Teaching Students to Write their First Narrative Essay

When my sixth graders write their first narrative, I have them start by writing five sentences about an important time in their life. This is after we do a “choosing a topic of the right amount of specificity” activity that I need to share later. Why only five sentences? Because I want the playing field to be level. EVERYONE can write five sentences. No one feels behind. I write one, too. Here’s 5-line “essay” I wrote for one of my classes this year (remember I think it’s very important to be a transparent writer).

One time I baked a loaf of bread in the evening and left it on the counter to cool when I went to bed. The next morning, a whole bunch of the bread was chewed off the sides. I knew the cat did it! I was so mad at the cat. The next night when I put my daughter to bed, I found a whole bunch of bread crumbs and pieces under her pillow.

(I purposely started with “one time” because oooooh does that beginning my my skin crawl. Almost as much as “This essay is about…”).

Then, we walk around and read each other’s essays (mine too). As we walk around, we ask the writer questions by typing them right on the screen. There are a lot of ground rules, like only one person per computer, absolutely no talking, ONLY question-asking and no general comments (this prevents things like “good job!” and “funny story!” or even “this stinks!”). I model this before we start. As they question, I circulate too and make sure I hit the essays without many questions (I can quickly type 3-4 and the students have no idea who typed them or that I added more than one question).

Next, everyone goes back to their own computer and uses the questions to create a new version of the essay. Here’s my version 2:

Last spring I baked a loaf of bread and left it on the counter to cool when I went to bed.

The next morning, a whole bunch of the bread was chewed off the sides. There were crumbs all over the countertop. The entire loaf was practically ruined since there was a row of little chunks missing all around the top.

I knew the cat, Charlotte, did it! Who else could it have been? The dog is in a crate overnight, and we have no other animals but the cat. Cats are perfectly capable of jumping on countertops. Even though our cat has never done that in the past, she was the only possible culprit.

“That stupid cat!” I said to myself, “I don’t even like cats!” I even took a picture of the bread and posted it on Facebook to show all of my friends how bad my cat had been. I couldn’t wait to get home from school to check the sympathetic comments from my friends.

Then, I put the cat outside. I wasn’t sure how else to punish her. You can’t exactly spank a cat without them returning your wrath.

The next night when I put my three-year-old daughter Campbell to bed, I found a whole bunch of bread crumbs and pieces under her pillow.

The next day, we finish up version two. As the students finish, they stand up. As soon as someone else is finished and also stands up, they read each others’ , and within a short time everyone is circulating around reading essays and typing questions on them (once again, mine too).

At this point I start teaching a writing mini lesson every day. Things like using dialogue, good beginning strategies, vivid description, adding character traits, adding reactions, etc. After the mini lesson, they revisit their essay and try to add the skill we just learned about. When they are ready, they stand up, and start circulating. Not everyone ends up circulating every day, which is okay. Some are more comfortable with it than others.

A week or two in, I share with them my third version, which is closer to completion. I point out the techniques I’ve used that we’ve learned about. I explain that my essay is about 95% true but that I’ve embellished details to make it more interesting and filled in things I can’t exactly remember (like exact dialogue). It’s getting to long to block quote here, but you can see all four versions here: essay progression “Framed”.

When I finish my final version, I read it to them. Other days, I’ll read them the final versions from my other classes. This year, I also wrote about the time Lori and I saw the “cougar” eyes and about skiing with Evan and Lori . They enjoy listening to personal stories of mine. I’m not a fantastic narrative writer, but I think I can write well enough to explain it to a sixth grader. 🙂 I keep all of my stories in a folder where they can read them.

Once they have their final versions finished, they start sharing them with me, writer’s workshop style. This continues several times until they are ready for grading.

After we have written personal narratives (the easiest type), we are ready to work on other narrative tasks like writing an ending, retelling a historical account or scientific process, and so on.

Other narrative writing posts:
Teaching Historical Fiction Narratives
Narrative Writing — Using Character Description as the “Hook”
Using Art to Teach Descriptive Writing
My Narrative Essay Rubric (ironically I’m not using that one this year)
Using Skippyjon Jones to Teach Narrative Writing Strategies

In case you weren’t around to enjoy the “bread” story the first time, here are the pictures:

My loaf of bread on the counter:

Campbell’s bed:

Using Art to Teaching Descriptive Writing

When I first started teaching junior high students, I noticed a trend among my reluctant writers. They’d sit and stare at the page, and when I asked them why they weren’t writing, they’d said, “I don’t know what to write.”

