Category Archives: Narrative

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.

img_1531-1

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.

 

Using Picture Books as Secondary Mentor Texts

This year my family ditched the traditional Christmas festivities for a week in Orlando,

IMG_1606

Disney started his work as a cartoonist in high school.  How can we carve these same creative spaces for our own students?

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.

Screen-Shot-2014-11-07-at-1.51.36-PM-1514mm8The 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.”

 

 

Mini-Lesson Monday: Mining Memories to Begin a Writing Unit

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.

img_0728

My scars maps

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.”

img_0729

My scars story

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?

Mini-Lesson Monday – Strengthening Dialogue With Punctuation

Punctuation_Saves_Lives2After reading second drafts of my students’ narratives, I was wowed by so much of their writing.  Thoughtful leads, powerful topics, intriguing plot structures.  But, despite a mini-lesson on the conventions of writing dialogue last week, some of their characters’ conversations were lacking.  I needed to design a responsive mini-lesson accordingly.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Synthesize your knowledge of how punctuation works with narrative speech conventions to craft thoughtful dialogue; Construct dialogue based on your knowledge of a character’s personality.  Or, from the Common Core: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Lesson — While reading drafts, I set aside a few exemplary pieces of student work in terms of dialogue.  In each class period, there were at least two students whose dialogue was superior.  It was subtle, nuanced, and really added to the characters’ depth.

I asked students to open their writer’s notebooks to the Craft Study section and I projected one example of a student’s work on the board using my document camera.  “Good dialogue isn’t just about what a character says,” I begin. “It’s also about how they say it.  A greeting can really change based on phrasing or punctuation.”

I point to the example on the board.  It’s Logan’s, and in his dialogue, his mom is yelling at him for getting drunk:

“LOGAN WAITMAN SANDERS!” Mom hollered. “Just WHAT do you think you are doing, young man?!  And…and…YOU, Jeremy!  You should be ashamed of yourself!”

Everyone laughs, and I ask a volunteer to read the dialogue aloud.  Dylan does, with perfect angry-Mom-inflection.  He makes Logan shrink back in his seat a little.

I ask the class, “Why did Dylan know how to read that dialogue so perfectly?”  They volunteer: the capitalization helped; he knew when to raise his voice.  “How did he know to stutter?”  They say: the dots (ellipses, I add helpfully) told him to stutter.  “How did he know to sound kind of incredulous while yelling?”  They reply: the exclamation points, and especially that exclamation point mixed with a question mark.  “How did he know when to pause?”  They know: commas.

I put up other kinds of punctuation on the board–dashes, periods, italics–and we discuss what effect each of those would have on a character’s dialogue.  Students jot all this down in their notebooks.  Then, I pass back their drafts and ask them to find a partner.  “Now that you know how to really make dialogue more personal, revise your dialogue in your drafts.  Work with a partner to determine whether or not your dialogue has the effect you want it to when you revise–write a line, then ask your partner to read it aloud the way Dylan read Logan’s.”

Students take ten minutes per person to revise, then we launch into writer’s workshop with the remainder of class.  I write beside them on the board, working on my own dialogue in my NaNoWriMo novel.

In each of my other classes, we repeat this exercise with drafts that contain good dialogue.  It’s so important to use student work as mentor texts–students see that great writing is attainable, not just imitable, when we show them their peers’ successes.

Follow-Up — After today’s revision and writing workshops, students will have one more day in class to keep working on their drafts before turning them in again.  I’ll hope to see much improved dialogue, and as such, I’ll ask writers to answer a question on their self-evaluations about how their dialogue enhances their characterization.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Learning Concrete Details with Independent Reading

More than any other writing, I love reading my students’ narratives. We start the year with narrative for many reasons, but my favorite is that I get to know my students faster than I can get to know them during one-on-one reading conferences or during group activities and discussions.

