The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: Creating Layered Narratives in Writing Workshop

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, Contributing Writer

Teacher writers often find their inspiration from other teachers, so special thanks to Xochitl Bentley, a teacher and contributing author for Moving Writers, whose work inspired me to try braided writing with my 8th graders. 

What is braided writing? I define it as a piece that has three distinct strands that are central to our practices in writing workshop:

  1. Excellent mentor texts for study and piracy (What can we “steal” from a professional writer that elevates our own craft?) 
  2. The power of lived experience: This has to do with relevance. The author incorporates elements from his or her life as a middle school student into the piece, such as the importance of participating in sports or theater. 
  3. Factual information that is important to the topic. For example, if a student is writing about showing horses, he or she might write about different types of bits or bridles that a competitor may use when exhibiting a horse.
Robin Williams in the classic Dead Poets’ Society

Invited Into Exploring Our Identities as Writers

How did writing braided pieces “work” in my classroom? I invited students to consider what message they wanted to convey to other writers in our workshop through their narratives. I asked them to think about questions such as these:

  • What have I learned about myself from playing middle school sports?
  • What am I looking forward to as I transition to high school?
  • What unique gifts and abilities do I have?
  • What is my greatest treasure?
  • What are my favorites (sports, seasons, songs, etc)?
  • What are my fears or weaknesses?

These questions helped students form a basis for writing a layered narrative. In addition to quick writing about these questions, we studied mentor texts together that are rich both in terms of content and craft moves.

It’s vital for students to see that essays needn’t be formulaic to be powerful. Bentley suggested reading “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle as a mentor text for poignant writing, and my students noted the following craft moves in this piece:

Repetition of Words & Phrases for Emphasis: Doyle, a beautiful essayist, captivates us with repetition that echoes in our hearts long after we finish reading. Note this example from the end of the essay:

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one in the end—not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. 

Students also noted interesting punctuation such as serial commas and use of em dashes for emphasis.

A third craft move that resonated with us was Doyle’s knowledge of his subject. He knew a lot about all three hearts that he examined: hummingbird, whale, and human. I highly recommend checking out Doyle’s prodigious body of work in his many books available on Amazon or from independent booksellers.

Below are a few other mentor texts that we used to study nuance in writing before we embarked on our own drafting process:

The New Apartment by Phil Kaye

Excerpt from The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Forest Fires by Sarah Kay

Students recognized the honesty in all three of these pieces, and noted the vulnerability of each writer. Throughout the process of mentor text study, we continued to discuss possible topics, and I also incorporated word study, a critical component of reading and writing workshop, into our braided narrative drafting steps. Students were invited to create slides showcasing five words that were significant to their topics. 

I shared my own slides with students, walking them through instructions, including writing an author bio, choosing topics and how I selected words that were active, descriptive, or perhaps simply words that I loved because of their sound or the way they danced with other words. I encouraged students to conclude with a story slide connected to their topics. 

Students embraced the idea of choosing words that moved them. An example of braided slides created by one of my eighth graders is linked here.

Moving from Slides to Rough Drafts

After sharing our slides in one of our weekly writing celebrations, we transitioned from word study to crafting our rough drafts. At this point, I invited students to read my rough draft with me and comment on how I incorporated the mentor texts we had studied and give me suggestions for moving words or making other changes to my draft. I’ve found that sharing my pieces with students is most effective if I give them specific elements that I would like their feedback on.

This past school year was one filled with devastating personal loss, so my topic was how loss expands the human heart and increases our capacity for empathy.

A rough draft of my piece, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” (thanks to Carson McCullers for the title) is linked here.

At the end of the draft, I noted a list of texts that inspired my writing, and concluded with a bulleted list of craft moves that students discussed after we read the draft together. 

After reading my draft and reviewing our mentor texts, students began to write their rough drafts. I was privileged to read about everything from grandparents to gourmet cooking, and students came away from the study more willing to be vulnerable with one another, and more invested in word choices and sharing drafts with others in small writing groups for the purpose of elevating their craft.

What moves do you use in workshop to encourage students to dig deeply into their writing process?

What mentor texts might you use to inspire students to write a braided narrative?

Share your thoughts in the comments below or find me on Twitter @oosterheerte.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in Iowa. She loves inviting students into stories, on both the page and the stage. Currently, she is writing an adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale Rapunzel for performance this fall.

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