MAKING (and writing) a Personal Narrative: Scaling Print Barriers and Building Stamina

This week, I had the opportunity to make and write personal narratives with writers and teachers from Fieldstone Middle School in North Rockland, New York.

And I thought I’d share that process with you, so that you may iterate on it and share your own ideas and work back with the rest of us. We’ve been talking about narrative writing all month in my Facebook group, Building Better Writers, and I know that at least a few people there are hoping that I’ll share enough of the week behind me to help them begin this work themselves. I also know that some of the teachers that I supported in North Rockland might like a narrative of the plan that they can return to.

I’ll try to make this as short and sweet and useful as possible, all.

Offer Writers Loose Parts

I began by offering writers PlayDoh and a pad of sticky notes, although I’ll be honest: If I had had the ability to offer them an abundant collection of loose parts, I would have. The fact is that I was teaching in different rooms in different parts of a school that isn’t my home. I used to teach on a cart and complain about that quite a bit. Now, I teach from my trunk. Ha!

I was able to carry enough PlayDoh and sticky notes for 25 kids plus me, so this is what I went with.

Variety and choice matters, though. That’s a different post for a different day, but if you need some loose parts inspiration, check out this photo album. I’ve dropped 250 photos from the year behind me inside. That should get your gears turning.

Let Them Play

When writers of any age encounter loose parts, they typically begin fiddling with them. The kids that I worked with last week tore into the PlayDoh that I offered and began working it in their hands, softening it up. Then, they began creating balls and ropes, smashing them into one another, and making new and different things all over again. Some tore the PlayDoh into chunks. Some began building more distinct things. Within a few moments and without invitation or directive, they were happily and almost silently immersed in play.

So, that’s when I started my first mini-lesson.  It wasn’t about the writing process or craft. It was about loose parts, what they are, and how they might help us as writers. You can find a draft of it right here, if you’re interested.

Help Them Generate an Idea

Once we better understood the power of loose parts and my purposes for bringing them into their writing space, I taught a mini-lesson that focused on idea generation. I defined divergent, emergent, and convergent thinking, and writers used sticky notes to gamestorm a ton of potential personal narrative ideas by listening to a stream of prompts. I asked them slowly, I modeled my own responses, and I gave them about thirty seconds to generate their own. If you want the prompts, they’re embedded in this document. 

Here’s what it looked like as writers listened and captured ideas one idea and one note at a time:

Abundance matters, and I find that if I take care to prompt writers with questions that are truly beautiful and that help them think of unexpected and delightful things, they’re better able to generate a whole bunch of great ideas.

If I don’t inspire them to think divergently in this way first, they typically struggle to define any ideas, to choose their very best ideas, and to sink into stories that are rich and robust and interesting enough to sustain their energy throughout the entire process. When writers choose shallow story ideas, they struggle to develop personal narratives that are truly meaningful to themselves or to others, too.

Emergent thinking begins when writers consider all of the ideas in front of them and begin connecting, mixing, remixing, and breaking ideas down even further. Sparks fly. Decisions are made.

I asked writers to place a star on their top three ideas. Then, I asked them to think about how robust each idea was, which really helped them learn important things that changed them, and which might be most interesting to an audience.

I challenged them to rapidly design THAT idea, using PlayDoh.

As they began building, they slipped into natural talk with those around them. They discussed their ideas, they challenged one another’s thinking, they laughed, they played, and they messed around.

And I wanted them to.

I noticed that some writers arrived at their ideas differently than I anticipated they would. Some didn’t generate a ton of written sticky notes, but they kept playing with their PlayDoh as I prompted and others wrote. They built one detailed idea that they were really invested in. We explored their work and their approach during our end of workshop celebration in one class on the very first day.

Here, a writer shared a moment when her mother pulled a bean bag chair close to her bed, in an effort to get her to talk through some tough feelings. “My mom wanted to know what was wrong,” she said. “But I felt so sad. Her face was close to mine, but I just turned away. I pulled up the covers, and I turned away.” She had just a few ideas written on sticky notes, but her build was beautiful. And it fed her writing forward the next day.

Assess Progress

As writers went through the process of defining and building their topics, I visited each of them for less than one minute. I asked them about their choices, documented the degree to which every writer in the room generated abundant ideas, and spoke with them about their satisfaction levels.

If writers were still struggling to generate an idea–and there were a few–I gave them just four questions to think about:

  1. When was the last time you laughed?
  2. When was the last time that someone had your back?
  3. When was the last time that you felt like you really belonged?
  4. When was the last time you were proud of yourself?

Every one of those outliers found an idea found one inside of those questions.

Center Structure as You Start

On the second day, I opened my mini-lesson by sharing all of my own story ideas from the previous session. I invited writers to vote on my topics. The first class that I taught unanimously agreed that they wanted me to tell a small moment story about my 9/11 experience, from a teacher’s perspective. I pulled them close around my table, and I modeled how I was building out the four parts of that story’s structure.

