Narrative is, to me, the most powerful genre of writing one can do. Whether the narrative rests in a fictional or true story, or acts as an anecdote within an argumentative text, or helps to illustrate a concept in an informative one, story is central to great writing. Students know and live this, and are natural storytellers once they get going…but sometimes knowing what story to tell is easier said than done.
I find that stories students have rehearsed well through talk or reflection are the best stories to get them to write. As a result, we mine our memories to harness our most powerful topics for writing all narratives.
Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Identify memories that are rich with complexity to write from. Or, from the Common Core: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
Lesson — My students in West Virginia are well familiar with the concept of a mine. For them, a mine is “an abundant source of something,” while to mine means “delve into (an abundant source) to extract something of value, especially information or skill.” Using this metaphor for brainstorming topics is comforting for them, since they know we’re digging for existing ideas and knowledge–not crafting something new.
One of my favorite activities for mining memories came from Tom Romano, which he simply calls “Scars.”
I begin by drawing a stick figure on the board and then turning to my students. I point to my knee, then draw a small dot on my stick-figure knee. “When I was about eight,” I begin, “I really thought I could jump down a whole flight of stairs and land on my feet.” I get them laughing as I tell them the story of how I got that particular scar. Then I draw a little dot on my left stick-figure eye, and tell them the story of how I got chicken pox so badly that it went into my eyeballs. They cringe in horror, so then I draw a little dot on my left wrist and tell them about how my new kitten just really won’t stop using my arm as a scratching post.
We laugh together.
“All scars have a great story behind them. Draw a stick figure in your notebook and label your own scars.”
They do this, unable to keep silent as they show their neighbor their stick figures and begin to tell their stories in brief.
After a few minutes, I draw their attention back to the board and draw a large heart.
“All scars have stories, but not all scars are visible. Sometimes we carry scars on our hearts, where no others can see.” The classroom always gets eerily quiet at this point. I write the name “MeMe” in my heart on the board, and tell about my awesome Tennesseean grandmother and her fabulous Southern drawl and feisty persona, and how she passed away on my very first day of teaching.
“It was basically impossible to get through my very first day of this career that I so love,” I share.
Then, I write the word “miscarriage” in my heart, and tell about that worldview-shifting event in my life.
“Go ahead and draw your own hearts and label your own heart scars. We all have them. Don’t be scared. This is just for your notebook, for now. It will stay private.”
The classroom falls silent and I open my notebook under the document camera while they scrawl, not telling any stories to neighbors this time.
“Beneath your stick figure and your heart, let’s take eight minutes to write about any one of these scars. Tell the story of how it came to be. It could be a funny story, or a sad one, or a scary one. But tell the truth and tell it well.”
We write together, revisiting a routine that has become commonplace in our classroom–I model not just the act of writing, but the act of vulnerability, and my students dive headfirst into the tough stuff as a result. This is just one practice that builds a strong community of readers and writers.
Follow-Up — After we write, we revise briefly, then elect whether or not to share at our tables only.
The next class, we mine another set of memories by creating a map of our childhood homes, then telling the story of one of the places on the map–a Penny Kittle gem.
Another day, we go through our playlists, choose a song that is the soundtrack of our life, then tell the story that made it so.
We continue with five seed prompts in a row, five class periods in a row. Then we select one of those stories to refine and workshop into a narrative. I teach a mini-lesson each day about a narrative skill, so that by the time we’ve really committed to a topic, students are well-versed in pacing, dialogue, descriptive detail, and the like. We confer and workshop and revise.
I’ll employ this routine when we return from break, focusing on reflection and rejuvenation and resolutions in the new year, working to craft multimodal “This I Believe” essays as we read Siddhartha together.
How do you get your students to come up with meaningful topics for writing?