Although this unit is titled Raising the Quality of Narrative Writing, the real goal is to improve the quality of writing—and of the writers—in general. We invest another month of work in personal narrative writing (before shifting to a focus on expository writing) because we know that real progress comes not from constantly exposing children to yet another form of writing but from working long enough within one form to help children write longer, more significant, more conventional, and more graceful pieces in general.
We begin the unit by telling children they will be revisiting narrative writing and helping them understand this means they will need to draw on all they already know. This is a perfect opportunity to teach children that writers carry with them and draw on a cumulative repertoire of strategies. For example, we say, "You already have a whole repertoire of strategies for generating narrative writing," and briefly direct children's attention to the charts listing strategies they learned during the earlier unit.
When children begin to draft new personal narrative entries, we can ask them to look back at the piece they published (after revision and editing)at the end of the previous unit. Since they learned to write focused, sequential stories that included direct quotations, details, paragraphs, and end punctuation, we suggest that their new entries should demonstrate all they have already learned as writers. This unit, then, emphasizes that learning to write is cumulative, and that any new work that writers do will always stand on the shoulders of previous work. Among other things, this unit, then, can definitely teach children that each day of writing is much more than a time to practice that day's minilesson! Once the unit has gotten underway with this emphasis on writers' drawing on all they already know as they begin a new cycle of writing work, it will be important to find ways to lift the quality of students'work. Chances are good that the stories children wrote during the first unit of study were sequenced, detailed, and, sadly, a bit dull.
One important way to lift the level of writing in this unit is to help children bring forth more significance in their writing. For starters, we teach children strategies for generating narrative entries that stand a greater chance of having emotional weight and of following a story arc. Specifically, we teach children a few new strategies for generating narrative writing that, over time, have proved to evoke especially powerful, shapely stories. For example, we teach students that when a writer wants to write a powerful personal narrative, we sometimes write about the first (or last) time we did something, or about a time we learned something, or a time we felt a strong emotion—hope, worry, sadness. The resulting stories are often significant and shapely.
A second way to lift the level of student writing is to rally children to look really closely at the ways in which writers create texts that matter. We encourage children to read texts like those they will write, to let those texts affect them, and then to pause and ask, "What has this writer done that has affected me?" That is, this unit places a new importance of reading-writing connections.
Since we are guiding students to notice aspects of published texts that we believe will be especially important to them, this unit relies on assessment. Are children already writing focused, detailed, chronological pieces? If not, we'll want to teach the easiest way to focus personal narratives, which is to limit the time span of the story. Sometimes teachers refer to focused narratives as "small moment stories," although the technical word that writers use for this is scenes (as in scenes of a play, not scenery).
But once children grasp what it means to write effectively about a brief episode, we can show them that narratives need not stay within the confines of a half-hour episode! Narratives actually comprise several scenes glued together with bits of exposition (or narration) between them. For children who are ready to learn this, then, we can point out that in any short story, writers often put a few scenes (or small moments) one after another. This is what many people mean when they say that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. For example, the child who has written a Small Moment vignette about getting a bike for her birthday will construct a better story if she sets up the incident by first telling about an earlier time when she begged for the bike. Similarly, the child who writes about defending the goal in a soccer game will construct a more effective story if he first backs up to re-create the moment when he put on his goalie pads and worried they might not be thick enough.
Whether children are writing one episode or linking several together, we will definitely teach them that writers focus their pieces not only by narrowing the time-frame in which they write but also by deciding on the angle from which to tell a story. We teach children to ask, "What am I trying to show about myself through this story? What do I want readers to know about me? How can I bring that meaning out in this episode?" As part of this, we help children learn that the same story can be told differently, depending on the theme the writer wants to bring out. An episode about falling from the monkey bars could be written to show that the writer was afraid but conquered her fears or to show that peer pressure goaded the writer to take reckless risks.
In this unit, it is especially important to select a few touchstone texts for children to study. Ideally, they will be personal narratives—but sometimes teachers may choose instead a fictional story, explaining that although the text is really fiction, it is written as a narrative and can therefore demonstrate narrative craft. I recommend the narrative about a red sweater embedded in "Eleven," by Sandra Cisneros. I also recommend selected pages from Jean Little's memoir Little by Little, Patricia MacLachlan's Journey, Gary Soto's A Summer Life, Amy Ehrlich's When I Was Your Age: Original Stories About Growing Up, and the anthology, Chicken Soup for Kids. Some picture books can be useful in this unit including Crews' Shortcut, Yolen's Owl Moon, Keats' Peter's Chair or Willems' Knuffle Bunny.
Once students have drafted, it is important to teach them to revise. Of course, we'll encourage children to draw on all they already know about revision, and the lessons from the first unit are not inconsequential ones! In addition, in this unit we teach children that a writer's revisions are always informed by our sense of how stories tend to go. This, then, becomes our entrée into teaching students that stories are not, in fact, chains of equally-developed mini-stories (as illustrated by a timeline), but that instead, stories include problems and solutions, and are characterized by rising action, increasing tension. Of course, when children develop the heart of a story as they did in the previous unit, what they are really doing is turning a timeline into a story mountain
and this is the graphic organizer that we spotlight as a tool for revision in this unit. Once we've helped children realize that it can help to think of one's personal narrative as a story, then it is not hard to teach children that the beginnings and endings of their stories need to relate to their story mountains. That is, if a child writes about the day he gets a bike, he may want to set up this vignette by showing first that all his life he longed for a bike. Children learn, then, significant ways to craft effective stories, and all of this knowledge will be important as they continue to grow as writers.