Teacher Notes on Instruction-Writing Exercises

Exercise 14: How to draw a spiral

Context for this case:

  • Illustrations for students to work from.
  • Bottle cap, thread, pencil for each group of student writers.

Cognitive Apprenticeship Features:
  • Provides practice in iteratively drafting instructions.
  • Facilitates your coaching as groups edit.

Supporting References:
Relevant CA Content Standards  
To help students write instructions from scratch, using what they have learned from the previous exercises.
This is the first exercise of my instruction-writing set in which students have
  • no draft instructions to revise or repair, and
  • no printed scaffolding to suggest where to start.

The "student version" here consists only of three figures, for which students must create and (self-)edit all the instruction steps themselves. Very like Exercise 8, however, these illustrations are well designed to depict a sequence of actions, so the figures alone provide a kind of graphical scaffolding to guide students as they write. Any of the previous worked examples (Exercises 1 or 3), or any others that the students have successfully revised and improved, could serve them now as models for completing Exercise 14. And of course the guidelines (Exercise 0) should by now be a familiar checklist for planning and then editing their own work.

I teach this exercise by pointing out that this project is like explaining a new manufacturing process or scientific instrument to colleagues at work: the writer tries it out, thinks about how to make clear the steps and their relationship for readers who have not yet tried it, and then uses guideline techniques to draft overt instructions and tune them for effectiveness. I divide the class into groups of 3 or 4 students and provide each group with a "test kit" consisting of:

  • a plastic bottle cap (from a water or fruit-juice bottle) with a slit cut in the edge,
  • about 1 foot of heavy thread or light string,
  • a sharpened pencil, and
  • a large sheet of paper on which to practice drawing spirals with the assembled kit.
With just a little coaching, the students can easily construct the spiral-drawing device from the parts provided (following hints in the three figures) and take turns using it. Then, individually or as a group collaboration, they draft instructions to go with the figures.

Since there is no single right answer for this exercise (although many wrong ones, of course), one effective way to publicly consider and compare candidate answers (and edit them on the fly) is to use a flip chart or white board and large (4-by-6-inch) Post-it notes. You can (or have students) post one separate draft step on each note, then easily edit, replace, reorder, or restore the steps to refine the proposed instructions with class feedback. To offer students a structured, scaffolded way to start their instruction drafting, see the "text matrix" approach explained in Exercise 15. (This exercise has been generously adapted for this project by artist Brett S. Clark from an idea on p. 69 of Bill Gray's influential Studio Tips, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1976.)

Student version:
(14) How to draw a spiral.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Annotated version:
There is no single correct answer for this exercise. Here is one plausible set of instruction steps that you can compare with student results. (Note that in the "test kit" I always precut the slit in the bottle cap purely to avoid knife accidents in class.)
(14) How to draw a spiral.

1. Cut a short vertical slit in the edge of the
   plastic bottle cap (Fig. 1, left).

2. Tie a knot in one end of the thread to make a
   loop, following the pattern shown in
   Fig. 1, right.

3. Insert the sharpened end of the pencil into
   the loop of thread (Fig. 1, right).

4. Insert the other end of the thread into the
   slit in the bottle cap (by pulling it
   through the cut in the rim, Fig. 1, left).

5. Place the bottle cap (with thread and
   pencil attached) on the sheet of paper
   where you want the center of the spiral
   (Fig. 2).

6. Wind the thread around the rim of the bottle
   cap, as in Fig. 2, until the loop and pencil
   touch the rim.

7. Draw the spiral (Fig. 3):
   (a) Hold the bottle cap with one hand.
   (b) Unwind the thread slowly, using the
       pencil tip in your other hand to
       trace the spiral.

8. Remove the bottle cap and pencil.

This exercise most closely supports the following Common Core State Standards.
RST6-8.7: "Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table)."
W11-12.2a: "Write informative/explanatory texts....introduce a topic; organize complex ideas, concepts, and information so that each new element builds on that which precedes it to create a unified whole; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., figures, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension."
WHST6-8.4: "Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience."

Contact: T. R. Girill trgirill@acm.org