This year my family ditched the traditional Christmas festivities for a week in Orlando,
Florida. Swapping fur boots for flip flops, we ran around Walt Disney World, weaving in and out of storybook rides and watching teeny princesses wobble around Cinderella’s castle. Only now that I am grown do I have a true appreciation for the sheer magnitude of Walt Disney’s brilliance. He built a physical world of stories.
Disney doodled his way through high school; he honed his craft through drawing and photography classes. Unfortunately, few curricula allow for the same creative exploration for students. Oftentimes, the countless possibilities for storytelling and narration tend to center on only real-life experiences, personal narratives, when in reality, writing fiction opens up an entirely different world for self-exploration.
This year I swapped out our traditional multi-scene personal narrative for a story unit in which I taught many of the same narrative craft marks using a combination of fiction and non-fiction mentor texts.
The greatest challenge I faced was in finding short, succinct, and well-crafted stories that weren’t twenty pages long. While I love short stories, I knew many of my freshmen would not only lose stamina if asked to write such lengthy pieces , but they would also struggle with translating the story structure of these mentors into their own pieces. I began my hunt for a strong mentor text in, of all places, the children’s section of the library.
Objectives: In alignment with the Common Core, students will write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen detail, and well-structured event sequences. Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize a wide variety of craft marks in fictional writing. They will identify patterns and compare effectiveness through discussion. They will formulate their own stories, revising them, and finally applying their understanding to future writing assignments.
Lesson: I find writing fictional stories intimidating. My plots seem to sag in some areas, or my dialogue doesn’t feel authentic, but many of my students love leaving their reality to explore their own creative worlds. The vast majority read fiction, so its only natural that their reading interests feed into their writing curiosity. The problem is that their greatest mentor texts are, on average, 250 pages long.
The Promise written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Laura Carlin is a beautifully crafted story of a girl growing up in a hardened city. After stealing a purse from a pedestrian, the main character makes a promise out of desperation, only to realize that the purse she has stolen has no value and is instead full of acorns, which she must now plant across the city. The story reads more like a poem and has a cyclical ending that allows students to see the succinct structure of a short story.
Prior to sharing the story I type up the entire story book (which comes out to two pages) so that the students may access the text without the pictures. I present it to them as a short story, and we read it aloud like any other mentor text, but I do not tell them it is a picture book!
I ask students to look at the structure of the story—what do they notice about how the author formatted the story as a whole. Since we just finished studying plot in our literature circles, many of the students dig in to find the rising action and climax while others simply read and re-read to comb through the intricacies of the structure. Almost all of the students notice The Promise’s cyclical ending that reinforces the story’s themes of redemption and the beauty of nature.
I have them return a second time to the story to look at the writer’s craft. Students make a list of author’s moves within their writer’s notebook. If they see something that intrigues them but they aren’t sure of the name, I have them describe what they notice and we develop a name for the skill together as a class. Finally, we compile our observations onto a large sticky note that remains on display throughout the unit. Students must then choose two of the craft marks to experiment with in their own writing.
Finally, once we have finished working with the piece, I reveal to students that The Promise is a picture book and I read it aloud. Oftentimes students are shocked to hear that such a complex story is written for children, but their initial reading makes them value the intricacy of the writer’s work even more.
Follow-Up: Not only did my students fall in love with the writing process, but they also asked thoughtful questions and engaged in deeper conversations about their writing. One of my favorite conversations between two jocks involved the complexity of a fight between an alien, human, and zombie.
As a final follow-up, I had students complete a self-revision sheet. They peer reviewed each other’s work and finally wrote a metacognitive reflection in which they discussed the craft moves they made and how they structured their story.
The freedom to write fiction or nonfiction opened doors for many of the students who tend to struggle with developing ideas while reinforcing many of the craft marks we studied (leads, plot, sensory details, concrete details, internal and external dialogue) in our snapshot narrative unit. As Griffin said, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever written because I’ve gone back and looked at my work in the past. Fiction is easier because you can make up whatever you want.”