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Leaving Home

I posted Taylor Mali’s poem, Undivided Attention, the other day and found my way to his website. He taught for several years in the New York City school system and he has lesson plans on the site. I tried one with the students that examines the difference between the literal and figurative on Thursday.

Mali posed provocative questions and students wrote short paragraphs. Examples of these questions are “What happens to the dreams you don’t remember?”; “Which letter of the alphabet is the most intelligent”; and “Do leaves look forward to falling in autumn? Or do they hand on for dear life?” Students struggled as one of the instructions was to not explicitly name the thing in the question. They were to artfully describe their letter, the leaves, or what happens to dreams and present them in figuratively and not literally. There was a lot of conversation and some writing.

I took matters into my hands and wrote a short paragraph. I wrote on the fly so the language is a bit passive and words i.e. visage were not the right ones. Visage is French for face so would not have glanced around. When I model, I find the students make more progress.

“He frantically clung to life fighting a losing battle against nature and her forces. At wit’s end, he valiantly, vainly hung on not submitting to a cyclical reality. He sensed loneliness and not solitude. Assisted by gentle breezes his discoloured visage glanced furtively around. He was in this alone. His colleagues humbly had moved on ahead of him finding their way to become humus and rebirth in the next spring. What to do now? He realized this was not the end he had planned for and took his leave that autumn day. His job done and he wafted towards his destiny.”

Today, I crafted this into a poem. The language is a little more active and I hid the topic. The answer is in the tags.

Frantically he clings to life,

He wages a futile battle versus Nature,

Against all her marshaled forces.

Valiantly, he struggles,

Unwilling to let go,

He wages this vain battle.

He senses loneliness;

His, a solitary stance–

Sans ally.

Today, a gentle breeze rustles only him;

His discoloured visage turns–

And, he glances furtively about.

Colleagues, long departed

Humbly headed home

They add a new, rich layer.

Silent humus and rebirth whispers,

Come, ready Mother Earth

Help prepare Her new garden.

Not the end he desired,

But, this past season’s calling is complete,

Wisdom speaks and he lets go.

Downward, he gently falls

And, his job is complete

Gracefully, he alights.


Chair Building

I use this lesson plan as an activity in the Grade 7 Science Structure and Forces unit. The students work in pairs.

  • Students draw a plan for the chair design.
  • Concepts to Include might include corrugation, lamination, and triangulation; design considerations such as arches, beams, trusses, and columns; and show an understanding of what fastening techniques for this design i.e. friction fit, mass, and glue, staples, rope, tape (within reason), or nails or screws (within reason).
  •  Consider properties i.e. stability, brittleness, ductility, hardness, plasticity, compression, and tensile strength.  Students need to consider deformation, structural stress, structural fatigue, and possible structural failure. What are internal forces (mass of materials) and external forces (load on the chair).
  • What role do aesthetics play i.e. symmetry and appearance? What is the chair used for?
  • Students use recycled material i.e. cans, plastic containers, and cardboard (boxes, tubing, and pieces).
  • Students construct and track changes. The original chair design might be altered depending on material availability, functionality, and durability.  They should test the chair as they build.
  • I limit class time to 2-3 classes. Most materials are found at home and students can receive help from family, friends, or neighbours.
  • I email parents and tell them they are consultants, who can offer expertise, guidance, and time unavailable in the classroom. Parents are good about insuring students do the lion’s share.

Students are innovative. One student included pop bottle (he told me it was for pop) holders in the arms of a deck chair. Another student gathered discarded pizza boxes after hot lunch and used those.

Assessment is a rubric. A criterion is I test the chair. Its ability to hold my 250 pounds, give or take, is part of the challenge. Only one chair collapsed under my mass. It lacked support.

This is a Grade 7 project, but I think other can modify it for other grade level needs. Students can work in pairs.

Cautionary note: I allow nails, screws, and tape as fasteners, but within reason. The first time I did this activity a student built a nail chair. He used so many nails it is doubtful they were recycled.

Here are some examples of this year’s chairs.

