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Category Archives: Narrative Writing

Varying Paragraph and Sentence Length for Effect

The formula is simple.

 

Pair a simple, declarative sentence in its own paragraph with a longer, more detailed paragraph to follow.  The two paragraphs set against each other will balance the other’s flavors out nicely.

 

Practice it mercilessly in workshop and use sparingly in finished work.

 

As you can see from this blog post, an entire essay or article that’s filled with long-short paragraph variations is going to tire, frustrate, and bore readers easily.   It will also become predictable, just like predicting that LeBron James is going to score 20 points in a game.  The good news, however, is that once you introduce the trick, you can invite readers to look for it across their reading.

 

Mentor texts used: An article about Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impersonation from The New York Times and a chapter from The Nix by Nathan Hill (hardcover pgs. 482-492) Note:  read over these mentor texts before using to see if they are appropriate for your students.  

Teaching this technique – version A:

 

  1. Invite students to freewrite off of each of these starting sentences from these mentors: “It takes seven minutes” or “Today was the day he would quit Elfscape.”
  2. Have students share their work.
  3. Reveal first two paragraphs of the Times article and page 482 from The Nix.  (Note: the vocabulary on this page of The Nix is tough, so I would suggest using it as an example of the technique only.)  
  4. Identify ideal locations for this technique (leads, beginnings of chapters and sections.)
  5. Practice this technique in a freewrite or on a piece in progress.

 

Teaching this technique – version B:

 

  1. Have students read the New York Times article and flash-skim the chapter from The Nix.  Unless you want students to read a sentence that extends for ten pages…
  2. Ask students about how and why these two authors decided to begin paragraph 1 simply and laden paragraph 2 with all the details.  Why might an author decide to describe a character’s decision to stop playing an online role playing game with zero periods?  Why might the Times author give us excruciating detail about Alec Baldwin’s Trump makeup?  To what extent are these “characters” portrayed similar?  Or are the purposes here different?
  3. Invite students to “hack” their own writing or another expository piece (e.g. a history or science textbook) to mimic the long-short style.  Is this an improvement?  Is the writing worse?  Why or why not?

 

Amy Estersohn teaches middle school English in New York.  She has never played an online role playing game and only pretends to know how to play paper and dice role playing games, so reading The Nix wasn’t easy.  Follow her on Twitter at @HMX_MsE.

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Better Teaching: Please tell me your story

I already knew they were hard workers. This group of girls spent a lot of time in my classroom after school. They huddled together at the far table, speaking in a language I did not understand. They asked questions occasionally, afraid of being wrong.  

“Is this right?” one would say, timidly showing me her iPad where she’d written a few sentences in the Docs app. Returning to her table, she’d share my response with her friends.

They held on in AP English by decimal points as each grading period ticked by. Lucky for them, I scored on improvement, not on the AP writing rubric.

In class we watched the documentary “A Place to Stand,” based on the book by the same name by Jimmy Santiago Baca who became a poet while serving time in prison. Baca’s story captivated my students. They identified and analyzed the argument: “Education matters. Fight for it. Words matter. Learn them. Write them. They empower you..”

Some students understood that more than others. These girls, for sure.

We read several of Baca’s poems. Although mine is primarily a non-fiction course by nature of AP Language and my syllabus, I know that it’s through poetry that my students more easily grasp the beauty and intention in an author’s craft.

The task was to re-read Baca’s poem “As Life Was Five” and to write a reflective piece in response to it.

These girls were struggling, so I finally joined them at their table.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I said.

“We just aren’t sure,” Biak said. She spoke more often than the others, although her English was only a little better.

“Can I see what you’ve written?” I asked, and she timidly passed me her writing, carefully penned on notebook paper.

She quickly broke into explanation:  “I wanted to write my own poem. I don’t know how, and I don’t know…” Words tumbled out, and she lowered her head, waiting for me to read the page.

I looked, and before I could read anything, the words “Burmese!! STUPID and CRAZY!” shouted at me.