My reply would be something ultra helpful along the lines of “Just start writing.”

Wow, what stellar guidance that was, no?

I’ve learned a few things over the years, and one of those things is that kids are used to STEPS. This led to my development of the “beginner baby steps” of descriptive writing. We start with a painting. I explain to them the reason for describing a painting–it’s so we are all looking at and talking about the same thing. When we write narratives, real or imagined, the writer has the scene in their head. The struggle is getting that scene on paper in a way that allows the reader to visualize the same scene. This past week, my sixth graders worked with Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun by Van Gogh.

Here are the steps:
1. Write down all of the objects you see (or features if you are describing a person/animal).
2. Brainstorm a list of words and phrases to describe each object. Then, refine/improve your list, using a thesaurus or other tools.
3. Write an interesting sentence about each object.
4. Combine your sentences into a paragraph containing a main idea.

EVERYONE can write down the objects they see in the painting (sun, sky, trees, mountains, ground). EVERYONE can write a few simple words to describe those items, and EVERYONE can write one sentence about each object.

Then, I challenge them to make their subjects work (switching from passive to active voice). Instead of saying, “The sun is yellow, hot, and burning,” they would make the sun “work” by having it do something. When asked what the sun DOES, they can usually come up with things like resting shining, burning, glowing, watching, etc. The new sentence could be something like, “The hot yellow sun watches the land below.”

It’s still not stellar. As a part of this descriptive writing unit we go over the “Write like Judy Schachner” writing strategies that I’ve written about before. I then ask them to add a writing strategy to their sentence. They might write something like, “The hot yellow sun watches over the land below like a guard of a kingdom.” Still not completely impressive, but 10x better than what they come up with on their own. And they are often so proud of these sentences! The thing I like the most about the “beginner baby steps” is if they are stuck, they have something to do. Sometimes it’s like “priming”–they just need to get started and then ideas start flowing!

This year I combined this peer sharing activity into the unit as another way to practice writing descriptively. Our final step will be to come back to personal narratives that we’ve been working on and add at least one very descriptive scene to them.

How do you get your middle school students to write more descriptively? Help me out! I’m always looking for new fun things to try. If you try this idea, let me know how it goes!

Uninspired and Being a Transparent Writer

I am not feeling very bloggy this week, but I feel part of a blogger is making a commitment to keep posting even if you aren’t feeling it. This just week I was explaining to my students that with writing, sometimes you feel it and sometimes you don’t, and sometimes, if you have an assignment due, you just have to force it out. I said this while I was modeling writing an essay for them.

I think this is one of the most important things a writing teacher can do–model writing and the method a writer uses to improve an essay. Students often think that writing should flow right out of their pen (or keyboard), in order. They think that good writers just whip things out and it’s good from the start. Some can, of course, but that is rare. Most people jot a few things down, revise, come back, revamp, add, delete, etc. many times before something is ready for grading or publication.

I show them my very first draft. I purposely make it pretty bad to start with, usually a stream of consciousness type of thing (not unlike this blog now that I think about it). If I show them a final draft, most cannot relate to me as a writer. However, seeing that I start with something not-so-impressive helps them to see that in time, essays can go from horrible to great.

Then, I do some revising while they watch me on the projection screen. I think aloud while I write. It takes some practice for them. In the beginning, when I pause, they start shouting out ideas. I explain that I’m not pausing because I want help; I’m pausing to think. I explain my struggles with words, I consult a thesaurus or dictionary, I delete and/or add large sections, etc. I change my mind a lot. Sometimes instead of talking my way through it I just write. I also work on sections out of order, write myself little notes in the margins, and flag areas that I know I need to work on later.

I spend maybe 5 minutes doing this before we move on to something else. Every few days, I show them more of my progress, and do a little writing. I typically work on one essay for all three classes of a grade level, so I don’t have much to do outside of class. Each class gets to watch me do a little part of it at each step. I always share my final draft and place it in a folder where they can look at it whenever they want, along with essays I’ve written in previous years. As their writing teacher, it’s important for my students to see me as a writer. Praise God I only teach junior high because I’m not sure my writing is beyond that level!

If you are a writing teacher and you haven’t written in front of your students, you really need to start. I think it’s one of the most valuable teaching strategies for writing teachers!