This chair is made from used pressure treated lumber and plywood. The back folds forward and the student used baling twine he got from the farm as the hinges.

This chair is constructed from willow. The willow qualified as recyclable as the students were going to have to dispose of the willows when they cleared underbrush anyway. The only thing missing is a cushion. These students could go into business selling yard furniture.

Although this stool did not have triangles for stability, the centre piece helped in that respect. When I sat on the stool, it was wobbly, but with my mass it became less so. The students used baling twine as the only fasteners. One of them has horses and these were available.

This chair is built from recycled wood and a discarded cushion. The students gathered the wood from the neighbourhood and a neighbour helped. He drilled tap holes for the screws.

Junior High Creative Writing Activity: A Fractured Fairy Tale

Children hear and read fairy tales at a young age. When they reach late elementary and junior high school age, they can explore and discover inconsistencies in fairy tales i.e. Goldilocks breaks into the Bears’ house and vandalizes it. Here is a creative writing activity in the form of a parody.

This is the most popular creative writing activity in our junior high class. This plan has worked well for me as a junior high teacher, but I think could be used with upper elementary students. I think it can be modified and meet the needs of younger and older students.

We use Jon Sczieska’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf as a model of a parody.

The unit plan includes:


Reading the story to the class and brainstorm differences between the original and this version? Most students are familiar with the original story of The Three Little Pigs, but have it on hand if someone is unfamiliar with the story.

What fairy tales are students familiar with? Brainstorm and create a list. What parodies of fairy tales are they familiar with? Have they seen Shrek? What makes Shrek different from other fairy tales? Students may recognize Shrek as a parody of the genre and has features and structure of a fairy tale while it spoofs the genre in various ways.

What twists can be used to rewrite a fairy tale i.e roles of antagonist and protagonists or plot events? Some examples students have shared include what if the third little pig refused his siblings refuge to teach them a lesson where would they stay?  Could the pigs organize a pig posse to run the wolf out-of-town?  Would they have become ‘ham jam’?  What about the story from the wolf’s perspective?  What if the wolf were a vegan?

What other fairy tales are students familiar with?  Brainstorm and make a list. This helps students choose a fairy tale to rewrite. Choose a familiar fairy tale and brainstorm ways to ‘fracture.’ We have used Cinderella. The list can offer starters for students and could also be used in the parody of another fairy tales. What if…

  • Cinderella has beautiful step sisters?
  • The prince cannot dance?
  • Cinderella is a homebody who likes to cook, sew, and clean and is not interested in attending the ball?
  • The magic wand is defective and does not get the spell right?
  • Cinderella does not want to get married?
  • Cinderella wants a car and not a carriage?
  • Etc…

Brainstorm elements fairy tales share and create a graphic organizer to hand out. Some features have included:

  • Once upon a time…
  • Good vs. evil
  • Beautiful heroine and handsome prince
  • Magic/supernatural
  • Personification
  • …live happily ever after
  • Etc…

Students can ‘fracture’ a fairy tale and change stories in unexpected, clever, and humourous ways by altering characters, modifying language, using a modern context, etc. The fairy tales still remain true to their original forms despite changes.

Here are sites to find fairy tales or refresh memories about the fairy tales students choose: Story Nory, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Ivy Joy. Some sites include other genres i.e. fables. Stick to fairy tales as they are well-suited for this project.

Students include an outline or web and a rough draft. Peers or teachers can proofread the story so students can edit.

Final Product

A picture book format is popular. The authors of the picture book can read to their stories to younger students.

Words of caution

  • This is not a yearlong project
  • Students  need to choose something of a manageable length.
  •  Usually the audience is younger. Students should use appropriate language and images, keep the book short i.e 20 pages, and use large font.


I use this activity to assess creative writing, sharing orally, and finding appropriate images for the story and the audience. As well, there are brainstorming, proofreading, and editing.


What engaging writing activities do other teachers use in their classrooms? What changes can be used for older and younger students? What other assessment purposes can you think of for this type of activity?

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