Saturday, September 4, 2010

Design Thoughts on Narrative Writing

We just finished the second week of school and administering the first District Writing Prompt to our 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students. It is baseline data and to be used to inform our writing instruction. We have to avoid the knee jerk reaction, when presented with low baseline data, to drop the workshop model and teach prompt writing. This can be hard for teachers when they know the state writing test is in the spring.

During the school year we focus on teaching five writing genres – narrative, functional, report of information, response to literature (literary analysis), and persuasive. In 4th grade, however, we add one more. The test genre, or the one they will use on the writing test, is a genre created to measure narrative or expository prompt writing in a 45-minute time frame. The state has a 6-point rubric used to score the product. Thought the rubric is broken into several categories it is to be used to holistically, rather than analytically, score the writing.

The problem arises when we focus too much on teaching the parts and miss the big picture in writing. Narrative, as a genre, has defining characteristics, key of which is time. Time has to pass in a narrative to make it a narrative. Transition words help the reader know time is passing but just including first, next, and finally do not make a narrative. A narrative has to have a plot, or simply a story. A whole story, not just a great beginning, a quick middle and none existent closing connected with transition words. Plot, coming from the concept of “plotting out a timeline”, is key to creating a whole story.

Other elements that support the narrative genre include using author’s craft to engage the reader throughout the entire piece. Carefully selected words and phrases can help bring the writing to life for the reader. Too much, or poorly selected word choice, can turn author’s craft into author’s crap in no time!

Writing is like a basic white t-shirt. The basic t-shirt can be found all over in many varieties and brands, from the big box store to the designer boutique. But what distinguishes one from another? A well-designed t-shirt depends on the cut (women sizes versus the one-size-fits-all or men sizes), the material (cotton, cotton/spandex, or something high tech), and tailoring. Some shirts are perfectly serviceable but will never rise above humble beginnings. No amount of added craft, bedazzling, puffy paint, or embroidery is going to make it better than it was to start with in the first place. In fact, too much makes it a cliché of bad taste. To have a good t-shirt first you have to start with a good design. To have good narrative writing first you have to start with a good story.

We need to avoid the temptation to teach writing as a formula or a recipe. It is not how many similes are in the writing, it’s how well they are used. It is not how many “sensory details”, “vivid verbs”, “snappy bright beginnings” or any other ingredient taught to kids to add craft to their writing. It is starting with a story, a good story. As adults we have a conceptual understanding of what a well-crafted sensory detail can add to writing. Our students need to build that level of understanding through immersion in reading and listening to stories, discussing and charting ideas about writing.

Designing good narrative writing instruction should always include lessons on story. What is a story? How does time pass in a story? What is rising action? How do we know when a story is over? How do our favorite authors start their stories? How good is good enough when it comes to writing a story? All of these lesson, and more, should be part of the initial teaching of the narrative genre.

Narrative writing does not naturally occur in 45-minute blocks of time in response to a prompt. It is important that we do not confuse the created test genre with the real world genre of narrative writing. When students are taught how to write stories in the workshop model it is easy to transfer that skill into the test genre later in the year. It is important that we remember what is essential in teaching writing.

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