Because it was my intent to make the structure clear, I built part to whole. Some writers don’t do this, though. Some create just one build, and then, they tell about the parts inside of it. Often, when this happens, they play with the build, moving people around and adding and iterating on the design as they go. This is perfectly acceptable. The same story that I built above might also look like this:

Pretty is not what matters here, and whether writers build part to whole or whole to part is not of importance either, in my experience. What matters is that writers are using loose parts to build out the structure of their stories, and that I am able to assess their progress toward that day’s learning target (or teaching point, if you go bigger here) in the absence of print before we make that transition.

Transition to Print

As writers built, I visited with each and offered just a question or two that inspired iteration. I wanted them to better their builds, deepen their details, and focus less on prettying up their PlayDoh creations and more on elevating the complexity of their thinking.

Once the structures were built and bettered, I reminded everyone of the four different bits of the story’s structure, and I invited them to use their builds to jot “just a few notes” on each of the four blocks.

“You will want to remember your story plan when you come into class tomorrow,” I told them. “Make sure you protect all of those gorgeous details.”

Some writers put down full passages. Others scribbled sentences or a paragraph. Some made a bullet list for each part of the structure.

And one writer didn’t put down anything at all.

“Hey, you won’t want to forget your story plan,” I smiled. He was building. “Use the notes to keep your ideas.”

“I don’t need to,” he said, stiffening. And I respected this quiet boundary that he was very clearly setting.

I praised his ideas, asked if I could jot his thoughts down for him, and offered criteria-specific praise for each oral thought that he shared. After all, I wasn’t assessing his print power on this day. I was assessing the degree to which he could plan a powerful story, bit by bit. And he did. And I didn’t want him to lose those ideas.

Before writers left that day, I’d documented the degree to which each writer had a character, a setting, a small moment story that took place in one setting at one time, and a lesson or bit of inspiration for the reader. I also documented the degree to which they used print. Like this. On a chart.

This is how I learned, and I wasn’t surprised, that a few were struggling with that last bit: How our small moment stories changed our feelings, our thoughts, or our actions. How our small moments mattered to us, and how they might inspire others.

This could be their next lesson.

Continue Making and Writing Bit by Bit

Now that writers have viable ideas and strong structural plans, it makes sense to teach them how to write a beautiful beginning.

I might begin with a mini-lesson that helps them develop and introduce the characters in their stories (themselves included). There are so many ways to do this. As a teacher, I typically do a bit of divergent thinking here as well. What are all of the lessons that I could teach them? Which ones will I prioritize?

I start with structure too. And I situate my potential mini-lessons inside of it. This is a snapshot of my initial unit planning for fictional narrative from some time ago. It reflects the first phase of my design work, where I truly just brainstormed out, as rapidly as I could, the lessons that I thought writers might need as I moved them through each block of the structure. I also turned to my standards and the agreed upon curriculum for the district that I was supporting to deepen this further before transforming each rough lesson idea into true teaching points.

Many teachers that I support appreciate this planning approach because it enables them to “brain dump” all of their lesson ideas into an open space incoherently first, using their own expertise, their standards, and their curriculum documents. Once everything is “on the table” they are better able to situate the lessons inside of the structure. This helps them begin identifying the MUST DO and MAY DO lessons as well. From here, they calendar the lessons and prioritize further, based on the amount of time they have available.

Why center structure instead of process in the unit design process? I speak to that more right here. Scroll down a bit if you don’t want to read the entire post.

In short, this approach tends to make the process more recursive. Each workshop day, I teach a different lesson, intended to help writers elevate one small part of their build. If I want them to develop and introduce their characters at the start of their stories, I get micro about it. On the first day of that work, I might teach a mini-lesson about revealing a character’s feelings. They build this. They transition that build to a small bit of print. I offer feedback over their shoulders as they make and write. They revise. Immediately. They leave a single session having moved through much of the writing process more than once.

On the next day, I might teach them something about using small body movements to reveal more about a character. They make and write, revising the small bit of text they put down yesterday. They use their new tool to tinker with that bit of text. They make it better.

On the next day, I might teach them something about dialogue. They make their beginning again. This time, it includes so many more details! They drop in speech bubbles. The dialogue shows up in their next revision.

They draft, deepen, and revise their beginnings multiple times, bettering them with each build and each shift back to print.

The process becomes truly recursive. The print barrier is scaled. And their stamina remains high.

A Snapshot of a Single Writer’s Workshop Experience

Back to yesterday’s session.

This writer began by building the structure of his personal narrative. He put down just a bit of print directly after. This took about six minutes.

Once he prototyped his story, I gave him some feedback–quickly and over his shoulder and aligned to our teaching point. He revised, slapping additional sticky notes below his initial build (see above). This took about six more minutes. Then, I invited him to start drafting.

And he literally came out of his seat, bent over his paper, and went to town. He put a coherent and a truly SMALL moment story down in about ten minutes. He filled that page up there.

And since I don’t know this writer well, I made an assumption, based on his focus and the volume he produced so rapidly.

“You really love to write, don’t you?” I smiled down at him. And he looked up at me, confused. Skeptical.

“Uh, no.” He said quietly. “I hate it. This just really helped.”

And that made my entire day.

I hope that all of this helps you, too.

I’d love to talk more, and remember: This isn’t THE way to do it. It’s ONE way.

I hope you’ll share your way.

I hope your students will teach you new ways, too.

 

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