“Wait,” I said, “I thought you were from Burma.”

Five voices rose in chorus:  “Yes, yes, we are from Burma, but we are not Burmese. We are Chin.”

I needed them to teach me. I’d never heard of Chin, and my knowledge of Burma was limited to the first few chapters of Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan I’d tried to read and abandoned years ago.

“Will you tell me your story?” I asked, looking closely into the small faces of these beautiful young women, similar yet so different in features and personality.

Biak began to talk.

“We are from the state of Chin in Burma. The Chin are the mountain people. The Christians. The Burmese hate the Christians.”

And then they all talk and tell me their story:

They fled Burma with their families, leaving grandparents and loved ones behind. Sometimes not getting to say goodbye for fear the secret of their journey would be told. They traveled in groups, mostly at night, walking, walking, walking, they said. Often barely eating food, and even then, mostly rice balls or an egg stirred into water.

Bawi told of a Buddhist monk who acted as their guide. “He wouldn’t let us pray,” she said. “Every time we tried to pray, he would knock away our food. ‘Pray to me,’ he’d say, ‘I’m the one who gave you food, not God.’ He was so scary!”

“I lost my shoes,” Biak said, “I walked for miles and miles with no shoes, and the.. What are those things?” she turned to her friends, motioning with her hands like claws, “…those things that stuck to my feets?”

“Thorns,” they said.

“Yes, thorns stuck in my feets, but I had to walk. Walk and walk.”

“Walk quickly and don’t let go,” Kimi said.

“There was a pregnant woman with us. She could not keep up. When we reached the border of Malaysia, she could not run. I do not know what happened to her.”

“I remember we heard the POW POW POW. We had to run as fast as we can to cross the border. I was so little. My legs short. I was so scared.”

Biak begins to cry. She bows her head and covers her face with her hands, “I don’t like to think about it. I remember my grandmother’s face. We barely got to tell goodbye. She cried so much.”

I look around the table. Their eyes shine with memories.

“You all left family behind, didn’t you?”

They nod, and I see Van’s chocolate eyes pool with tears.

“Did you travel together?”

“No! But we all have same stories. All Chin students do,” Duh says.

“Wow,” I say, “Just wow.” My heart throbs in my chest, heavy with the weight of these stories. Resilience takes on new meaning.

“So you must think it’s pretty lame when your classmates whine about having to work a three hour shift and that’s the reason they cannot do their homework.”

The tension breaks, and they laugh.

“What an amazing gift you’ve given me,” I say, “You need to write your stories.”

“I wanted to write a book,” Kimi says, “but I don’t know how.”

I smile. “We can work on that.”

My heart changed after that chat with my girls from Chin. I also felt chagrin. I waited three months into the school year to extend the important invitation:  “Tell me your story.”

I can come up with fourteen different reasons why. None of them matter.

Throughout the fall, I struggled with my classes because I focused on the skills needed to be successful in AP English instead of focusing on the individuals who needed to learn the skills to be successful in life. I forgot why I wanted to teach teenagers in the first place.

Perspective matters.

The most important conversation is the one that invites our students to tell us their stories.

Those young women from the state of Chin grew to trust me because I asked, and I listened. They told me later that I was the first teacher who asked them to tell me their stories — they had all attended U.S. public schools for at least four years.

I am sure other teachers assumed they knew. I thought I knew until I saw the emotion in five pairs of eyes. “We all have same stories,” Duh had said, but that is not true. They all have similar experiences. Their stories are uniquely personal, and they serve as cardinal prerequisites to the identities of each individual.

Identity matters.

How our students see themselves — as teenagers, thinkers, readers, writers, friends, students — matters, and to instruct the individual we must know what she believes about her abilities and her capabilities, both of which have been shaped in one way or another before she ever steps through our door.

Peter Johnston helped me understand the importance of identity in his book Choice Words. He reminds us, “[Children] narrate their lives, identifying themselves and the circumstances, acting and explaining events in ways they see as consistent with the person they take themselves to be” (23).