Here’s a short list of what I’ve learned from student stories just this week:

  • several of my male students wish they had a father who showed interest in their lives
  • a few of my girls live with their fathers because of their mothers’ poor choices
  • several boys and girls journeyed long and far, walking miles through jungles, so their families could escape oppression, rape, and murder
  • many of my teenagers have experienced heartache because of love interests, friends, and family members
  • a few are still grieving the loss of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends who died from suicide
  • at least one young woman still holds anger toward her mom because of the way she handled a brother’s addiction and abuse

Personal and powerful, all of these stories matter. My goal as a writing teacher is to help my writers harness the words so emotion reigns in the heart of the reader. The problem?

Abstract language.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Show understanding of the terms abstract vs. concrete; in your independent reading books, identify concrete details and figurative language; analyze the effectiveness of the author’s language; revise your writing to include fresh concrete details and figurative language as you create a text that evokes powerful emotions.


Lesson
— Before the mini-lesson, students have already drafted a few pieces, narratives or poems. I abstractconcreteusually do the mini-lesson after silent reading time, but for this lesson I begin before because I want to give students a specific purpose for reading.

First, I write on the board ABSTRACT and CONCRETE and we review what these terms mean when it comes to writing. I try to use only abstract words as they begin to discuss this with me.

“Awesome, you might get it,”

“Wonderful, I think you know what I mean,”

“Hey, that’s pretty good…”

Eventually, they will pick up on what I’m doing, and we make a list of abstract words. Then I give each table-group a word and challenge them to come up with a concrete description that shows us that abstract word. They get 1-2 minutes, and then we share out as I write the concrete details on the board. We discuss the difference in how an author can create emotion.

Next, I ask students to pay attention to the concrete details in the book they are reading, and I give them each a sticky note. “As you read today find at least one sentence where the author does something really clever with concrete details and/or figurative language,” I say.

Students read for 15 minutes, pen in hand, paying particular attention to the author’s craft. When time is up, I ask students to share their sentence in small groups and to analyze the effectiveness of the author’s word choice.

AllieTate“Think about what he’s trying to do there. Why did he mention the color of the sweater, or the smell of the breeze?” If they feel like the author’s accomplished creating emotion, they put the sticky on the board (or as in the photo here –poster).

Students need to not only recognize the details and know that they create some kind of imagery, they need to think about how effective the word choice is for what the author is doing at that moment in the story. If I can get them to start thinking about this, I can get them to begin making purposeful choices in their own writing.

Next, I ask students to search their own writing for concrete details that create images and to add a lot more. “Where can you add a phrase or line similar to what you found in the book you are reading? Is there somewhere you can add color or shape or texture?”

And we revise.

Follow-Up — When students immediately apply learning we’ve practiced using their personal reading materials, they begin to see the connections between becoming active readers and purposeful writers. This is the kind of lesson I do again and again with a different literary or grammar skills students to master. Next up:  subordinating conjunctions.

A few lines from students’ published narratives:

“Each body turned to watch as the green army, blurry, entered the gate. The ground only knew sadness and the sky transformed into a dark night, roaming like a lion.” –Tha Sung

“My first impression when I met Lucila:  petite, chunky, short red-velvet hair, wearing a sweater that covered her sins, mysterious face with a sealed silent mouth.” –Karina Rangel

“My brothers slept like angels with devilish grins.” –Geovanni Medina

Sharing Student Work — Making a Pledge to Do More

For some time now I’ve thought I needed to do more. I ask my students to write a lot. I ask them to take ownership of their process, practice their craft, take risks. I hope they will care about their audience, but unless it’s a post on their blogs (and sometimes even then) I don’t think they consider much about their readers.

My colleagues here at Three Teachers Talk and I had the idea a few years ago to publish student work on this site regularly. We planned it all out. We’d hope for student volunteers that might want to produce something like a mini-Nerdy Book Club but with student readers and student writers. Then I did a little research:

I found sites like Young Writers SocietyTeen Ink, Figment, Teen Lit, and of course, NaNoWriMo that publish the work of young writers and allow them to join online writing communities and learn about competitions, awards, scholarship, and more. This list of 40 of the Best Sites for Young Writers has even more resources.

