Let's take a look at what's expected in the middle grades. W.3.3, W.4.3, and W.5.3 ask students to "write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences and or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences."
This is further spelled out in five ways:
- Write a Strong Beginning (W.3.3a/W.4.3a/W.5.3a) - Third, fourth, and fifth grade students are expected to "establish a situation and introduce a narrator and/or characters" and "organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally."
- Use Effective Technique (W.3.3b/W.4.3b/W.5.3b) - Techniques include dialogue and descriptions to develop the plot or "show the response of characters to situations." Fifth graders are also required to use pacing.
- Add Words to Establish Order and Create Smooth Transitions (W.3.3c/W.4.4c/W.5.4c) - The Common Core lists temporal words and phrases for third graders, transitional words and phrases for fourth, and adds transitional clauses for fifth.
- Choose Exact Words (W4.3d/W.5.d) - Students in Grades 4 and 5 begin to "use concrete words and phrases and sensory details to convey experiences and events precisely."
- Write a Strong Conclusion (W.3.3 d/W.4.3e/W.5.3e) - Students need to provide closure to their stories.
- Start simple.
- Use model texts.
- Build writing skills as the year goes on.
1. Start Simple - One of the simplest forms of narrative writing is the fable. These short pieces allow students to practice simple beginnings, simple dialogue, simple descriptions, simple transitions, simple word choice, and simple conclusions. (Did I mention that they're simple?)
I'm a big believer in "read first, write second." Start off by reading some fables as models. You can access several versions of Aesop's Fables free of charge at Project Gutenberg. Because the copyrights of these texts have expired, you may use them freely in your classroom. The Aesop for Children, illustrated by Milo Winter, includes over 100 illustrated fables (such as the one featured below) that have been adapted especially for children.
Discuss how the author employed each of the tactics listed in the Common Core: beginning, dialogue, description, transition words, concrete words (specific nouns and active verbs), and conclusion. Work together to determine what makes a story a fable (brief narrative with a moral, uses animals with human characteristics, etc.)
This is the perfect place to teach (or review) how to write dialogue. Students only need to use a few lines of dialogue in a fable.
To plan a fable, students choose a moral/lesson, think of brief plot that will teach the lesson, and select animals that portray appropriate human traits. Easy! As your students write these brief, age-appropriate narratives, they will take their first steps toward mastering CCRA.W.3.
You have everything you need to get started! If you want the complete lesson plans, you can purchase Writing Fables for $5.00 in my Teachers pay Teachers store.
2. Use model texts - I've already talked a bit about this with Aesop, but there's more. The first two "P's" we'll talk about today are parody and parroting. Parody allows students to adapt familiar story lines to create original narratives. Parroting challenges students to copy effective writing techniques in their own stories. Both of these will again use "read first, write second."
Parody - So much of what we read (or watch on television or at the movie theater) is parody! Authors are constantly recycling what worked before. Kids can do this too . . . with great success.
As we discuss parody, think about texts that you already use in your classroom (or personal favorites). Consider their strengths and how your students might twist their story lines into something new. I'm going to explain how I use Cinderella stories in my classroom, but you might use something totally different in yours.
Read First - I begin by reading a few Cinderella (folklore) picture books aloud. We discuss similarities and differences then list elements common to all Cinderella stories. Each time we read a book, we analyze how the Cinderella elements are portrayed on a table that lists elements across the top and book titles down the side. Next, I introduce parody, and we read and analyze a bunch of Cinderella parodies. In my class, the culminating book is Ella Enchanted, a full-length novel, which is also a Cinderella parody. All of this (and more!) can be found in Comparing Cinderella Stories with Ella Enchanted on Teachers pay Teachers.
Write Second - This is really fun! Kids can choose whatever twist on the Cinderella story that they want. I've had everything from "Treearella" to "Mozzarella." This year, one of the Cinderella characters was even a famous football player whose family didn't like his choice for a wife. The sky is the limit! Students plug their ideas into the Cinderella elements list and start writing. In my class, we type, illustrate, and bind the stories into our own series of picture books.
Parroting - Certain authors have distinctive voice. How do they do it? Parroting involves reading one or more texts by a certain author, analyzing his or her distinctive style, then trying it on for size (again, "read first, write second"). My class worked with Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling this year and the results were astonishing. You can read about it on my May 19th blog, "Just So Writing." Next year I want to try using a different author each month!
3. Build writing skills as the year goes on - Students' writing should steadily improve as time wears on. How can we ensure that this happens? First, point out strategies used in each text you read, whether simple or complex. (For example, "Did you notice how the author used the words 'first,' 'second,' and 'third' to establish time order?" or "Wow, the author just hinted at something that might happen in the future. That's called foreshadowing. How did he do that?") Second, ask students to employ specific strategies in their own writing. Finally, let them practice with simpler assignments before you ask them to pull stories out of their hats.
This brings me to the third "P": personal narrative. Many English textbooks use personal narrative as the keystone for narrative writing in fourth grade. To me, this "P" needs to come after structured practice with parodies and parroting. Personal narrative requires students to determine the entire event sequence on their own, and many students this age just aren't ready.
For example, when I ask my students to write about a favorite vacation, inevitably they'll write a full page elaborating on waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and driving to, let's say, an amusement park. Then, in one or two sentences, they tell which roller coasters they rode. Before you know it, they're back in the car heading home. Wait? What just happened? They worked hard at the beginning to do everything the teacher asked . . . and then they ran out of steam and quickly wrapped up the story.
In the intermediate grades, I've found that the most important part of instruction for writing personal narratives is focusing on one compelling part of the story and cutting the rest. I tell them to pretend they're movie directors with hours and hours of film that they need to cut down to a fifteen-minute segment. It's brutal. They don't want to cut anything! But I insist.
There's so much more work that goes into a personal narrative, as well. By nature, the students want to tell instead of show. This sets a student on a much more complex path of "show, not tell." They begin to see the differences between describing and narrating, between passive verbs and active verbs, etc.
You might be thinking, "She didn't even mention writing original stories in today's blog." While that's the final goal, I wanted to emphasize the importance of the "3 P's" - - - parody, parroting, and personal narrative - - - in that order. You see, this isn't about letting kids write stories. It's about teaching students to write effective, powerful narratives. Some students are ready to generate original stories in Grades 3-5; others need to be inched along through modeling and targeted techniques.
I'm sure not all of you out there agree with me, but this is what's worked for me. Feel free to comment! Much of what I've learned in my teaching career has come from the great ideas of my fellow educators!