 

 

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Trust and esteem are imperative to effective conferring. They are imperative to effective teaching. They are two cornerstones of conferences that allow for the relationships students need with their teachers, the relationships students need to learn.

If our goal is to help our students incorporate reader and writer into their identities, we must build foundations that allow them to take on the behaviors of those who read and write. Equity and autonomy create balance in this foundation and become the other cornerstones.

All students must feel that we meet with them fairly and without judgment. They must know our goal is to inspire independence as they become more effective readers and writers — and of course, literate citizens.

Really, it all begins with the invitation:  “Please, tell me your story.”

my-chin-girls

Graduates Lewisville High School Class of 2016


THAT DAY  THAT DAY
by Biak Par
Far from my Home, my Family
When looking at the sky they seem so happy
But me,
Thinking about that day
Every word they speaks, every looks, every smiles, every laugh
They tear me apart, the soul sing Be Strong
That day
Every word they talk, it burn my ears like Hell
Its torture me every night, in intimidate me every day
When I see those similar faces
That day
Those word, those eyes         
Tear my heart into two pieces.
Those words are as sharp as a razor
They call me foolish, Yea, I don’t know them
Burmese!
That day
My body fills with wound and remorse.
It like drawing into the water, I could not breathe nor talk,
Walking to class
All eyes on me,
Looking down with hope that there is a place I can conceal
But the room seems so small
As I take a step to the room, the room seems colder
Like I was at Antarctica,
Very Cold
Looking at the room I was isolated for this people,
This entire people are strangers.
That day
Standing still
People examine me, like I am from the others planet
That day…
My tremble body, drum in my blood
Eyes fill with water,
That day
The word of Burmese, such as STUPID, CRAZY echoed through my ears
Stupid, crazy,
My mouth wants to shout, but my mouth feels numb
And makes my throat feels tight like I am being choked,
Almost tearful
Wanting to run away can’t bear the exposes of feeling being hunted.
That day
Eyeing for a place to seat
But none of them invites me or speak,
It like I am walking into a room full of a babies Dolls,
They do not talks
But their EYES,
Their evil eyes talk, its say get out of this room
That day
Head down, looking at the floors as I walk toward to the edge of the room,
Seat alone,
The room feels so dark, so lonely and scary
Even, I was surrounding by those people
That day
My silent cry, wishing I can revisit to where I’ll be safe
Because every second, every minute, every hours this place seems so hazardous
That day…
Hopes and dreams are fading away like the wave of the cloud fade, little by little.
From that day the world is never the same
That day, change my life
Made me feels like a woman, made me realize
That because I am different from them (Burmese) and I only speak
CHIN,
They destroy and killed my hopes, my thought, my believe,
The thought of what might come next. I am Scared.
But,
My soul sing to me, be strong. BE Strong Biak Par. Be STRONG.

 

Mini-Lesson Monday: Friendly Competition

Having just watched my beloved Green Bay Packers hand the game to the Atlanta Falcons, my belly is full of delicious chili, but my heart is heavy. Now, I’m watching the Cubs possibly beat Cleveland and getting an odd thrill over a game I have absolutely no stake in. I’m not usually such a sports enthusiast, but all the excitement has me thinking.

img_6450The thrill of competition, win or lose, can make the ordinary far more fun. This typical Sunday night, for example, involved good friends, good food, and a good amount of jawing about a sport none of us have ever played, but still feel the need to critique. Any other Sunday night would find me waist deep in student papers. A different kind of fun, for sure.

Competition in the classroom puts a spin on the ordinary as well. It’s been my experience that a little friendly competition can turn the most aloof high students into passionate, enthusiastic, albeit candy-crazed participants. When the “prize” is stickers, watch out. The stakes are suddenly cutthroat.

For this relatively ordinary mini lesson on narrative techniques, I took advantage of the fact that I have a class of 28 students. While there are countless techniques that a writer can use in order to advance the chronology of his or her piece, my sophomores were going to be focusing on the basic idea that chronology can be linear or nonlinear, utilizing techniques like foreshadowing, flashback, building suspense, and reflection.

