This year, I’ve challenged myself to rethink genre instruction so that students gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the three main types. In order to build stronger connections between reading and writing, I reworked my units so that they are completely intertwined. Just as with my non-fiction units, you’ll find lessons focused mainly on reading skills in a unit called, “All About Fiction” while those centered around writing skills in a unit called, “Fictional Writing.” In my classroom, both units were taught simultaneously over a nine-week period.
Students created their own fictional characters in the first five lessons in this writing unit. In the remaining lessons, students use that character to write a fiction story modeled after one of the folktale genres studied in class. Each writing lesson was designed to partner with a reading lesson with the same focus. For instance, in “Folktales: Locating the Introduction,” students learn about what an introduction is, where it is located in a fiction story and why it is important. This lesson was meant to precede the writing lesson where students create the introduction to their own fiction stories. However, they easily could be taught separately if needed to accommodate your schedule.
I ask students to pull out their writers’ notebooks, pencils, and fictional character drafts as I explain this week’s work. Today we begin creating a fictional story that will incorporate what we’ve learned about the folktale genre. The characters we created over the past several days will be the main characters in our stories. Each day, we’ll craft a new part of our plot after looking at examples from mentor texts read in class.
“The first step in writing our story is to determine the genre we will write. I’m going to challenge everyone to write a type of folktale. Over the past few days we’ve looked at the characteristics of fairy tales, fables, and tall tales and read a few examples together. Think about which of the three you most enjoyed reading and then think about why. This might help you decide which of the three types you’d most like to write. Keep in mind that the fictional character you created will be the star of your story. Think about your character and what genre might fit him/her best. For example, if you created a girl who has magical powers, a fairy tale might fit her best. If your character has a supernatural ability then maybe a tall tale would be best. Let’s review what we’ve written about our characters. Open to the second page of your drafts where you wrote about your characters abilities and what they are known for. As you review what you wrote, is there a certain genre that pops out at you? One that seems like it might fit best?”
I explain, “I’ll be writing a fiction story right alongside you. And to be honest, I’ve never written a folktale before so this will be a challenge for me as well! As a reader, I’ve always enjoyed reading tall tales. I remember reading the story of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox when I was about your age and it has stuck with me ever since. As I look over the three type of stories, I believe this is what I’d like to write. I’ve never been a big fan of fairy tales and I want to write a story full of people rather than animals. So fairy tales and fables probably aren’t the best fit for me. Also, as I look over my own notes from my fictional character, I remember writing that she has a supernatural ability to read books quickly. And not just read fast, I mean lightning fast! She can read 1,000 books in a minute! If I think about that ability and the characteristics of each genre, it seems to me that the tall tale genre might be the best fit for her. She’s not an animal and I’m not planning on writing a story based on her with a group of animals, so I think I can eliminate the fables genre. Although she can do something pretty amazing, she doesn’t need magic to do it – it’s just her natural ability. Also she’s not a member of royalty and doesn’t live in a far away castle, so it doesn’t sound like fairy tales would be a good fit for my character either. After looking at each genre and keeping my character in mind, I still feel like tall tales is the story for me! That type of thinking is exactly what I want you to do. I want you to take a minute or two and think quietly by yourself. You know your character best and so you’re the best person to decide what genre will fit him or her well. Use your folktales chart as a guide as you eliminate genres that are poor fits and find the one that will fit the best.
After a few moments, I ask for a quick count of who’s thinking of writing each genre. “OK! Looks like we have a good mix here! I’m so excited to get started so I can read your stories! Open your notebooks to your next page and write today’s date at the top. Then, write ‘I’m Thinking of Writing a _______________.’ Fill in the blank with the name of the genre you’ve chosen."
“The next step in our process is deciding which characteristics of our chosen genre to use in our writing. Let me show you what I mean.” I refer to the genre chart, which I project on the SmartBoard. “We all need to choose at least three characteristics from our genre to use in our stories. This way, our reader will know without a doubt which genre we’ve chosen. You may choose more than three, but try not to create too much work for yourself and choose more than five. As I look at my chart, there are some characteristics that jump out at me and I’m definitely going to want to use in my writing. For instance, ‘character may have supernatural ability.’ Of course I’m going to include this because I’ve already decided that my character has a supernatural ability to read quickly. I’m going to put a check by that. OK, what else? I think I have to include some exaggeration here too. I think that goes well with my character’s ability. I’m not going to use ‘may be based on someone who actually lived’ because my character came from my head – not real life! Also I don’t think I’m going to use ‘funny stories.’ There may be some funny moments in my story, but I’m not going to try to make the whole thing a big barrel of laughs! So that leaves ‘may use trickery.’ Hmm… I think I could make that work. Maybe in my story my character uses her ability to trick people in some way. I’m not really sure how yet, but I definitely think I can make those characteristics work well together. I’m going to put a check by it. Now, it’s your turn. I want you to think aloud through the same process. Go through each of the characteristics of the genre you chose and decide which three will work best for your character and the story you want to write. You’re going to talk this through with your partner, thinking aloud as you go – just like I just did. Take your time and talk through each one. When you’ve found the three you want to use, put a check by them. When I see that everyone has shared, we’ll move on to listing our choices on paper.”
I give students time to talk about what they plan to write before any type of writing assignment. This way, more ideas make it to the paper and sometimes in a shorter amount of time.
After discussing their ideas, I do a quick status of the class to see who has stuck with their original genre and who made a change after looking a little more closely at the characteristics needed for each. During independent writing time, I ask students to write down what they shared with their partners - list the characteristics they’ve chosen to use and their beginning ideas of what their story might be like. While students write, I conduct individual or small group conferences.
To close the lesson, I have students share their work. First they share with their writing partner any changes or additions made since they talked last and if there is time, with someone else at their tables. In sharing, students oftentimes find “holes” in their own work they didn’t notice earlier, think of other details they’d like to add, or simply have one more chance at thinking aloud about their work before moving on to the next step.