Tagged Narrative Writing

Writer’s Workshop: Practicing Feedback through Storytelling

In preparation for a Writer’s Workshop (thoroughly explained in this post), Leslie Harris and I planned a lesson that utilized a “storytelling” technique and incorporated the use of the feedback stems for the Writer’s Workshop.

The learning targets for the lesson were as follows:

  • I can tell an engaging story that follows a narrative arc and uses well chosen details.
  • I can give useful feedback in the Writer’s Workshop format to help my partner improve his or her narrative skills.
  • I can reflect on someone feedback to improve my own narrative skills.

To begin the lesson, we reviewed the instructions handout (at the bottom of this post) with students to familiarize them with the process.  Then, Harris and I took turns modeling how to plan a story in writing (focusing on key moments that build the narrative arc) and then tell the story verbally.

During the teacher’s story, the students took notes, and then afterward, they gave positive and constructive feedback using the stems provided in the Writer’s Workshop process.

After modeling the process, students chose a story prompt, mapped out their own story in writing, and then shared their stories with a partner to receive feedback for improvement which they recorded on their worksheet.

Afterward, they reflected on the process, making connections to writing and feedback using an exit ticket (see bottom of the post).

The lesson was a successful introduction to peer feedback and a good review of narrative structure.  The exit ticket showed that students understood the need to “notice detail” when listening to give feedback and “be specific” about the sensory information they use in their own writing.

Here are the resources we used:

Here are some additional resources on verbal narrative (storytelling):

  • The Moth: a podcast and radio show where people tell “true stories, told live” without notes at “Moth” events.  There are many stories told by writers, actors, and performers.  Some are from people with jobs ranging from firefighter to teacher as well.
  • True Story: a podcast and radio show with the same premise as The Moth, but the storytelling events are usually smaller.  These events are not planned by a central organization, but instead by people who know about the show, plan an event themselves and then send the recording to the people at True Story

Poetry uses the Left Brain: Creative Writing, and Research?


By digitalart, published on 05 August 2011 from freedigitalphotos.net

When one thinks of creative writing, he or she might imagine it as a “right-brained” activity with little room for the analytical aspect of the mind.

While this is sometimes the dominating perception, it is far from the reality.  To expose students to the true nature of the professional writer’s craft, there will almost always be some discussion of how “left-brained” activities, like research, come into play.

I watched Carrie Eneix’s class have a discussion over The Secret Life of Bees a few weeks ago, and we planned a unit of study that began with students being exposed to the type of research Sue Monk Kidd did for the book and analyzing examples from the text.   It was inspired by the following quote by Kidd describing how she went from knowing “not much at all” about bees to writing a book where they are a primary focus.

“I began my bee education by reading lots of books…  I discovered bees were a symbol of the soul, of death and rebirth.  I will never forget coming up with medieval references which associated the Queen Mary with the queen bee…  Books couldn’t tell me everything I needed to know about bees, so I visited an apiary in South Carolina.  Inside the honey house, I sketched all the honey-making equipment, trying to get a handle on how they worked…  I experienced when the hive was lifted.  I became lost in a whirring of bees.  So many, I could hardly see.  The scent of honey drifted up, the bee hum swelled…”

Taken from “A Conversation with Sue Monk Kidd” in the introductory materials for The Secret Life of Bees.

Here were the learning targets for the lesson:

  • —I understand how authors’ use short and sustained periods of research for a variety of purposes.
  • —I can identify the types of purposes (to add specificity, develop metaphors, and enhance imagery) for which an author might use research.
  • —I can utilize purposeful research in a variety of mediums to meet specific purposes in my  own writing.

The first two were targets of the specific lesson for the first day, and the third was a long-term goal by the end of the project.

On the introductory day, students were given three categories for which an author might do research.  Here are the slides we discussed for those:

Reseach for Specificity jpeg Research to Develop Imagery jpegResearch to Develop Metaphor jpeg

After we discussed the types, then we looked at passages from the text and analyzed them in two ways:

  • What research might Sue Monk Kidd have done to gather the information (book, video, primary source etc.)?
  • For what purpose (to add specificity, develop metaphor or enhance imagery)?

Here are some examples of those:

Research in Creative Writing EX 2 Research in Writing EX

Students wrote from where the research might have come and to what end it was used, and we discussed each one.  This entire concept is new to most students, and there was no definitive answer, so this was something with which they struggled.  However, they were provided with other models and examples later in the unit which I will talk about in an additional post.