One of my collaborative team members came up with the idea to have the kids make the anchor charts for the lesson (thanks, Weston!), and I ran with that img_6454idea for the active engagement section of the class.

Objective: After researching in small groups, students create anchor charts for narrative techniques related to chronology and use them to determine which techniques could apply to their own stories during revision of their current draft.

Lesson: Having researched their randomly chosen terms in small groups, students pooled their findings and created an anchor chart that included the name of the technique, a definition, a purpose for using the narrative tool, and an example or two. 

With a larger class, I was able to have two groups work with each term, meaning we could have a little friendly competition.

img_6448Students completed their charts and we distributed them around the room. With their small groups, students traveled to each poster pairing and took notes on the techniques, discussing with their classmates places in their own stories they could utilize the technique. In addition, students were deciding which poster they felt more accurately covered the technique and would fit in well with the logical detail needed for our classroom anchor chart wall.

There was a lot of great talk that followed and students writing notes and ideas down in their notebooks too. I loved listening to their ideas of how the technique could be incorporated in their stories and where/how it might best fit.

The voting process even made me smile. The class suggested that they should have an official delegate from each group come forward to vote and then hang the winning poster on the wall. It was very…democratic.

Follow-Up: Students worked during workshop time to identify the chronological steps taken in their papers already and then strengthen the purposeful inclusion of chronological techniques in their pieces. Next class period, we’ll be doing some peer editing involving the specific inclusion of these elements. That exercise and their final submissions will both involve assessment of the writing (peer assessment and self assessment) using the same rubric I will use to grade this portion of their papers.


Proficient Level Narrative Chronology:
The text creates a logical progression of experiences or events using some techniques—such as chronology, flashback, foreshadowing, suspense, etc.—to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole.

How do you utilize friendly competition to engage students? Please feel free to share in the comments below. 


Mini-Lesson Monday: Narrative Analysis with StoryCorps

We all have a story to tell.

In fact as writers, we have countless stories to tell. We tell of our experiences, fears, hopes, dreams, and even those trivial events that sometimes add up to more “life” than we could have imagined.

We tell the stories of others too. Real and imagined people that speak to us in words we’ve heard and sometimes, in the words we long to hear.

I wax poetic with my students like this often, but especially early in the school year. I want them to feel my passion for the power of stories and encourage them to develop their own passion for expression. As Morris (protagonist from one of my daughter’s favorite children’s books The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore) beautifully states, “Everyone’s story matters.” 

With this in mind, my American Literature collaborative team (Shout out to Brandon, Catherine, and Erin!) worked this year to develop a unit of narrative writing that asks students to look at the stories they tell and how those stories can be interconnected. Everyone’s story matters, and in this case, they get to have even more meaning as students craft individual tales that relate to their chosen thematic focus.

Students, having already selected, listened to, and analyzed an episode of This American Life for elements of author craft in a narrative (hook, chronological/detail choices, and word choice), partnered up or formed a group of three, and selected a theme out of a hat (dangers of conformity, vanity as downfall, the power of choice, etc.) they would explore, both individually and in their groups.

The overarching assignment is to craft an individual narrative that fits the theme and ultimately orally record the stories in a podcast that highlights the interconnectedness of the individual work. Students are graded individually on their narratives, but the podcasts are a group effort and will be played for the class.

storycorps


Objectives — Students will listen to several examples of 2-3 minute stories from NPR’s StoryCorp in order to practice narrative technique identification and analysis one more time before drafting their own stories. Students will discuss and share their insights on narrative impact of what they heard in an effort to purposefully craft their own narratives.

Lesson  — According to their website the initiative of StoryCorp is to “preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” 

In class, we had spoken already about the power and purpose of stories and students had come up with some wonderful ways stories enrich and fulfill us. Stories:

  • explain, or attempt to explain, where we come from and/or why we are here.
  • allow us to express what we believe or hope.
  • reveal who we are or who we want to be.

