Tag Archives: prewriting

Tried and (Still) True: An Architectural Approach to Writing

Helen Becker

If you know me, you know that I am a Brene’ Brown fan. No, take that back. I’m a huge Brene’ Brown fan. Brown helps me make my life make sense, both personally and professionally. Brown’s work as an ethnographic researcher influenced my research in educational best practices. As I began my doctoral research in self-efficacy and perceptions of college and career readiness among high school students, I gravitated to Brown’s experiences in grounded theory. Grounded theory, she writes, evolves from people’s lived experiences rather than from experimentation to prove or disprove theories.

Brown adds, “In grounded theory, we don’t start with a problem or a hypothesis or a literature review, we start with a topic. We let the participants define the problem or their main concern about the topic, we develop a theory, and then we see how it fits in the literature.”

Reflecting on these statements, I had an “A ha!” moment: much the same happens in the writing process when a teacher allows students to authentically express their thoughts and ideas. We create opportunities for our students to start with a topic – maybe a person, place, or a moment – and see where the writing takes them. Then we add layers and layers of instruction to shape the first draft into new drafts and eventually, maybe, into various writing products. A poem? Perhaps. An essay? Form follows function.

We teach writers how to bend their writing into new and different forms rather than generating prompt after prompt after prompt for students to write in circles of nothingness.

So how does Brene’ Brown fit into this blog post? Brown’s May 4th Dare to Lead podcast features author and leadership expert, Douglas Conant, and his new book (with Amy Federman) The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights. Conant’s book, like many featured by Brown, has high priority on my “To Read Next” list. In the podcast, Conant discusses the importance of a strong foundation to guide us through times of uncertainty. Times like now. Our experiences, Conant states, are a blueprint for our future.

Brown and Conant’s discussion intersected my own thinking as I pondered the next installment of “Tried and (Still) True” for Three Teachers Talk. What came to mind? Blueprinting.

Blueprint writing from an equity stance means considering spaces other than the “traditional” blueprint layout.

Tried and (Still) True – June 2021

This month, I’m sharing The Blueprint, modified from a lesson learned by many Abydos teachers, with credit for the original lesson going to Dr. Joyce Armstrong Carroll in the first edition of Acts of Teaching and Peter Stillman in Families Writing. While the original lesson described in Acts of Teaching calls for a house-esque foldable, over the years, I modified the lesson to have students think about any dwelling space (a home, a basketball arena, a car) where they could envision a blueprint. Modifying the lesson in this way meets the needs of students who may not have a place to call home but rather a place where they feel at home.

Here’s a rough sketch of The Blueprint lesson cycle:

We begin with the concept of a blueprint: what is a blueprint, who uses it, what it communicates, and why it is important? We look at sample blueprints and engage in some inferential thinking based on what the blueprint communicates between and beyond the architect’s blue lines.

Then I invite students to think about a space that is important to them. We might draw on previous pre-writing activities such as “People, Places, Moments” or an A to Z list. I encourage students to think about spaces other than a house: one student drew the dashboard of his beloved vintage (beatup) Camaro while another chose the principal’s office because he spent a lot of time there. Before students land on a place to sketch, I model how I sketched the blueprint of my grandmother’s house in Longview, Texas. I tell them how the details you can’t remember don’t matter. What matters is what you remember. I also remind them this isn’t Art class. I’m not grading the accuracy of the drawing.

Once students get their own blueprint generated, I have them focus on one aspect of the blueprint where they can add more detail: what is on the walls? Is there furniture? Plants or trees? Photos? This line of inquiry generates more details to add to the blueprint.

For example, some student-writers feel more comfortable on the basketball court or soccer field.

Then I invite students to write about the connections they feel to this space or to one aspect of the space they just drew. These connections may turn into a narrative or an informative piece or a poem. Form follows function.

One year, a student blueprinted my classroom. He wrote, “In Mrs. Becker’s classroom, I can be myself. I can walk in the door, sit in my desk, look at the pictures of her family, and I feel like I am part of her family too.”

Carroll says in Acts of Teaching, blueprinting “allows students to recreate places that hold memories worth writing about” (18). It is in these memories that stories come back to life from the perspective of the writer, now a few years older and hopefully wiser. Collecting these stories on paper, what Brene’ Brown calls “storycatching,” becomes a means to understand our past and use our memories, both positive and negative, to guide our writing and shape our future selves.

About the author:

One time I blueprinted my Moscow kitchen and wrote about scorching quinoa and testing the bounds of international relations.

Dr. Helen Becker has used blueprint writing as a pre-writing vehicle in nearly every high school ELA course she has ever taught, accounting for roughly 16 years of her own blueprint stories! She has blueprinted about life in her tiny Moscow apartment (pictured here) with her husband as well as the layout of the #8 hole – her nemesis – at Leland Country Club. In her current role as a Research Data Analyst for Clear Creek ISD in the Houston, Texas, area, she is more likely to blueprint her two-screen Excel spreadsheet dashboard than the dashboard of her car.  Her newest blueprint story though? Designing the guest room of her new home to welcome her first grandson for a visit at the end of June. The library of children’s books continues to grow by the day.

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.

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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.”

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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?

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