On this same day, they were given their assignment.  It was the following:

  1. A short narrative (250 words or less) or poem (approximately 25-50 lines) that focuses on a “self-selected” community that becomes a “family” or provides a sense of belonging to its members to positive or negative ends.  This is not a personal narrative, so choose one that will provide a venue for research.     
  • Examples/possible options: a tribe (at any point in history), gangs, immigrant communities, fraternal orders (Freemasons for example), religious communities (such as Amish or Mennonite), communes, cults etc.    
  1. A short narrative (250 words or less) or a poem (approximately 25-50 lines) that is based upon an insect/animal as a metaphor for some larger idea and is built on the real-world aspects of that creature to develop the metaphor.  
  • Examples/possible options: butterflies, a type of fish, lion, polar bear etc.- really any living creature but humans

Ultimately, students would be presenting these pieces of writing to the class.  More to come on this later.

Here are the resources we used for the lesson:

Why the “Wind Whispers”: Abstract Concept to Concrete Language Lesson

Students can most times identify figurative language in someone’s writing, and they can often state what is being compared and described; however, they sometimes struggle with the question of why and how authors make specific choices about the language they use.

To this end, I worked with Melissa Larisch and Sam Bosse on a lesson designed with the following learning targets:

  • I understand how writers use figurative language and imagery to relay an underlying theme or a tone and what effect these tools have on the overall piece and the reader.
  • I can use concrete details to represent an abstract idea.
  • I can choose important details and appropriate metaphors to enhance the development of tone and theme in my own writing. 

These learning goals were established for two reasons.  The first was that while reading “Rules of the Game,” both teachers noticed consistent recognition of the figurative language Amy Tan was using, but a lack of understanding as to what purposeful effect these tools had on the reader.  For example, the wind is used as a metaphor throughout the short narrative.  Students struggled to understand why at points the “wind whispered” to Tan, as opposed to “shouted” or “barked.”

To this end, we compared how the same metaphor was used in different contexts for different purposes.

Here is an example:

Abstract to Concrete Example jpeg

The second reason for the lesson was the desire of both teachers to enhance their students’ ability to make thoughtful language choices in their own writing using Amy Tan as a model.

For this second goal, we began by brainstorming “abstractions” together.  Then, students were given a random object on a card and asked to use descriptive and figurative language to make that object represent the abstraction.

Before students began, the teacher modeled the writing by creating one together in class with students.  The object for the example is a moldy orange, and the abstraction it represents is “forgotten” or “forlorn.”  The class brainstormed descriptive language to use in the paragraph and then thought through the process together to do the actual writing while the teacher prompted them with questions (see resources for examples) and typed the piece.

This part of the process can be a little “messy” because it is impromptu; the teacher is as surprised as the students about what develops.  However, this also allows students to see the thinking process behind the writing, especially as the teacher reads the work aloud and revises it with students.

Model Paragraph

Both teachers continued the lesson the next day in interesting ways.  Larisch had her students share their writing aloud to a partner and had the partner guess the abstraction it represented.  She told them if they could guess it or get close, they had done a good job.  If not, they needed to revise.

Bosse had his students post the pieces of writing on Edmodo (more to come about the later) and respond to one another via posts.  His students also had to guess the abstraction represented in the writing.

Larisch reported that her students were eager to share their writing with one another, and they willingly read aloud to the class after the lesson.


Socratic Seminar: Organization and Surface Features

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Socratic Seminar

Ellie Wiseman conducted a Socratic Seminar in her AP classes this week where students were asked to study the writerly skills used by Rebecca Skloot in the text The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Her handout reads, “The book is an example of what good writers do.  We should take it as an example text to follow when we write; therefore, we are going to analyze the book in multiple ways, and we are going to do so in Socratic Seminar format so we can build on one another’s knowledge, ideas and insights.”

The seminars lasted for four days and focused on the following areas, one each day:

  • Rhetorical Situation where students discussed: exigence, audience, and purpose
  • Appeals and Tone where students discussed: appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos
  • Organization and Surface Features where students discussed: organization, diction, imagery, and figurative language
  • Narrative Techniques where students discussed: dialogue, setting, structure, pacing, description and multiple plot lines among other factors

Each day, students in the inner circle were “speakers” who answered and extrapolated on predetermined questions and the one’s on the outer circle were “listeners” who took notes which they turned in to the teacher at the end of each period.

The day I visited, they were discussing “organization and surface features.”  Students analyzed the author’s choice to utilize a chronological story with, in a student’s words, “blasts from the past” interspersed through the text.  Students supposed that when there was a flashback or shift in chronological structure, it was to show how the past affected what was happening in the “present” of the book.  Others suggested that the shift in time structure was utilized to emphasize important plot or character elements in the text.

The conversation I heard directly related to the CCS about pacing, multiple plot lines and narrative structure in a very organic way.

In addition, analyzing the writerly choices of published authors provides a wonderful context for students to study what “real writers” do and why they do it in order to improve their own writing.  It is a relevant way to examine a text beyond critical analysis for literary themes.

