Sunday, January 10, 2010

Warming up for narratives

It's January, time for my students to move on to working on personal narratives. One problem that I've had when we work on personal narratives is that students fall into a dull, humdrum travelogue: "I went to Hershey Park. I rode on the Comet. It was fun. I rode on the Great Bear. It was fun."

Ugh. So I wondered--how can I help students to see the real value of the personal narrative? How can we take it beyond just a sequence of events and into a story that conveys a theme? And then I thought about it from the student's perspective. We're just moving from working on informational essays. Am I really ready to stand in front of everyone and talk about my deep emotions? Am I ready to reflect on deep experiences and share them with an audience? No! In fact, if I were called on to write about a personal experience, I'd probably fall back on a theme park story too--it's safe and easy.

So we all need to become more comfortable with writing about ourselves. Before we can jump into narratives, we all need to warm up a bit with a smaller piece of writing. I decided to use the book My Great-Aunt Arizona as a mentor text for writing about an important person in our lives. Here's how it has evolved so far:

1. On our first day back from break, we read My Great-Aunt Arizona. The pictures are so rich and detailed that they drew the students right in. Then, I said, "In this book, Gloria Houston writes about a person who is important to her--she says that she her great-aunt travels with her in her mind. We're going to make a mind map to show the people that we carry with us in our minds." (This is adapted from the heart map in the Mentor Texts book by Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli.)

2. I used an old trick for the mind maps. One at a time, students came up to the overhead screen. On a large piece of construction paper, I traced their silhouettes, as outlined against the screen by the overhead projector. Now, this step isn't necessary, and kids could just as easily have drawn a heart or a face themselves. But the silhouettes did add a "wow" factor!

3. Students worked to either write or draw pictures to show the people, places, or animals that are important to them. I didn't give them much direction, as I wanted to see what they would do. Some spontaneously wrote long explanations about why the people were important; others wrote about dogs and cats they had loved and lost; still others wrote about the people they see every day.

4. We reread My Great-Aunt Arizona from a writer's perspective. This time, we were looking for how Gloria Houston used repetitive phrases and ideas, and why she might have chosen to do this. By the end of the book, students were reciting along with the book: "With her long full dresses/and a pretty white apron/High buttoned shoes/and many petticoats, too". They did understand that the author repeated these phrases that she wanted us to remember, and that these helped us to understand more about what Arizona was like.

5. We collected all of the things that we noticed about the author's style on a chart: "We can write like Gloria Houston!" Students mentioned the repetition, the way that she organized the ideas as a story, and the way that she used concrete details to tell us about what Arizona was like.

6. By Friday, students were starting to brainstorm ideas about one person from their mind maps. Next week, we'll expand on these and look at how we want to write them.

I've learned so much about my students as they have worked on this activity...what students like, who is important in their lives, and how they approach writing about themselves. All of these details will only help me to support them as we venture into writing personal narratives in the weeks to come.

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