The Unexpected Trio

Our Compass Shifts 2-1“Miss Bogdany, isn’t writing a narrative the same thing as writing a story?”

“Yes, it is.  However, we’re going to spend time exploring writer’s craft by infusing a few strategies.  We’re going to be in tune with our five senses; explore the power of short sentences; and work through personification all while sharing an important moment in our lives.  Ready to play?”

Over the course of the next two weeks, the playing had begun. My students were charged with the task of choosing a moment in their lives that has, and continues to, shape them as individuals.  As students took to their Writer’s Notebooks and scribbled words and ideas as they began to chronicle the very moment that guided their paths – struggle, strength, and empowerment; you could feel the intensity.


Since my time at UNHLIT13 this summer, I have been experimenting with ways in which to inspire my students’ writing.  While asking students to ‘play with’ their five senses, short sentences, and personification may seem like a tall order, or at the very least, completely random; I realized they were willing to try.  (I’m still not exactly sure why I grouped these three concepts together.  I’ll chalk it up to trusting a whim!) As each skill was introduced, it was partnered with Mentor Activities and/or Mentor Texts so students could see how other authors used these strategies.  Take a peek – Craft- Mentor Texts, Activities and Skills

I know giving students the time to think through what they’re thinking (I love this concept!) is vital to building their self trust, worth, and importance as writers.  So, I made sure to do just that.  I took each concept and taught it as a separate entity so students could narrow their focus to just one concept at a time.  We started with the five senses.

And yes, while the five senses have been part of their writing journeys for the last ten years, I was asking them to do it in a way that was elevated – full with adjectives and adverbs – so we could start with the fundamentals and work our way through.  A mentor activity involved pairing students together so they could collectively guide their readers on a vibrant, sensory tour of a destination.  Giving students access to this foundational, yet imperative, practice empowered them.  They made the leap from understanding the descriptive power of touring a destination to the descriptive power in bringing their own moments to life.  Here is an excerpt from one young woman’s journey:

I remember picking her up off them white sheets on the hospital bed and laid her on my white spaghetti strapped dress that was then covered in the blood that fell from baby N’s mouth.  I rocked her and rocked her until she got cold and stiff.  I held her hands.  Her little fingers got hard around my finger and I couldn’t even get my finger out of hers. 

I breathe deeply.  Saniyyah’s use of setting and color infuses wonderfully into the stark reality of what is happening.  You can’t help but to be invested, and then saddened, through this experience.


This summer, I also had the luxury of moving through Dave Cullen’s work (Columbine) with my ever- wonderful book group consisting of Amy, Emily and Lauren; and it could not have been a more exhilarating experience.  For the first time I was combing through a text, peering in with the scope of a writer not a reader.  This was formative in elevating my own view on literature and imperative for my students.

So, when we started studying Mastering the Short Sentence, I brought Columbine into our community and shared how beautifully (and masterfully) Cullen utilizes this technique.  (How could I not?!  It was where my own literacy scope shifted profoundly.)  The short sentences were highlighted prior so when students received their copies the ‘skill’ jumped out at them immediately upon first glanceWe took our time in debunking their individual power.

I also showcased some of my own writing with Day One Disaster? to show students where and how I played with this technique.  When I have writer’s craft questions, I secretly wish I had the opportunity to converse directly with the author who made the decisions, yet in most cases I’m left to my own analysis.  So sharing my efforts (albeit scary at times); affords students the opportunity to engage in dialogue around specific techniques, writing, and literacy as a whole.  Here’s an excerpt from a writer who is willing to take risks:

“I have a confession… I like you more than a friend and I think we will make a great couple”, he began to say. He stutters and chokes on his words. It was so cute to see him choke on those words.

My body starts to fill up with all sorts of amazing emotions. It’s unexplainable. I can’t think straight. He asks me what I think about him. My plan was to say I feel the same way.

Or, so I thought.

The next thing that comes out my mouth changed my whole life completely.

My heart and soul is working against each other like the U.S. vs. Vietnam. Blood and Crips.  A war against Heaven or Hell.

“I think I love you Sherwin”

Everything stopped. Everything except my heart.  Beating ever so loud at that. Boom, boom. Boom, boom.

The court case: Ife’s heart vs. Ife’s mind is finally over. My heart wins.

I’m Free.

Do we not all remember specific encounters with love?  Ife uses the power of short sentences to bring us into her piece; shares her inner-most thoughts with us, and affords us the opportunity to watch her play with mastering the use of short sentences.


If you haven’t had the chance to read I AM MALALA by Malala Yousafzai, make it a priority.  This piece is so beautifully written that I found myself rereading excerpts just to hear the words (and arrangement) over and over.  Beyond the craft, you can’t help but to take this young woman (and her journey) home with you, on your morning commute, to a coffee house on a rainy afternoon…or into your classroom to book talk and indulge in during independent reading.

I burst into class the day we started studying personification with MALALA and projected, “M’s, p’s and k’s were all enemies lying in wait.”, a line so eloquently phrased I read it three times over and each time students were awed that Malala chose to chronicle her father’s speech impediment so carefully, precise, and through the use of personification.  They couldn’t wait to try it out in their writing:

Cue me, seven or so years old standing on the flat of the plateau that was my grandfather’s land. A red hillside dirt road leads to a house, body made of wood and a roof of zinc. Being in front of it after all those decades of it being desolate, you almost felt as though the termites couldn’t eat away at it faster than the unfilled silence of children turned adults.

Kurt explores the use of personification while journeying his readers through this historic moment in his life.  “The body made of wood”…wow.


I am in awe (you can see why).  I am awed by students’ bravery, courage, and commitment to developing their moments and their crafts.  Who would have thought that the five senses, mastering short sentences, and personification would prove to be a beneficial trio?  While I was riding the wave of a whim, students were firmly grounded in their trust – trusting me to guide them and trusting themselves in taking risks.

What skills and techniques have you (accidentally!) combined to challenge and motivate students to push beyond their limits in writing?    


One thought on “The Unexpected Trio

  1. amyrasmussen November 10, 2013 at 7:06 pm Reply

    You remind me of the things I love about teaching writers. So many students want to write well; they just lack the tools to do so. By modeling these three things with your students, you gave them powerful tools. Seems so simple, but it works every time. Thank you for reminding me. We start our feature articles tomorrow. I’ll carry your trio with me.


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