Saturday, March 12, 2011

Descriptive Dragons

I love organic teaching. Its path grows from student interests and classroom happenings. It is free of packaged activities, isolated skill worksheets and sequenced programs. Instead, it listens to and follows rhythms of natural, connected, purposeful learning.

My class is currently reading, discussing and loving the book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. The book weaves ancient Chinese folktales into the story about a girl named Minli. Minli leaves her dry, gray home to embark on a journey to the Man of the Moon whom she hopes will change her fortune. She meets up with a dragon, who joins her on her journey with hopes that the Man of the Moon will help him learn how to fly. (sound familiar?)

My students' excitement about the delightful dragon as well as the folktales in the story led me to the library in search of Chinese folktales about dragons. I did find some great Chinese folktales but also found the book Dragons:  Fearsome Monsters from Myth and Fiction. This book not only draws the reader in with its beautiful illustrations, but happens to be a FANTASTIC model of nonfiction writing. The descriptions and legends written about each dragon are full of descriptive writing with good adjectives, similes, and varied sentence structures.

The Lessons:

1. Using a Mentor Text to Inspire Our Own Ideas

I selected some of the dragons from the book to scan and put onto this Powerpoint. I introduced the project by telling students that they would be creating their own dragons and in order to do that, we'd use this book about dragons from all over the world as our inspiration. As we went through the Powerpont, I read the background stories about each dragon and the detailed descriptions of its body parts.

2. Art and Talk as a Pre-writing Activity

Students were given large white paper on which to draw a pencil sketch of their dragon. They were asked to draw the dragon in the center of the white space, keeping space around the dragon for descriptions of body parts. Before we began,  I told them they needed to think carefully about the details of their dragons, specifically their body parts. They should be thinking about what their dragon does, what kind of personality it has and how it uses its body. Then they went over the pencil with a black Sharpie. The final step was paint. They carefully picked out their colors and I arranged their paint into a paper plate palette.Talk played an important role in this art activity, as students discussed their dragon's origins, body parts, and roles with each other.

3. Creating a Class Word Bank with Wordle

To prepare for the writing, I looked back to original dragon book as a model. I thought about the vivid adjectives that the author used to describe the dragon's body parts. I noticed that each body part was described using rich language; adjectives, similes, and varied sentence structure.  I wanted to figure out a way to help my students focus on using rich language in their writing. So, I used Wordle for a lesson in using the Thesaurus as well as a way to broaden my students' vocabulary. I generated a list of words that I thought my students might use in their dragon descriptions. This list was based on both the ideas in the books as well as what I was hearing my students share about their dragons. I selected common adjectives such as big, mean, small, soft, good, and shiny. I wrote one word on the top of a piece of lined paper so that I had enough words for each student in the class. We revisited the dragon book, noticing the wonderful adjectives. I asked them where could authors find synonyms, or words that mean almost the same thing as words like good, big, and evil. They knew the Thesaurus was good for this purpose. I explained to them that we would be creating our own word wall of wonderful words for us to use in our writing by using a tool called Wordle. I  modeled how to first look up words that mean the same thing as the word good using the print thesaurus and then how to look up words that mean the same thing using the online Thesaurus. They concluded that the online one was easier to use AND had more words. As we did this, I showed how to list the words underneath the word good. After that, I modeled how to use Wordle. I typed the synonyms of the original word and the original into Wordle and demonstrated how writing the word more than once would make it bigger. Students were then given their own words and did the same, creating these word clouds.

3. More Pre-writing with a Planning Sheet
I knew that some of my students already had a pretty complete story about their dragon in their heads, but others needed some guidance to develop their story. I looked at the elements that the author used in his descriptions and created this planning sheet for students to fill out. Before we began, I used it to "interview" a few students in the class about their dragon, knowing that listening to their classmates  would help spark more ideas. So I just went down the list asking, "What is your dragon's name? Where is it from? Where does it live? What kind of personality does it have? What is its job? Is it ancient, mythological, or media? What are its special abilities?" and so on. Students were then ready to fill it out on their own.

4. Using Our Wordle Word Bank and a List of Adjectives to Write
We looked back at the dragon descriptions once again, this time focusing on the body part descriptions. I asked students what they noticed about the author's writing. They noticed the word choice and how it made them feel. As we read through this list of adjectives together, students highlighted any words that would describe their dragon and its body parts. Then we looked at our beautiful Wordles, noticing words up on the wall that we might use. They were then ready to write about at least 3 body parts, using this organizer.

5. Word Templates to Create Professional Looking Pieces
I taught the students how to open up this Word template and save it as their own in their folders. They typed their body part descriptions onto the template, which would be printed, cut out and glued onto their dragon pictures.

6. Back to the Mentor Text
Once again we revisited the mentor text. We looked at the background information the author wrote about the dragons. I printed out three examples to give to my students. Armed with highlighters, we read each one, highlighting and discussing pieces of the writing that we liked and might apply in our own writing. This is not a new process in my classroom, but before we do this I always ask, why do we look at other people's writing? We talk about how we can get ideas and learn from other writers.

7. Getting the First Lines Down
Most of my students were ready to write, but some were having trouble with that first sentence. So I asked students to share how they were planning to begin, and I wrote those ideas up on the board. That helped inspire anyone who was stuck.

8. Putting it All Together
After publishing their dragon pieces, they each inserted a map of the dragon's origin. Some students created a comparison diagram to show the dragon's actual size. The students cut out and glued their labels to their dragon paintings. They created a fancy title and we hung the entire display up in our hallway for others to enjoy.

9. Publishing for a Wider Audience
I am in the process of taking pictures of the finished dragons. Students are going to read the accompanying story they wrote on our iPods. They will be published on a wiki. Students love to get their work published onto the Internet because, as one student put it, "It will be up there forever!"


  1. I enjoyed reading this page. We have been studying a book 'The Dragon Machine' and had created sculptures and artwork of dragons, with a view to using them help us improve our descriptive writing. Since then, we have begun writing, using body part headings, which helped the children to paragraph and focus on one part at a time, rather than dotting around the body, as it were! Thanks for all these great ideas!