I shared with students that we were going to listen to some short pieces that told unrelated stories on the surface, but each would link back to some of the reasons we tell stories at all. Students were asked to record what they heard in the hook, insights on which details were included and why, and word choice (all elements they will be scored on when writing their own narratives).

I started by playing a sample story and then walking them through my own analysis. “Traffic Stop” is a piece that details police brutality in 2009 against a black man who was raised by white parents. The piece pretty brutally (I did have to mute three or four seconds of the piece where a police allegedly uses a racial slur that is inappropriate for the classroom) relates the story of a young man who is pulled over by police, searched but cleared, and then is assaulted by police when he questions why the officers are searching his car.

After I played the piece, I projected some of my own analysis. The hook involved the young man’s mother saying that she never would have thought skin color would make a difference for her son, but she painfully learned she was wrong. Word choice vividly captured the pain, fear, and confusion of the young man who was beaten by police. The chronology includes context for the horror of the event, a play by play of the few moments of the traffic stop, and details about the young man’s mother seeing his injuries in the hospital. My analysis was that the elements chosen were specifically selected and organized to convey the disbelief that something like this could happen to an innocent person and the role that race played in the event.

We then listened to two more stories. Students wrote down their take-aways in their writer’s notebooks and discussed after each piece. We shared out ideas and pulled insights back to those class generated elements of why we tell stories.

Finally, I had students listen to one last piece, detail their analysis on a half sheet of paper and turn it in to me for some formative feedback.

Follow-Up — We are about to start mini-lessons on hook, chronology, word choice, and parallelism (thank you Common Core) in drafting these narratives. I plan to reach back to the insights shared during this class in order to help students make purposeful choices in crafting and revising their narratives.

Everyone’s story matters. 

What tools do you use to get students thinking intentionally about their writing craft? Please share your ideas in the comment section below! 

Try it Tuesday: 44 Songs for Quickwrites

My students and I start writing on the first day of school. Our first quickwrite might be in response to a video or a poem or a short passage. For the past few years, I’ve shown To This Day by Shane Koyczan. I pass out notecards and ask students to listen to the message and then either write their thoughts to the whole of the video, or perhaps to a line in it.

I learn a lot about my students on the first day of school.

Then, three or four times a week, we write in response to other videos, poems, or passages throughout the year. Sometimes we return to these quick writing pieces, choose topics, and take the writing into full processed works. (Shana shares how she leads students into this mining his mini-lesson.) Sometimes we stop at just sharing our thinking with our table mates. Sometimes we use our thinking a springboards into texts we read together or in book clubs.

Writing responses is one of the best thinking strategies I know for engaging students in writer’s workshop. (Actually, I think asking students to write responses in any content area is good for thinking — I wish math and science teachers gave students more opportunities to write. I’m sure they wish I did more with math and science, but somehow I don’t think that’s really apples for apples. Is it?)

 

As this year winds down, I think of a million things to ask my students that might help me

Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 4.48.59 PM

Lovelyn’s suggestions for songs to inspire writing.

reach more readers and writers the following year. This week I asked them to give me ideas on the songs they listen to — songs that might work well to get students thinking and responding in their notebooks.

They sent me lots. Some sent me lists.

(Disclaimer:  I have not listening to all of these songs yet, but I did start watching the music videos. Some have lyrics that might work well, but videos that might not. Some are a little too much… others are just weird. Some would work if we think of thought-provoking questions to include with the lyrics/videos. Should’ve had kids come up with those, too.)

Here’s a list of songs my students suggest would make for good quickwrites:

“Alive” by Kehlani

“Clarity” by Zedd

“Bright” by Kehlani

“Halo” by Beyonce

“Someone Like You” by Adele

“Be Alright” by Kehlani

“Lean On” by Major Lazer & DJ Snake

“Shark” by Oh Wonder

“Lights” by Vexents

“Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeren

“Imagine” by John Lennon

“Run Away” by Kanye West

“Brother” by Need to Breathe

“Love Yourself” by Justin Beiber

“7 Years” by Lukas Graham  (I found this one before my students mentioned it. I actually saved the title to this song in my notebook after I heard it on the radio. It’s a great song for thinking about Our Stories.)

“Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson

“Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw (Another song I already love and am tickled that a student suggested it. This is a message I know we all hope our students internalize. Studying the humanities makes the world –and the classroom — a better place.)

“50 Ways to Say Goodbye” by Train

“Apple Tree” by Erykah Badu

“Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant

“The Light That Never Fades” by Andra Day

“Rise Up” by Andra Day

“Hall of Fame” by the Script

“Cornerstone” by Hillsong

“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey (Ohhh, Journey. I remember you well. Another student suggestion that made me smile.)

“The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World

“Heroes” by David Bowie

“What Would You Do” by Bastille

“Youth” by Troye Sivan

“Locked Inside” by Janelle Monae

“I Don’t Want to Be” by Gavin DeGraw

“Became” by Atmosphere

“Battle Scars” by Lupe Fiasco

“Not the Only One” by Sam Smith

“The Moon – The Swell Season, It Will Rain” by Bruno Mars

“Talking to the Moon” by Bruno Mars

“See You Again” by Charlie Puth

“Only One” by Kanye West

“Beautiful” by Eminem

“Heaven” by Troye Sivan

“Lose It” by Oh Wonder

“Don’t Let Me Down” by The Chainsmokers

“Never Forget You” by Zara Larson

First” by Laura Daigle

What about you — do you have some great songs you use to inspire your writers? Please share in the comments.

 

 

 

Mini-Lesson Monday: Storyboarding to Organize Writing

For me, narrative is central to all reading and writing.  I can find story anywhere–poetry, nonfiction, even a science report–so it’s no surprise that I teach about storyboarding a lot, both in the context of reading and writing instruction.  My students storyboard what’s happening in their independent reading novels, map out what they’ll present about through storyboards, and organize their writing using them too.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will organize the plot structure of their own narratives; create a map of their story structure, and differentiate between pacing speeds in scenes mapped out.  Or, from the Common Core, students will use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole and build toward a particular tone and outcome.

img_1530-1

Mitchell’s narrative storyboard is reminiscent of lessons from Tom Newkirk’s Boys & Literacy class

Lesson:  Prior to this lesson, students will already have selected a narrative topic and talked it out, at least generally, with their peers.  They will be ready to create a start-to-finish storyboard for the structure of their narrative.  We will also have studied “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros to review pacing, and how to slow down and speed up scenes.

I’ll begin by modeling on the whiteboard for students.  “So, in my narrative, I want to tell the story of this pregnancy.  I want it to be kind of funny, so I’m going to focus most of my scenes on the funny parts–my husband’s and parents’ reactions when I told them, and my own reaction to figuring it out.

“So where should I begin my narrative, do you think?” I ask.

“Probably with suspecting you were pregnant,” a student chimes in.

“Yep.”  I draw a box on the board, and draw stick-figure me at my desk at school, question marks over my head, pondering whether I could be pregnant.

“Then where do I go?”

“Finding out you are for sure,” another kid says.

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Carleen’s narrative storyboard shows her addition of a flashback after partner conferencing.

“Yep.”  I draw another box next to my first one, using a directional arrow to connect them.  We go on in this vein until my storyboard is nearly complete, adding a flashback to previous disappointing pregnancy test results, and swapping the location of a scene.  Then I turn the students loose to draw their own storyboards in their notebooks.

Follow-Up:  After students have drawn their completed storyboards, I’ll ask them to find a partner to tell their story.  Often, this is where hiccups and gaps in the narrative structure are revealed–this second-draft talk.  Students will make revisions to their storyboards, and during workshop time we’ll begin writing actual scenes out in prose format.

