Teaching students the difference between descriptive, expository, and narrative compositions is difficult because of the gap between each instructional period. Initially, I teach separately each of the three writing forms, with appropriate writing assignments. After I feel confident that my students can handle each form, I use a single classroom period to cinch the understanding of how they relate to each other with a final “mastery” activity: the “Vanilla Wafer Caper.” It’s fun, easy, and successful.
You will need one to two boxes of vanilla wafers (a box contains about 100). Actually, crackers of any kind (I stole this from a demonstration using Ritz) will work, but the “cookieness” of vanilla wafers appealed to me. Warn your students in advance not to eat them as you hand them out. I even go so far as to imply that they are specially treated and dangerous to eat.
My opening consists of a quick review of the three types of writing already studied. Then I set them to the first task. They must carefully observe their cookie and list at least ten features. I suggest a topic sentence such as “My vanilla wafer is like no other” and then have them use their list to write a paragraph describing it. This should take about ten minutes. They understand that it is a rough draft, but one that must be readable.
They then put their cookies together on a desk. I found it was quicker and just as effective to let them work in groups of five rather than as a whole class. They exchange paragraphs, and the other person must find the match. Initially, they do not believe this is possible, but within five minutes each cookie has returned to its owner thanks to a descriptive paragraph.
By now, students have begun to take a real interest in the personalities of their wafer. The next activity encourages that. They are to write a narrative paragraph using the wafer as the main character in a short tale. Again this should take about ten minutes.
The final activity of the day is to write a one paragraph exposition on all the ways one could use a vanilla wafer except to eat it. The student’s creativity will amaze you and themselves.
Closure is generally rather raucous, but I take the final minutes to point out that one subject has been handled in three different forms. A check for understanding is quick and easy. They place their narratives on one comer of their desk, exposition on another, and descriptive under their wafer. A glance as I walk down the row proves that they know the difference.
Now with no desire to eat them, most want to take home their wafer friends. I go home hoping that each time they see one they will remember the day’s lesson.