Where the Hell Do I Put This Funnel? Kitchen Drawers as a Metaphor for Paragraph Organization

One of my favorite things to do in the classroom is to spend time on an inductive activity that starts out seeming like a game — something almost frivolous — and then as the class continues to play, you can almost see lightbulbs lighting up above students’ heads as they realize, Aha! I know what this is really about!

Those moments, man. That’s what I live for. When my friend Patty (she of the difficulty paper-as-essay-substitute) introduced me to this activity, my heart nearly exploded with glee, because I knew that it would be a reliable generator of such moments.

Plus, it’s got a cooking theme. I dig that.


The Activity

You’ll need one set of index cards for each group. Each set has 22 cards, each with a kitchen tool written on it (scroll down to the bottom of the post for the full list).  You’ll also need a lot of whiteboard real estate or some large pieces of paper so that each group can write down and share what they came up with. It helps if each group has room to lay out the cards as they play around with different ways of organizing the items.

Instruct the groups to work together to agree on how to categorize the items: every item needs to be in a kitchen drawer, and no item can go in more than one drawer. They also need to come up with a label for each drawer — the kind of label that would help a visitor to the kitchen figure out how to find what they’re looking for.

Each group will come up with a different organization and different labels for their drawers. Some will make more sense than others — the above group came up with nice labels, but struggled with what should go where (in real life, it would be a little odd to have only four items in a drawer, for example, and I’m not clear why they decided that a serving spoon and a ladle belonged with “cooking utensils.”)

They’ll all struggle with figuring out what to do with the stuff that doesn’t fit neatly — and it won’t all fit neatly, just like real kitchen drawers. The above group came up with the “food altering” label for the items they couldn’t fit in any other category — but aren’t all kitchen tools “food altering” in one way or another? And does it make sense to have only three things in a drawer?

Where does the butter knife go? At first, a lot of groups will put it with the knives — and then realize that despite the fact that it’s a knife, it probably makes more sense to keep it with the other eating utensils, because that’s what most of us do at home. Items like the ice cream scoop are also perplexing: is it a baking item? A serving utensil? It can be both — I probably use my disher to portion out batter for cupcakes or muffins more often than I use it to scoop ice cream.

There will almost always be a “miscellaneous” drawer; the group above labeled it the “extra” drawer, and it ended up being quite full! The problem with that, of course, is that if you were new to the kitchen and you opened up that drawer, it wouldn’t make sense to you. They’re all useful items (absolutely essential, in the case of the corkscrew) but there isn’t a cohesive logic to the collection.

The Aha! Moment

When I do this activity, I don’t tell students that it’s about paragraphs. I wait until they’ve got their items collected and their labels decided, and then ask them what they think the assignment is about. They get it; it’s a great lightbulb moment. They’ve been in this position as writers: one paragraph that looks anemic, one that looks overstuffed, maybe one or two that seem to be in pretty good shape, and then a bunch of ideas left over looking for a paragraph to call home.

Here’s why this metaphor works: the organization of your kitchen drawers has a kind of underlying logic to it, right? Most of us keep our utensils in one drawer, for example — forks, spoons, butter knives, maybe some steak knives, all hanging out together to make it easier to grab what we need when it’s time to set the table. If you bake a lot, you probably have things like spatulas, measuring cups, and measuring spoons in a drawer together, maybe with a whisk for when you need to whip egg whites or cream. But since every kitchen is different, and everyone uses their kitchen a little differently, organization varies a bit from person to person and kitchen to kitchen.

Likewise, even when two writers are writing about the same subject, they will organize their ideas a little differently. And depending on their purpose, audience, or other contextual features, the organization may not just be a little different — it may be quite different, in much the same way that people with very different cooking habits may organize their kitchen drawers quite differently.

Students quickly recognize that the drawer labels are similar to topic sentences; the label should fit the contents of the drawer, just as the topic sentence should fit the contents of a paragraph. As groups share their labels, we discuss how we could could improve labels that are too vague. A “miscellaneous” label, for example, might be effectively revised to “single-purpose items.”

There’s also the fact that in our writing and in our kitchen drawers, not everything we have is going to fit perfectly. Some things may not really fit at all. (I’m looking at you, funnel.) As each group shares what they came up with, we talk about how we could improve the organization so that each drawer makes sense from a utilitarian perspective.

This activity takes a good chunk of time, but it’s well worth it, and it’s a great springboard to a revision activity if students have gotten to the point in a draft where they need to start stepping back, thinking about the reader’s needs, and overhauling the development and organization of their paragraphs. It remains a useful tool for communication throughout the rest of the semester: from this point on, we as a class have this handy metaphor of the kitchen drawer to draw upon whenever we’re talking about paragraphs and paragraph organization during peer review or writing conferences.


Further Notes

At the beginning of the activity, you may want to specifically instruct students to sort the items into just four categories. That’s how the activity was originally designed. The most recent time I did this, I just encouraged students to think about what made sense: you don’t want to split the items up into too many drawers, because then you’ll end up with drawers with almost nothing in them, nor do you want too few drawers, because then they would be overcrowded. I wanted to see what would happen without the four-drawer rule, and things turned out fine.

Instructing students to organize the items into four drawers works well if you are very explicitly transitioning away from the five-paragraph essay, though. You know your students best, so do whatever makes the most sense for your class.

The list of items that Patty shared with me for this activity balances everyday utensils and specialty tools really well. I use a different color marker for each set of index cards to make sorting them out easier if the stacks get mixed together. Here’s the list:

  1. whisk
  2. ladle
  3. funnel
  4. spatula
  5. corkscrew
  6. potato masher
  7. can opener
  8. ice cream scoop
  9. ginger grater
  10. bread knife
  11. cheese grater
  12. paring knife
  13. chef’s knife
  14. carving knife
  15. fork
  16. serving spoon
  17. butter knife
  18. chopsticks
  19. spoon
  20. measuring cup
  21. measuring spoons
  22. rolling pin

Have you done activity before, or one like it? How did it work out for you? What did you like about it? Share your thoughts in the comments!



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