This year, our first big writing unit was on personal narratives. I always look forward to this unit and for so many reasons. First, it seems like kids have an easier time writing about themselves or their lives than just about any other topic. You can typically get any student to write about himself or an experience he’s had - even those who claim to hate writing. Second, personal narratives are a great way for me to learn about my students. Narratives reveal everything from affinities, to life experiences, to information about the relationships they have with others. I think it’s a perfect way to start them off as writers!
There are a total of nine lessons in this unit and each has been written to last a day. However, when I completed this unit in my classroom, we spent a month working through the writing process. The point of each of these lessons is to identify big ideas or major steps in the process. But, you decide how the timing schedule will work for you and your group of students. You can easily extend one of these lessons to last several days.
Today’s lesson was originally meant to be part of another on choosing your topic. However, after listening and working with students during the previous lesson, it was clear that they needed more time.
During the previous lesson, I had asked students to think about why they chose that particular piece. Why is it important to you? Why do you want to tell this story more than any other story? What do you want us to learn about you from this story? It was my hope that this process would help them pick out the most important part of that experience so that they could narrow their topic some. Rather than answering those questions, most students just stated that they liked the piece or were able to write a great deal about their topic. I realized it was time for re-teaching.
When I was in college, one of my professors told the story of a student teacher she was observing whose math lesson completely fell apart. It was obvious that it had been well planned, but for whatever reason, it just wasn’t clicking with the students. Rather than breaking down and scrapping the entire thing, the student teacher asked the students to raise their hands if they were able to solve the problem and could explain how they got their answer to someone else. She then paired those students with others in the room who had not raised their hands. She told the “proficient students” to explain their thinking to their peer(s) and show them how they arrived at the correct answer even if it wasn’t the way she had shown them. Slowly but surely, the students who did not understand initially were catching on after listening to alternative problem solving methods from their peers. First, I was impressed by how this teacher didn’t fall apart in the midst of failure - and failing while being observed! But more importantly, I learned a great lesson that I am not the only teacher in the room. And many time, my students are just as capable of teaching each other as I am!
In my afternoon class, I had a couple of students who completed the previous day’s assignment and had moved on to other steps. When I "interviewed" one student about choices he had made, he said something that struck me as being useful for helping others who were stuck in the previous day’s lesson. He basically explained that he used visualizing to put himself back in that time in order to know which details to add to his piece. Well, well, well... We had been working on visualizing for weeks, but hadn’t yet applied it to our writing. So, I recorded a mini-interview with him and played it for my morning class that was still struggling to explain their choices. After playing it, I had them visualize the experience they wrote about. Think back to where you were, when it occurred, who was there, what did you see, smell, hear, etc.? Then, I re-asked the questions from the previous day, but this time, just one at a time. After asking the question and giving some thinking time, I had everyone share their answers with their writing partners. No writing this time - just talking. We repeated this until I had re-asked all of the questions and had a chance to listen to at least one answer from everyone. It took awhile, but was well worth it once I saw that students were actually getting it this time!
Rather than having students share with each other at the end of the workshop, I instead used the time to reiterate the importance of using the strategies we learn in class. I applauded my “interviewee” once again for using the visualizing strategy independently and in a way I had not yet directly taught him.