Where In The World Do You Come From?

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SWBAT participate in a round of council, addressing the topic "Describe the world you come from," followed by a diagnostic narrative writing prompt about the same topic.

Big Idea

How does the world you come from shape your dreams and aspirations?

Council as Prethinking

30 minutes

I always begin the year with a diagnostic narrative writing sample from my students, in order to assess their strengths and weaknesses as writers.  With this information, then, I can plan mini-grammar or writing conventions lessons as necessary, to hopefully work the most stubborn errors out of their writing as the year progresses, as well as determine what work we have to do with development and organization.

I have chosen this particular prompt because it meets several of the aims I have for the first trimester, including:

  • Narrative writing will be the central focus of our first trimester.
  • Strong narrative writing skills are integral to all types of writing I will expect my students to explore.   As Lucy Calkins, et al, reminds in Pathways to the Common Core, "Narratives are important   . . . because they are an essential component in almost every other kind of writing . . ." (113).
  • This particular topic--the world you come from--connects to a central thematic focus of identity that we will explore in The House on Mango Street.
  • Students' drafts will be revised upon completion of The House on Mango Street unit, with new attention to language and descriptions, as modeled throughout the narrative style of the book. The prompt itself actually has one foot in narrative writing and the other in informative writing, but after the experience of reading Cisneros, my hope is that my students will be more prone to model the freshness of her narrative style in their revisions.
  • The actual prompt is one of the current University of California admissions essay prompts, and most of my students enjoy hearing that they are dabbling in college-level work.

 *   *   *

This lesson begins with a round of council.  Council is very much a part of the philosophy of my school, particularly in the Advisory/Homeroom class.  At a recent training I attended, however, I realized how helpful the procedure could be in generating ideas for a writing prompt in ELA, especially for students who have difficulty getting started.  The concept is simple: students are arranged in a circle in order to share stories.  A talking piece is passed around--I use an elephant Webkins that a former student donated--with the understanding that only the individual with the talking piece is allowed to speak at that moment (for a more thorough explanation of council, visit website here).  I introduce the topic, "Tell about the world you come from," and then I begin with the talking piece, providing my students with a glimpse into my world so that they can choose to model their contribution after mine if they need to.  I try keep it brief but creative and colorful.  

My class size is 25 and my class meets for 70 minutes, so each student is allowed to share for roughly one minute.  If your class size is larger, or time is a consideration, set the parameters from the start on sharing-time limitations.

FINAL NOTE:  One last perk that this prompt and the council approach provide is perhaps a fresh solution to what might be a tired bag of beginning-of-year icebreaker activities.


Drafting the Response

40 minutes

Once council has concluded, I move my students into drafting their written responses.  I explain to them that the writing prompt is very much the same as the council prompt, with the added connection of how the world they come from has shaped their dreams and aspirations.  The actual UC prompt is as follows:

Describe the world you come from--for example, your family, community, or school--and tell how that world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

I reveal the prompt, which I have written on the whiteboard and have kept covered throughout council.  The only instructions I give my students are to make sure that their work represents the best they are capable of creating at this point in their writing careers and under timed conditions.  I remind them that it is important to remember why I am asking them to write, which is to serve as a diagnostic of their strengths and weaknesses as new, eighth-grade writers.  I am available to help them get started if necessary, but I am hoping that the round of council has alleviated any so-called writer's block.  Beyond that, I remind my students to do the best they can without my assistance, so that their writing can serve as a true diagnostic for me:

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My students will write until the end of the period and turn in their drafts before they leave.  With council occupying the first half of our class, I do not anticipate that many, if any, will finish early.  If any students do, however, I will instruct them to proofread their drafts as best they can and/or work on a quiet activity until class is over.