Author: dianeandlynne

Using Idioms to Add Interest to a Piece of Writing

Idioms are fun to study and a good way to introduce student writers to the use of figurative language. In addition, studying idioms is a help to English language learners as well as developing readers who may find idioms confusing and difficult.  We suggest keeping the list of idioms small to begin with; introducing them in the context of reading works best.

HOOK: Choose one of the many picture books that highlight idioms (a short list follows this lesson), a poem (such as Shel Silverstein’s “Losing Pieces”), or an excerpt from one of the Amelia Bedelia books. Fred Gwynne’s A Chocolate Moose for Dinner is a classic.

PURPOSE: Today, writers, we are going to talk about idioms. Idioms are a kind of figurative language, like similes, that can add interest to our writing. Sometimes, idioms can be confusing because they don’t seem to make sense. For example, if I say, “It was raining cats and dogs,” I don’t really mean cats and dogs were falling from the sky. If you are quiet and I ask, “Does the cat have your tongue?” do I really think a cat is holding onto your tongue? Most people use idioms from time to time when they speak. Today we are going to see if we can use idioms in our writing as well.

BRAINSTORM: Begin an anchor chart or idiom wall by writing the examples above on the chart:

It was raining cats and dogs.

Does the cat have your tongue?

Ask students to brainstorm in their notebooks as many idioms that they can think of. After a few minutes, ask them to share their list with a partner. If you have read one of the collection of idioms books, like Gwynne’s referred to in the hook, they will probably remember some of those. Other students may think of others besides those they heard in the reading. You might challenge them to think of idioms that involve animals such as:

Let the cat out of the bag

In the doghouse

Barking up the wrong tree

Sick as a dog

Dog tired

When pigs fly

Ask the class to decide on a definition of “idiom.”  You may also want to ask the student writers to guess at how the idioms may have originated.

MODEL: Since the purpose of the lesson is to add interest to writing by adding figurative language (in this case idioms), demonstrate the difference between “literal” meaning and “figurative” meaning. Drawing the literal meaning of the idiom (as Gwynne does in his books) is a concrete experience. If you are not an artist, try using photographs or illustrations as examples. Under the drawing, write the figurative meaning of the idiom.

“Raining cats and dogs”  — drawing shows dogs and cats falling from the sky.

Figurative meaning: It was raining really hard.

“In the doghouse” – drawing shows a kid with his head sticking out of a doghouse.

Figurative meaning: In the doghouse means you are in trouble.


GUIDED WRITING:  Ask students to work in pairs to select two idioms (from the anchor chart and/or from the book used as the hook) and to illustrate the literal meaning with a picture. Then, ask them to label the picture with the figurative meaning. Provide resources like Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms, or an online dictionary such as Some students might want to research the origin of the idiom as well. Encourage them to do so. Share their drawings and figurative meaning, clearing up any misconceptions.

INDEPENDENT WRITING: Direct student writers to consult with their writer’s notebook entries and find a spot where they can add an idiom. If they don’t have an entry that works, ask them to try it out by starting a new piece. You might write in front of them to get them started:

As soon as I woke up, I knew it was going to be a bad day. It was pouring down rain, and I had left my umbrella in my school locker along with my homework assignments. I thought about asking my mom if I could stay home, but I knew she would tell me I had to go to school and face the music.

REFLECTION: After students have tried out using idioms in their writing, ask them to reflect on one of the following questions:

What do you now know about idioms?

When do you think you might use idioms in your writing again?

Did using an idiom change your writing for the better or not? Explain why you think so.

Sometimes an idiom will make the piece sound trite. Student writers should recognize that idiom use can be overdone.

Books about idioms:

More Parts and Even More Parts by Todd Arnold

A Chocolate Moose for Dinner and The King Who Rained by Fred Gwynne

Raining Cats and Dogs by Will Moses

My Teacher Likes to Say and My Grandma Likes to Say by Denise Brennan Nelson

Bad Boys by Margie Palatini

Amelia Bedelia (series) by Peggy Parish




You get what you pay for!

Last week Lynne and I presented a staff development in Daytona Beach, FL. Since we were there for only one night, we used proximity to the site of our presentation to choose our hotel. Price entered into the equation as well. The rate was $89 + tax.  Woohoo!

When we arrived at the hotel, a very pleasant young man at the desk informed us that our room was not ready. “But, if you don’t mind, we can put you in another room instead.” Of course, that was fine with us. We rolled our suitcases to the room, unpacked, and settled in.

“Isn’t it cold in here?”

“I’ll turn up the temperature. Huh! It’s already set at 75!”

“It feels way colder than 75.”

“I’ll turn it up a notch anyway.”

We opened up the computer and began to look over our PowerPoint.

I felt chilled and my sinuses began to fill up. Looking for tissues, I noticed the container on the bathroom shelf was empty. “I’ll call the desk for tissues.” The phone, however, did not work. We discovered that the cord was missing! The receiver fit into the cradle without benefit of any connection whatsoever. “I guess I’ll go down to the desk.”