I still want to do more, but what I need to do is introduce my writers to site like these and extend the invitation that they explore, discover, and get involved. I know a few will. Maybe many will.

In the meantime, here’s a sampling of the writing I’ve read this week. Not because I like the topic — it horrifies me on many levels — but because this writer shows heart, I want to share her work.  Read it. You’ll see why I know I need to do more to help my students write for audiences that will appreciate their craft.

Bruised-Knees by Alexia Alexander

It was a breaking point.

By the time my spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl, my face was wet with tears. I was sick, in part from eating, and in part from everything else. I had to cry quietly; I suffered silently in order to avoid questions, sometimes, even hidden behind smiles and laughter. The chocolate and caramel ice cream weighed my stomach down. I felt 200 lbs of milk, sugar, grief, loneliness, depression, cocoa, corn syrup, and artificial flavors. My entire 500 caloric intake itched in my throat. I felt heavy now. I felt worthless now. I felt defeated now. I ran as quickly up the stairs as I could, but voices, almost as loud as the screaming downstairs, followed me.

Why’d you eat that ice cream? You’ve already had enough. You’re just going to GAIN weight if you eat something like that. You can’t you even starve yourself right,” I told myself.

Staying up late reading about it, I prepared myself for chaos. Although I laid under two blankets and behind a locked door, I found little comfort. In fact, I hadn’t even kept the monsters out; they began to creep inside of my head. I spent the nights crying, reading pro-anamia blogs, drowning my ears out in Maria Mena, and looking up the most fabulous ways to destroy myself, self-esteem first.

Now getting a chance to test my research, I rushed to the bathroom, still crying. I looked at myself in the mirror; I cried even more. I was sobbing and choking, sounding like that one kid in elementary that always forgot his inhaler on mile-day. I dropped to my knees, as if I were about to pray, but I couldn’t remember what people were supposed to say to a divinity.I gripped the sides of bleach-white seats, as if my faith would be found there, and hung over the porcelain throne, like a sea-sick passenger. The bathroom became dizzy in my eyes, and the pink walls were a blur mixed in the leopard print bathroom curtain. The white tiles painted my knees black and blue and staring at them made the wave of sickness more intense. In the reflection of the toilet-bowl-water, I even looked green and sickly, but I can’t say my self-perception was quite accurate in those days.

I had screenshotted instructions on my cracked iPod screen on how to do it. I looked up everything. I needed all the how-to’s before I went through with anything. I knew I could use a toothbrush or two fingers. I knew I could make markers in my stomach. I knew how many seconds it would take. I knew that it would sting. I knew the long-term damage the acid could do to my teeth. I knew how deadly it was. I knew how sick I was.

But I continued, another event to add to my list of “First-Times.”

Slowly shoving a finger in between my lips, I danced it around trying to find the spot. I felt the tickling as I touched the dangling piece of skin. I added a finger, this time gagging slightly, but knowing no matter hard I cried, I couldn’t take my hand out. I gagged again,  bringing up the bile taste in my throat. I couldn’t choke. I had to keep going. I gagged another time, body split over the toilet as I heaved.

I had found the food that comes up almost as easily as it goes down. The ice cream coated my throat, for a second time, and it still felt cold. It masked the normal taste of vomit, gladly, and I finally felt lighter;I equated that to feeling better and didn’t think twice about why I was still crying.

Maybe you can be lovely now. See, you’re already feeling better,”  said the demons in my head, who told me things like this frequently. I tried to ignore them, but sometimes my own silent voice felt like a scream between my ears. I cried myself to sleep that night, still trying to convince myself I had done well.

I wish I had known then what I really was trying to rid myself of. I wish somewhere on that ground I really had some holy revelation, but wisdom like self-love and perseverance can only be taught from low moments like those. It took years to find what really weighed me down, more than food or fat. It took years to love myself and my body. It took years to get over the urge to skip a meal, and the shame after eating. It took years to face the demons and shut them up. But each moment that buckled me to my knees gave me strength, and brought me closer to where I am now. Moments I’d rather forget, have to remain real, so  I always remember my growth, and never repeat the past.

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

The Importance of Narrative: Stories That Stay With Us

I was reading a weekly one-pager yesterday and came upon this little note from a student:

IMG_9850

This student, Aleigha, had taken an elective writing class with me as a sophomore.  Now, as a senior, she wanted to revisit the story she’d begun two years ago, and give it a different ending.  I was surprised that Aleigha had remembered that story, and that its ending had nagged her for two years.  I was even more surprised, as I started to read her one-pager, that I remembered her story, too–a fictional narrative in which two soulmates are torn asunder by circumstance.  She’d ended the story unhappily, leaving the two protagonists separate.  In this year’s one-pagers, though, she’s slowly bringing them back together.

Aleigha’s narrative was powerful to her, and personal, despite its fictional genre.  Her peers’ feedback indicated that her characters’ situations were relateable–that everyone wants people in love to end up together, because it’s something we all strive for as humans.  Narratives give us something to root for.

During a Google Hangout this summer, Jackie talked about her students’ writing of narratives, and how “the transformative power of common stories” brought out their best and most vulnerable writing.  “Every child has a story to tell,” agrees Don Graves.  Because of this truth, narratives are my favorite genre to teach.

We all have a story to tell–a story that stays with us, that we can’t get out of our minds, no matter how long it’s been since the idea was seeded.

As my students write their narratives, I’m shocked by how naturally the words are flowing out of their pens.  When the topic is powerful, I feel like I have little to do in the way of writing instruction–I simply have to get out of the way and let them write.  I have mini-lessons planned on pacing, setting, sensory details, and characterization.  But I’m finding beautiful writing already extant in their drafts:

“Every time I step onto the ice, it takes me to my childhood,” Mitchell’s story begins.

Kaylee stuns me with: “The musky smell of burning wood rose into the air as the sound of water crackling split the silence.”

“Realizing you’re gay, and accepting you’re gay, are two very different things,” another story leads with.

The brilliant Tom Newkirk explains why students are able to effortlessly write this way in Minds Made for Stories:  “The hero of the story is a narrative itself…Narrative is there to help us ‘compose’ ourselves when we meet difficulty or loss. It is there to ground abstract ideas, to help us see the pattern in a set of numerical data, to illuminate the human consequences of political action. It is home base.”

We make sense of the world by weaving its happenings into a story–by the time our students come to their notebooks with an idea, they’ve already rehearsed this story many times.  They are just bursting to tell it.  It is home base.

While narrative may not be considered the most “rigorous” of genres, I believe it is the most important one.  It is the writing that demands to be done–the genre that is the most personally fulfilling, the most emotionally wrenching to write, but the most necessary to exorcise from our minds.  Let your students write their stories–write your own beside them–and watch your community of writers bloom.

Mini-Lesson Monday: This lesson stinks, literally.  Teaching Sensory Details in Narrative Writing.

FullSizeRender-1I, like many of my students, am a kinesthetic learner.  Not only do I learn by doing, but for many tasks, I require a hands-on approach to fully grasp the complexity of a concept.  Yet as a teacher, applying kinesthetic techniques to English concepts can be somewhat challenging.  While we write and read and physically play with words, I try to create simulations and activities that allow my students to experiment with writing in unique ways.  This activity, which is one of my favorites of the year, uses students’ olfactory sense to stimulate sensory detail writing within their personal narratives.

Objectives:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will identify personal memories associated with unidentified scents.  Recalling prior and newly acquired knowledge, they will translate their observations into descriptive writing by constructing sentences that rely on sensory details.  Finally, students will apply their understanding of descriptive writing to their own personal narratives.

Lesson:  This mini-lesson takes preparation, but students’ responses are worth the extra time.  First, collect the following supplies: Plastic cups (I use blue Solo cups), a permanent marker, tinfoil, a toothpick, rubber bands (optional), and a variety of objects that have a scent.  This year I used lime juice, perfume, scented wax blocks from Walmart, BBQ sauce, apple cider vinegar, garlic, mint extract, crayons, and Play-Doh.  Every year is different though and I typically rely on what I have around my home.

I put the scented sauces, liquids, and objects in each of the cups, cover the cups with tin-foil, and wrap a rubber band around the top to secure the foil.  I label each cup with a number and poke holes in the tin-foil with a toothpick.  Next I place the cups around the room. After taking some notes on the concept of “show don’t tell,” students walk around the room smelling the contents of each cup.  They must not peek (believe me they will try)!

FullSizeRender

My students were convinced I had a tiny Abercrombie and Fitch model in this cup. In reality, it was a block of scented wax from Walmart.

I provide each student with a grid in which they fill in the cup number, adjectives to describe the scent, and personal memories the scent conjures.  They must then write a two-to-three-line story or scenario in which they describe the scent without identifying what the scent is.  By the end of the activity, when we come back together as a group, students excitedly volunteer to read their sentences in order to reveal the contents of the cup.

Follow Up:  Following this activity, we identify sensory details within our independent reading books and take turns discussing these details within our groups.  Finally, during workshop time, students add sensory details to their personal narrative rough drafts, in turn “showing” images rather than “telling” them.  The process of digging into their narratives and writing in the margins reinforces the messy, step-by-step process of revision that many of my students struggle to grasp.  If time allows, students partake in a whip share in which we each share one line from our narratives that includes sensory details.

What are some untraditional writing activities you use? How do you get your students moving around the classroom?

Cliché College Essays and Why I Hate the “Three Ds”

IMG_0040On the Monday their essay was due, I handed out a rubric. “I cannot and will not grade you on this essay,” I said to my AP Literature class.

In all honesty, I don’t care what they get for a grade on this piece. After days, weeks, and months of toil, a number cannot and will not determine the actual value of this paper: the college essay.

I have a love-hate relationship with the college essay. I love that students have the opportunity to express themselves through writing and that they are encouraged to provide personal stories. I especially love the emphasis on creativity that draws them away from the rigidity and structure of standardized tests and check-box-surveys. What I hate is the overwhelming weight that accompanies telling “your story,” the crowning piece of one’s 17 years of life.

My first year of teaching, I fretted over college essay advice. I told students to steer clear of the three Ds—death, disease, and divorce—and to instead explore a wider variety of ideas that included mundane moments. I wanted them to beware the standard cliché essays of human suffering.

What I found was in restricting these three topics, I also restricted the very stories that shaped these students’ identities. After all, our students are still teenagers; they have many more stories to live and we mustn’t undermine those stories of death, disease, and divorce that have framed their present reality.

Sarah’s essay on her father’s death and her inability to hold his hand during his last moments tears at my heart every time I read it, and I have been working with Sarah on this piece for a year. She writes:

It is nearly two years after my father has passed, and my inability to hold my father’s hand on his deathbed still haunts my dreams and consumes my thoughts. I am sixteen years old, I have done regretful things in my life, but the singular moment I regret most in my life is not holding my dad’s hand during the one time he needed it to be held by me.

Sammie’s poetic piece on coping with her best friend’s severe eating disorder and eventual hospitalization and rehabilitation has a place in Sammie’s college folder. Maddie’s experience meeting her mother’s boyfriend for the first time after the shock of her parents’ divorce belongs filed alongside her SAT scores.

Instead of limiting their stories or categorizing them as cliche, we, as teachers, must help our students explore these experiences through expert narration and craft. After all, doesn’t the beauty in literature rest in its familiarity? Its common story? Its trumpeting of empathy, underdogs, and resilience?

How do you approach college essays, and how do you help students who are struggling with essay topics?

%d bloggers like this: