It’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.”
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.