“Our room needs tissues, and our phone doesn’t work.”
“Oh, were you trying to call another room? We don’t have that feature any more.”
“No, you don’t understand. I’m not trying to call another room. The phone lacks a cord. It’s not connected to anything.”
“Oh. Sorry. I’ll send someone to fix it.”
I left, completely forgetting about the tissues.

Lynne and I continued to review the PowerPoint, and I continued to feel stuffed up until it was time for dinner. We hopped into the car and drove to a nearby restaurant. When we returned to the room, we noticed it was still quite chilly. I turned the thermostat up another notch, and went in to take a shower. In the meantime, Lynne tried to turn on the TV. When I emerged from the bathroom, Lynne asked me if to  figure out how to turn on the TV. “Seriously? How hard can it be?”

We tried every button on the remote and several more on the side of the TV itself. Nothing except “No signal” was in view. To make matters worse, my nose became so clogged I could hardly breathe.

Back down to the desk we went. This time, a pleasant, young woman was in charge.

“Our TV doesn’t work and we still need tissues.”

“I’ll come down and check on the TV for you and I’ll bring you tissues.”

Several minutes later, the nice, young woman arrived at our door. “Hmm. Looks like there’s a loose cable or something. I can call the maintenance man, or we can change your room.”

We decided to change rooms.

Our new room had a phone and tissues and was not a refrigerator. My sinuses felt better almost immediately.

“Quality Inn” huh? That old adage is certainly true: “You get what you pay

I Can’t fix this

I have always been a “fixer.” When I was in college, friends would come to me for advice, for ways to “fix” their relationships, for words of wisdom. One of them even told me to give up on being a teacher; I was much better suited to a career as a psychologist. Thankfully, I didn’t take her up on it. It’s true that I try to fix everything, but that stems from the fact that I abhor conflict. I like things to be “nice.” I like smooth sailing and gentle breezes. For me the most difficult time of being a parent was when my children were teens. Conflict then is inevitable, but I tried to fix that. I tried talk. I tried understanding. I tried rationalizing. Letting go, letting them find out for themselves—that took time and multiple failures before we all emerged on the other side, still family, still friends, still loved and loving.

The current crisis in our little family threatens to thrust me into the role of “fixer” once again. “Mom, you can’t fix this,” my wise daughter tells me. And I know she is right. Mental illness is an illness without fault. It’s an illness without blame. It is an illness that a Mom Mom is powerless against. I’m like a female Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. All solutions are either temporary or elusive. We need to educate ourselves about the realities of the disease and its treatment. In the meanwhile, all we can do is offer love and support for the patient, the spouse, and the children.

As a young woman, I thought, like Scarlett O’Hara, that anything could be repaired with the right amount of effort.  I still have hope that this sentiment is true.  Our lives have changed, but all lives change over time. Like Scarlett I will straighten my back, raise my chin, and soldier on. I will let things happen without trying to make things happen. And that is the greatest challenge of them all.

Friends matter

Friends Matter

Last week we were plunged into a family crisis, which I will not go into here. It will be an ongoing problem and it struck us with the force of the proverbial ton of bricks. My husband, the rock that we all depend on to keep us tethered, has once again assumed that role. I, on the other hand, have teetered between constant sorrow and outright panic. How he puts up with me is beyond my understanding.

Friends have provided support in so many ways the most important of which, to me anyway, is giving their time to listen. When I say, “I can’t talk about it,” they stay quiet and wait. When I express my fears, they listen. If I cry, they offer their shoulders.

I have been lucky in life to have made good friends; even those I don’t see regularly can be counted on for support. We all need family and friends. Recently I read a newspaper account of a man who lived alone in rural Maine, surviving by pilfering food and supplies from homes in the area. He managed this existence for over 20 years. Can you imagine what that must have been like? Mental illness is likely a factor, of course; however, the thought of having no one to talk to for over 20 years—that just boggles my mind.

Some religious orders practice monastic silence, spending their time in prayer and work. But they are a community, and what they do daily, though conscripted, is dependable and serves a purpose. I’ve read that solitary confinement among prisoners, on the other hand, induces anxiety and can lead to severe mental incapacity, from hallucinations to the inability to think clearly.  The difference between voluntary silence and forced aloneness is the difference between lucidity and confusion.

We need people; we need friends; we need each other.

Grow where you’re planted

I’ve always loved the month of May. Not only is it my birthday month, May is also the time for digging in the dirt, planting window boxes, and hanging baskets. May is green grass and leafy trees and lily of the valley and impatiens and pansies and begonias.

When I was a young mother, my husband and I purchased our first home. My birthday gift one year was a pink dogwood tree, and we planted it in our otherwise barren front yard. We were not gardeners my husband and I, but we did the best we could, following the advice of the nursery. After several weeks, the poor tree looked bedraggled. Something was wrong, but we had no idea what to do. A neighbor stopped by to see if he could help. An avid gardener, he saw the problem immediately. We had over watered, and the solution, he said, was to dig up the little tree and dry it out. We propped it up against the garage, and watched and waited. After about a week, our neighbor proclaimed that it was time to replant. He improved the soil by adding fertilizer, cleared away debris, and declared that the dogwood would thrive. He was right. Forty-four years later that tree is still blooming. My son, who was a baby when we moved into that house, drove by the old homestead last weekend and texted me a photo of the front yard with the tree in full flower.

I wonder how often I have “over watered” –given too much guidance, too much direction, too much counsel.  How much better that dogwood tree fared after a bit of benign neglect, after having time to dry out and start over again. We owe our children the opportunity to grow where they are planted, to bloom in the sun that they find for themselves, to experience the joy of independence.

Your Turn Lesson -Transition

Your Turn:  Using Transitions

Transition words and phrases help readers to navigate their way through a piece of writing. Teaching young writers how and when to use transitions is time well spent. Younger writers can start with transition words that show time changes and proceed to more sophisticated transitions as they grow as writers.

Hook: Revisit the mentor text Trouper by Meg Kearney

Note the use of transition words for change of time. The introductory sentence uses “before” several times, repeating the word to show Trouper’s life in the time before he was adopted. Point out also the use of “while,” “next,” “then,” “last,” “until,” “now.” (Other transition words can be discussed with older students as well, such as “because,” “although” and so on. Be judicious about not trying to cover too much in one lesson.  We suggest sticking with time transitions to start.)

Purpose: Writers: Today I want to show you how you can use transition words to help your reader to discover why something is important at that place in time.  You can change the meaning of your sentences depending on the transition words that you use.

Model time transitions:

Show two sentences on sentence strips or project on the white board:

Dad and I played catch.

Mom made our lunch.

Demonstrate how using transitions works with the words: Meanwhile, After, Before, and While.

Dad and I played catch meanwhile Mom made our lunch.

After Dad and I played catch, Mom made our lunch.

Before Dad and I played catch, Mom made our lunch.

Dad and I played catch after Mom made our lunch.

While Dad and I played catch, Mom made our lunch.

Discuss how the different words change the meaning of the sentences by changing the sequence (order) of events.

Guided Practice:

Prepare three sentence strips:

Marty saw the tabby cat.

He recognized it.

He picked it up.

With the students’ input use three transition words: First, Then, After that to connect the three sentences. Then try other transition words, After, as soon as, immediately to connect the sentences. Ask students to turn and talk about how the meaning changes depending on the transitions they choose to use. After sharing their thoughts, ask students to work in pairs to connect other sentences, such as the following:

The tabby cat shivered.

It was afraid.

Liam spoke in a gentle voice.

They can experiment with connecting the three sentences with other transition words:

Because obviously, even though, although, without warning, because, then, for example.

Independent Practice

Give student writers a handout of useful transition words. (Although, Because, Before, After, At the same time, Even though, Finally, First, Meanwhile, Next, Then…)

Ask them to go back to their drafts and highlight transitional words they have used.  Writers can choose a paragraph in their drafts or in their writer’s notebook to revise by adding transitional words.  Give students the opportunity to share their revisions in small or whole group.

Reflection:  Ask the class to respond to one of the following questions.

What do you now know about using transitions?

When will you use transitions in your writing?

Why is it important to use transitions?


Why (not)?

“Poetry is an art form; poetry is a craft.” Bill Knott

I am savoring the new book  I Am Falling Into Myself a collection of selected poems by Bill Knott. It has been edited by his friend and colleague Thomas Lux, who wrote the admiring and inspirational introduction to the volume. By all accounts Knott was a complex, sometimes depressed, often combative personality who happened, also, to write poetry that I read with awe.

He writes sonnets, one line poems, one two-word poem—three if you count the title, lyrics, free verse and rhymes.  His poems are filled with surprises. He often uses nouns as verbs and can make more happen with fewer words than any poet I’ve read in my 70 years of reading.

Lux tells the story of a chance meeting with Knott on a subway in New York in the late 1970s, where Knott showed him a notebook filled, “over and over, with different variations on two lines that showed up in his great poem ‘The Closet.’” That’s craft; that’s art; that’s workmanship.

When I read poets like Knott, I despair of ever attempting another poem. How can one presume to stand beside such talent? Yet, we writers persist. We have something eating at us, and that something just has to come out. When we encourage ourselves to persist, we make a conscious decision to be brave, to take a risk, to share our stories. I think that all teachers of writing must be writers who share their writing stories as well as their written stories.



say it’s love

that made me do it

say it’s fear

that makes me pause

before I accept

say it’s ignorance

that supplies

my hollow words

say it’s life

that in a moment

climbs the hills

and sees another valley