and scanners like the SEM (scanning electron microscope) and TEM (transmitting electron microscope) to cleanse it. In essence, the Hydro Reformer can be used to fix the scarcity of water in many regions.
Students have ten-fifteen minutes to compose their one- or two-paragraph descriptions of their machines in action. If there is time, students can share their paragraphs in small groups, making initial comments on 1) use of transitions and 2) clarity of details. We put this writing away for a day or two or three.
A Second Mentor Text to Inspire Quality Revision:
A few years back, I developed a new trick that still is working really well for me: finding and using two mentor texts about the same topic/idea, one that is competently written and one that is superbly written. I begin by using the competently written text to launch the students' writing; then, I bring out the superbly written one right before students begin planning revision. Upon reading the superb "style" mentor text, I can ask students, "What did this author do that you haven't thought to do with your draft?" I am amazed at how much better my students' writing becomes and how much more seriously they take revision thanks to this "two mentor text strategy." True enough, it's hard to find mentor texts that are about the same topic, but it's become a continuing quest for me. As always, I have to give credit where credit is due with this idea, so I am sending appreciation to author/presenter Lester Laminick, who did a hysterical demonstration where he compared at contrasted the two books that are pictured at left and right. They are both about moving away from your home, so if you ever have students write about movement or change, these are great mentor texts.
About four years after creating this lesson inspired by Homer Price's donut machine, my wonderful wife gave me a book in my Christmas stocking. The book was The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. As I read it, I discovered a wonderful passage in the middle of the book that described a mechanical man--a machine invented by a character from the novel--turn on and start performing its designated task. I immediately recognized this passage as a perfect "second mentor text" to analyze before my students revised their machine paragraphs. Here is the passage from this wonderful book:
|“A cascade of perfect movements, with hundreds of brilliantly calibrated actions, coursed through the mechanical man. The key tightened a spring connected to a series of gears that extended down into the base of the figure. There, the last gear turned a series of brass disks with precisely cut edges. Two little hammer-like contraptions came down and trailed along the edges of the notched disks, rising and falling as the disks steadily turned (pg. 240 in my copy).”
Before my students revise their rough drafts a day or two after writing them, we look over this passage and discuss what Brian Selznick has done to make his writing stand out as a superb description of a machine. Because I make well-known my love of good action verbs in writing, my students usually figure out that verbs are one thing that impressed me when I first read the passage, so they bring that up. This allows us to examine our drafts' use of strong verbs. They also usually notice the variety of sentence structures, and how the words create a rhythm like a machine might; this is a little harder to emulate, but I have writers who upon noticing this are certainly willing to try. Finally, all notice the use of specific-yet-interesting details, and again, that gives them pause to look at how specific and interesting their own details were in their rough drafts.
So the revision task, which assumes the writer has already succeeded in mostly using a variety of transitions, asks students to shift their thinking towards other traits: word choice (strong verbs), sentence fluency (sentence rhythm), or idea development (improved details). Still, as I said at the top of this lesson, I will be assessing 80% of my students' final draft of this short piece of writing on the trait of ORGANIZATION. That means I want them to continue focusing on the skills of organization as they plan for their drafts' revision. I will say once again that my favorite tool for encouraging choice-based revision are the trait-inspired Post-it ® Note-sized templates I began creating and using during mini-lessons back in 1996. Twenty years later, I have not found a trait-based tool that does a better job than these simple little "scripts" I put in my students' hands to guide them towards thinking about the focus trait (and its academic vocabulary) I will be assessing them on. Here are a few tricks of using these little notes well with your students:
- Stress the verb "Rank" at the top of the note. When a student ranks (instead of rates), they are allowed to have just one "5," one "4," one "3," etc. Bloom's Taxonomy asks us to push students to the analysis and evaluation levels, and by ranking instead of rating, students are being pushed to those levels.
- Run these Post-it ® Note-sized templates off on colored paper and cut them out with a paper cutter. Before allowing a responder or partner to rank a writer's skills, I find it powerful to have students rank their own writing secretly on a "Post-it ® Note" that they fold up and hide from their responders. After the responder(s) complete their rankings, have the author bring out his/her rankings so they can compare & contrast. My writers have really good discussions full of academic vocabulary when they find and discuss discrepancies in the rankings.
- With a shorter writing lesson like this one, you might need to explain that "introduction" means the first sentence or two, and that "conclusion" means the last sentence or two. If you should purchase my Critical Trait-Thinking Materials from Teachers Pay Teachers, you receive editable versions of all seventeen on my Post-it ® Note-sized templates, so you can alter the wording on the Sticky Note or delete criteria that don't apply directly to the assignment at hand. If you look at my process below, you'll see how I benefited from thinking about my "introduction" and "conclusion."
- Allow students to choose which of the lower-ranking skills they want to focus on during revision; just because a skill has a "1" next to it doesn't mean a student MUST revise that one when any of the lower-ranked skills would improve the paper. Choice is a powerful thing in a writer's workshop environment.
- I have plenty of copies of all my Post-it ® Notes ready for students to use. With your struggling writers, having them rank and select skills from one Post-it ® Note is probably enough. Your stronger writers might benefit from having a second or third trait-inspired Post-it ® Note available to use and make a revision plan from. We call this "differentiation" in my classroom, and if you're looking to differentiate more, this is a very simple way to have it during revision time.
I keep the excerpt from the Hugo Cabret book visible on my SmartBoard before and after students use the Organization Post-it ® Note. I constantly remind my writers that--in addition to organizational skills--they can improve their writing by remembering other things that really great writers remember to include in their writing. The Selznick excerpt serves as a good reminder while they are working.
Finally, I share my own drafts below to show you that I share my steps of the writing process with my students along the way. If you decide to use this lesson with your own students, you will be surprised how beneficial it is to show and discuss your own sample and process because you can share insight and tell them where you had stumbling blocks and what you think you did well. Here is my process:
My Writing Process for this Assignment that I can Share with my Students!
(click images to see them in larger form)
|PREWRITE: This is the rough draft sketch I created for my automatic pigeon scaring machine. Remember to assure students that their artwork will not be graded! Mr. Stick is your friend if your students can't draw.
||ROUGH DRAFT and REVISION: This is the two-page spread in my notebook, which shows my improved sketch, my rough draft, and I taped in my typed, revised draft since I had room beneath my rough draft to do that! In my classroom, the students turn in the revised draft separately.
||PLANNING the REVISION: This shows my self-rankings using the Organization Sticky Note, and I briefly shared my revision plans, which I followed pretty well. I am going to have my students rank the revised version of mine too. Click here to open a printable version of my revised draft.
|Again, I invite you to pass off my teacher model as your own because I believe using a teacher model greatly improves your ability to teach any writing lesson; however, I ultimately hope you make the time to create your own teacher model of your own machine.
Teachers...if you use this lesson and end up with a sample worth sharing, I invite you to post it at this page at our blog: