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The Cupcake Metaphor

Yard1Most of the consulting I do deals with conferring and small group work in the writing workshop.  From time to time, I get lucky enough to talk about my greatest passion – mentor texts. A couple weeks ago, I worked with a group of New York teachers on conferring toolkits. We spent time talking about the items that could go in a narrative toolkit. One of the most important things that goes in a toolkit are mentor texts.  We studied Yard Sale by Eve Bunting and Lauren Castillo together. (BTW: If you don’t know Yard Sale, it’s a new picture book worthy of nearly everyone’s narrative conferring toolkit. It’s also one of the 20 books for which I wrote craft lessons that will appear Craft Moves: How to Use Mentor Texts in Writing Workshop, my forthcoming book from Stenhouse.)

 

First, I read Yard Sale aloud to the group for pleasure. I read it a second time, asking the teachers to listen to it with an ear for what they could teach young writers (i.e., they were reading it like writers). As I listened in to teachers’ small group conversations after the second reading, I heard them talking about things like the use of dialogue, lead/ending, turning point, and internal thinking. I didn’t hear any kind of talk about figurative language, which is often the first thing many teachers will say they noticed in a text (and would want to teach students to do in their own writing). This delighted me so I addressed it with the group.

 

There’s nothing wrong with metaphors, personification, or hyperbole. In fact, all kinds of figurative language can make writing stronger. However, it’s not the go-to thing I teach kids in a writing conference. I’m more concerned with the things Carl Anderson asserts are the qualities of good writing in Assessing Writers. He states:

Lifelong writers write well when they

  • Communicate meaning
  • Use genre knowledge
  • Structure their writing
  • Write with detail
  • Give their writing voice
  • Use conventions

(2005, 58)

 

When I confer with a young writer, I’m concerned with a child’s writing being focused and including a variety of details, not whether or not they included similes in their writing. Therefore, when I mine a picture book for craft moves I can teach kids, it’s rare I will think about figurative language since that’s not the most pressing thing the majority of young writers need to work on right now to make them better writers.  After all, we teach the writer, not the writing.”  Figurative language can make a piece of writing sound better, but teaching kids how insert some figurative language into a given piece of writing won’t necessarily make them better writers. After I got through with my diatribe about figurative language, a teacher (whose name I wish I knew since I’d love to give her credit lighting the spark for this blog post) raised her hand and said, “Figurative language is kind of like the icing on the cake.”  Being a cupcake aficionado, I heard the word frosting and ran with what she said. I likened figurative language to being like the decorations on top of a cupcake. They’re great to have, but a cupcake is complete if it has a moist cake and sweet icing. It doesn’t need to have decorations on top of it if it’s baked carefully with all of the necessary ingredients.

 

A few days later, I was in New York City talking about the cupcake metaphor in Shana Frazin’s advanced session, “Using the Best New Children’s Literature as Mentor Texts: Support Sky High Writing” at the TCRWP Writing Institute. That evening, I wanted to find a way to illustrate the cupcake metaphor so I took the subway to Molly’s Cupcakes in Greenwich Village, which is one of the few places with good gluten-free cupcakes in Manhattan. (That’s right, as of January, I became gluten-free. Now I have to think of myself as a gluten-free cupcake connoisseur.) I ordered a flourless molten chocolate cupcake, which contains flourless chocolate cake, dulce de leche ganache filling, French vanilla buttercream, and chocolate drizzle.  When you look at it sitting on a plate, it looks like cupcake perfection.

One bite and, even though it’s gluten-free, you can tell its ingredients are well-balanced… just like good writing ought to be.
One bite and, even though it’s gluten-free, you can tell its ingredients are well-balanced… just like good writing ought to be.

Molly’s has a sprinkles station, which allows customers to decorate their cupcake with finishing touches. I didn’t need sprinkles on my cupcake, but I knew it would help illustrate my point about figurative language in writing so I walked over to the station and sprinkled some onto my cupcake.

The sprinkles on this cupcake represent figurative language. It’s nice for a piece of student writing to contain a variety of figurative language, but it’s not necessary. And if one adds too many sprinkles (or figurative language), then the icing becomes overpowered with the crunch.
The sprinkles on this cupcake represent figurative language. It’s nice for a piece of student writing to contain a variety of figurative language, but it’s not necessary. And if one adds too many sprinkles (or figurative language), then the icing becomes overpowered with the crunch.

I sat down at the counter and bit into my cupcake – sprinkles and all.  A few bites in I realized I didn’t need as many sprinkles as I added.  Less would’ve been more so I grabbed a fork and scraped some of them off.

There’s nothing wrong with a sprinkled cupcake, but the decorations weren't a necessity for me. Perhaps a few less sprinkles would've been enough. (And that connects with the idea maybe just one or two instances of figurative language is enough in a young writer's piece.)
There’s nothing wrong with a sprinkled cupcake, but the decorations weren’t a necessity for me. Perhaps fewer sprinkles would’ve been enough. (And that connects with the idea maybe just one or two instances of figurative language is enough in a young writer’s piece.)

There are lots of things I want to see when I read student writing.  I want kids to communicate meaning in any piece they craft. I want kids to show evidence of knowing the genre in which they’re writing. I want kids to use a structure that helps the reader navigate the text. I want kids to use a variety of details, specific to the genre in which they’re writing.  I want kids to carefully select words to make their writing come alive. And, obviously, I want kids to write with proper grammar, mechanics, and spelling.  These are the most important things I think we need to teach kids to do in order to be good writers. In my opinion, figurative language instruction can wait until kids have a grade-level command for structure, development, and language conventions.

 

How about you? What kinds of craft moves do you like to teach young writers from picture books you hold up as mentor texts? Please share by leaving a comment.

Stacey Shubitz View All

Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.

18 thoughts on “The Cupcake Metaphor Leave a comment

  1. Firstly, from a coeliac point of view I NEED that cupcake, and from a teaching perspective it is perfect timing as I have been teaching personification this week! I can see a gorgeous cupcake anchor chart being created in my classroom this morning. Such a great post with wonderful ideas Stacey. I can’t wait for your book. 🙂

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  2. Stacey,
    Your post has me thinking about how we step into our workshop, delicately introducing paper, digital tools, pens, markers, space for writing and how we celebrate even the smallest moments as we support our writers. I want my writers to feel comfortable to take risk and spill their stories all over the paper!
    Hmmm…. so many thoughts after reading this one!

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  3. Stacey, This cupcake metaphor is great. Such a great way to talk about figurative language in writing. Thanks for writing about this I am sure it will be helpful to many teachers and students in developing writing.

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  4. Best of all…I think your students will love your metaphor about putting “too many sprinkles” on their cupcake (writing). I even think you should make a poster about the whole idea. A fun and very useful piece.

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  5. Reading this post makes me realize that I have shied away from using mentor texts in narrative work in favor of using student exemplars from past years. I wanted to give them mentors that were real kids like them. But I am rethinking this, as I can see the value in both. And… I want to find some picture books that have craft moves we can study and try out. I am getting Yard Sale! Love Eve Bunting! Is there a place you or Shana wrote about these new titles? Or a Twitter chat I could look up? Thank you Stacey- this is good food for thought.

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  6. Great metaphor! I like to use “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” by Kevin Henkes to teach story structure. This book has two great examples of a problem/solution type of narrative. Lilly loves her purse and wants to share it so much she can’t keep quiet. She solves this by putting it away where she can’t see it (with her teacher’s help!) Secondly, she is very rude to her teacher and even writes him a mean note. She solves that by apologizing. Our small moment writing doesn’t follow this structure (they are recounts of events), and I find this book helps to clearly illustrate another way of telling story.

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