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Exploding the Moment with "Part Charts"

Nudge Young Authors toward Verbs that Describe with this Writing Workshop Scaffold

One of the biggest writing workshop roadblocks is sheer overwhelm. The sense that the task ahead is never-ending, especially for learners who get stuck on big picture stuff like character and conflict. Often, these students uncover the path forward when you point them in the opposite direction, and “Part Charts” are my go-to tool for getting granular.

If your students are writing drafts in Google docs, use the Tables feature to insert a chart where learners can get descriptive about tiny details in a scene’s setting or a character’s physical appearance.

Let’s take a look at an example opening draft typical of upper elementary writers and look how part charts help refine its revisions.

Once there was a boy. His favorite color was blue. He really liked playing Roblox and Minecraft.

Look familiar? When students bring me something like this, yelling, “Done!” or “Now what do I do?” I give them a “Part Chart.” Here is an editable, ready-made one, along with links to word banks and a slideshow introducing the part chart revision strategy.

Or, you can show students how to make their own, like this:

You'll end up with a table to the document, like this:

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Grab the middle line and move it a little to the left (or just leave it), and ask students to pick a specific person or thing from their draft and list its “parts.”

Encourage them to zoom in as much as possible. Not a whole house or room, but just a corner. Not a whole store, but just an aisle , etc.

Encourage them to Google diagrams of their object to learn the names of all its elements. This step is especially helpful for second language learners who probably know a word like “piano,” but not words like “flats",” “sharps,” “keys,” or “pedals.”

A labeled part chart might look something like this:

They might fill in their part charts with sentences like these:

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At this point many kids will yell, “Done!” And you will say, “Great! You finished that step. Now the next steps is to describe with action verbs.”

And they will act like they don’t know what you’re talking about even though you talk about action verbs all the time. But, whatever, remind them that “is” (or are/was/ were or have/has/had) is not an action verb. Here’s a Kahoot to help teach/review the difference between action verbs that show and be/have verbs that tell.

I’ve found that some key tweaks in teacher talk around revision can generate big improvements in writing quality. Instead of asking students to describe what a thing looks like, I ask them to describe what the part does, or, what the things around it do.

They might say the parts are just there. They aren’t doing anything. But remind them that everything is doing something. Like that mini-fridge against the wall doesn’t seem like it’s doing anything. But it actually is! Right this second it is filling your ears with its hum. Filling is a verb! And nothing fancy. Most kids know the word “filling.”

Here are some word banks that might help remind students of all the action verbs they already know.

Sometimes young writers will say there is nothing around their parts doing anything. But everything is surrounded by air or light or darkness. I remind students to add part chart boxes for weather and light. Descriptions of elements like these often help reveal the sort of tone the piece “wants” to have.

Sometimes, adding part charts inside of other part charts will help scaffold kids toward descriptions that pop.

After a bit of nudging, students might end up with some final draft-worthy sentences like these:

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This student’s part chart did more than sharpen his descriptions, it taught him something about his character. The pointy pencil hints that this kid might feel like he’s always in trouble. The messy desk and fishbowl reveal something about the character’s habits. Now, this writer is equipped with the sort of concrete details that give a character dimension and motive, and on his way to tackling some of the big-picture stuff that initially overwhelmed him.

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