In our next mini-lesson, we’ll choose which scenes to slow down and which to speed up, and work on various techniques to control pace.

How do you use storyboarding in your classroom?  Do you have any resources for storyboarding digitally?  Please share in the comments.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Freezing Time

dumplinIt’s -4 degrees in West Virginia today, which might explain why I’m thinking about the narrative skill of freezing time.  I’m also thinking about it because I’m reading the fantastic Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, the story of an unconventional small-town beauty pageant contestant.  As I read, I was aware of how quickly the writing hooked me–I began to look for reasons why, inspired by Writing With Mentors.  My noticing of Murphy’s freezing of time to show me the thoughts and feelings of her narrator, Willowdean, reveals two skills I’d love for my students to utilize: the skill of reading like a writer and imitating the craft they notice in their own writing.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels:  students will identify and categorize Murphy’s craft moves, then revise their own narrative drafts to apply the concepts they learned.  Or, in the language of the Common Core:  Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed); Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.

Lesson:  I’ll introduce Dumplin’ during book talks by describing the plot and passing out the following excerpt:

The car behind me at the drive-thru backfires, and I rush inside.  My eyes take a second to adjust to the dim light.  “Sorry I’m late, Bo,” I say.  Bo.  The syllable bounces around in my chest and I like it.  I like the finality of a name so short.  It’s the type of name that says, Yes, I’m sure.

A heat burns inside of me as it rises all the way up through my cheeks.  I run my fingers along the line of my jaw as my feet sink into the concrete like quicksand.

The Truth:  I’ve had this hideous crush on Bo since the first time we met.  His unstyled brown hair swirls into a perfect mess at the top of his head.  And he looks ridiculous in his red and white uniform.  Like a bear in a tutu.  Polyester sleeves strain over his arms, and I think maybe his biceps and his hips have a lot in common.  Except the ability to bench-press.  A thin silver chain peeks out from the collar of his undershirt and his lips are red with artificial dye, thanks to his endless supply of red suckers.

He stretches an arm out toward me, like he might hug me.

I drag in a deep breath.

And then exhale as he stretches past me to flip the lock on the delivery door.  “Ron’s out sick, so it’s just me, you, Marcus, and Lydia.  I guess she got stuck working a double today, so ya know, heads up.”

“Thanks.”

I give students a specific purpose for reading, since we’re looking at this text as a mentor.  “While I love a lot about this book–the author’s diction, how her word choices change the narrator’s voice and reveal her personality and sense of humor, and the fantastic chemistry between Bo and Will, today I just want to pay attention to how Julie Murphy paces this scene.  As you read, you’ll notice how she just freezes time so you feel like you’re holding your breath.  Annotate how exactly she does this, and we’ll talk about it in five minutes.”

I read alongside my students, modeling notes on craft with the document camera.  After five minutes I ask them to share at their tables, very specifically, what they noticed.  Then, I solicit from each table group one craft move they saw, and where it was in the text.

“Well, dialogue kind of brings you back into the present, like at the end when Bo says something and kind of snaps Will out of her daydream,” one student offers.  I write on the board, dialogue–keeps you present.

“Awesome.  What else?”

“The long description of Bo’s appearance stops the action,” another says.

“Yep.”  I write on the board, description–freezes action.

We continue until each table has shared a craft move they’ve noticed.

“Okay, so today during workshop, I want you to think about how you might play with freezing time in your narratives.  Use what we talked about to help you revise the pacing in your scenes, and if you think Dumplin’ sounds good, add it to your what-to-read list.”

Follow-Up:  During that day’s workshop, I’ll confer with students and see where they might be strengthening existing moments of freezing time, or adding some brand new ones, in their narratives.

Later, as we finish the narrative unit, we’ll return to the anchor chart we’ve been adding to and create a rubric that reflects the skills we’ve focused on, one of which will be pacing.  I’ll also hope to see lots of students reading Dumplin’ over the coming weeks–doubling a booktalk with a craft study lesson is usually a highly effective way to get kids hooked on a book.

 

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