Here are some additional resources:

  • Here is Rebecca Skoot’s website with numerous resources for teachers studying the book with students.
  • Here is a source about the use of mentor texts and prompts for better student writing: Deeper Writing: Quick Writes and Mentor Texts to Illuminate New Possibilities by Robin Holland.  The mentor texts are sometimes based in form and sometimes theme, but they always provide a wealth of inspiration.  I have had the pleasure on numerous occasions to write based upon Robin’s prompts and mentor texts, and it is always an engaging and revealing experience for me.  Holland taught at the elementary level, but even her picture book choices are often challenging in regards to theme and inspiring in regards to writing style; she uses many of them with adults as well as children.
  • Here is a link to Holland’s blog.  She provides many useful resources to educators of students from kindergarten through high school.  I especially enjoyed, or was touched by, this post which gathered texts based in the theme of death and dying.

The Art and Struggle of Storytelling

Some of the central questions to narrative study are: why do we tell stories, what can we learn from them about ourselves and others, and what makes a story relevant and engaging?  Throughout this week, a number of teachers explored these questions as they began narrative units, and some utilized a storytelling strategy designed by Kevin Cordy (a professor from Dominican University and a professional storyteller).  In the activity, students begin to explore narrative through the art of storytelling.  I saw three variations on the strategy that all had strengths.

The first one was used by Melissa Larisch.  She began the lesson by going over norms for group work.


Then, students were grouped in sets of five and given the list of prompts.  They had two minutes to tell a story of his or her choice, and after each one, there was a one minute period of positive feedback.  She also used the timer suggested by Eric Koch on his list of “helpful resources” sent out last week to keep time for transitions. The next day, the students rehashed the activity and identified areas of struggle.

Renee Jackson used the same list of prompts, but instead grouped students and had them complete the following two activities:

1.  Discuss what makes a good movie or story.

2.  Write the beginning to your own story of choice and be prepared to share with your group members.

Renee focused on the idea of a beginning to a story that would make the reader want to read the rest.  After all of the groups had time to share with one another, then they picked the favorite and read it to the rest of the class aloud.

Dave Watros and Diana Glanzman paired two students to share a story aloud, and each person got to pick the prompt that they wanted to hear from their partner.  Then, after they shared, they moved on to a another partner, and told the same story to a new person.  As homework, students wrote about what they learned from the activity.  The next day they shared what they learned in groups and also shared what they learned about themselves from the activity.

When Dave and I circulated to talk to students in groups, the things they learned were really interesting.  While some cited specific elements of others’ lives, others discussed the the varying degrees of truth or the range of creativity of their peers.

One of the challenges that the teachers identified for students was the ability/confidence to share stories with one another.  Public speaking, especially combined with narrative, may be a novel skill for many high school students.

However, this activity does introduce students to later speaking and listening standards.  It also introduces the concept of narrative through exploring storytelling.  One element that seemed to be really important in the activity was the ability to reflect on the experience and examine the skills required and how the struggles faced could be overcome.  It might even be a good idea to chunk this activity over a couple of days with short stints each day (maybe a warm up the first five minutes of class?) with a rehash each time to see what students learned about narrative and public speaking through the activity.

Here is a copy of the story prompts these teachers used: Storytelling Scavenger Hunt.


Resources for Teaching Narrative

Last week I attended the Pages teacher orientation and professional development at the Wexner Center with Mandy Fetty, a teacher-partner this year, and the teaching artists we worked with had some ideas for sparking students’ creativity and interest in writing.  I will try to post some of these throughout the year.

This first learning activity would be helpful in acclimating students to narrative, which I think is the first unit in each grade level’s current curriculum plan.

Here is the activity:

We were asked to bring in landscapes, living creatures and inanimate objects from magazines.


Then, we put them all in the middle of a table and randomly picked from the larger pile, making sure to choose pictures from each category.  In discussion afterward, we all agreed that choosing one’s own images created an expectation that limited creativity- so this might be a situation to avoid with students.

We used these to create a scene by placing the pictures on top of one another- no glue required.

This was a piece of my scene created from magazine pieces.

This was a piece of my scene created from magazine cuttings.

The artist then asked us to create a story from the picture and write it out in ten minutes.  Before this part of the activity, it might make sense to review the narrative vocabulary and ask students to focus on a specific aspect (for example narrative arch, imagery etc.).  Melissa Larisch created this useful Academic Vocabulary for Narrative resource that follows along with the ACT Common Core rubric North is planning on using for the quarterly assessment.

To further collaborate and expand on ideas for writing, we discussed having students rotate around the collages first and discuss possible ideas or themes in the pictures.  We also discussed having students write a line for each one and then rotate to the next one.  After the activity, one could also have the students underline the protagonist, imagery, point of highest conflict etc. and turn it in as a formative assessment.  In addition, it might be helpful to discuss the process and see how students came up with ideas before they wrote to give a chance for reflection.

If you try this one, let me know how it goes in your classroom or send me pictures of your collages or pieces of writing so that I can post them on the blog.  Also here is a link to the Pages blog where you will find numerous resources for language arts educators.