Teacher: Justin Stygles
School: Guy E. Rowe School (Norway, Maine)
For our maturing writers, classrooms are not truly conducive to real-life writing or curriculum demands so many examples of writing aimed at demonstrating application and understanding of particular writing concepts, developing a student’s craft or voice becomes a challenge.
When writing narratives, students are faced with a conundrum: write a story with little sense of craft, and perfection is required.
Familiar to primary to teachers is the concept of reading/writing reciprocity. Like musicians who study fellow musicians, readers should study authors as writers they want to be like. Write like what they read. Learning about craft and structure and the voice and style of author’s piques maturing writers interest in their own writing and scaffolds writing development.
A narrative writing assignment in my class requires students to become chapter book authors. In order to do this they must study craft, analyze text structures, and breakdown plot and literary elements. I know, that sounds a bit mundane, complex or potentially destructive to reading habits, but really, this is a back door to reading interest and the front door to becoming a writer.
The instructional intent is for some of our assignments is to study authors craft and the working parts of a story. Working parts include theme, following threads that weave throughout a story and considering how smaller problems within a story link to larger problems, which lead to resolution(s). An example lies in an writing assignment as our class neared the completion of Juniper Berry by M.A. Kozlowsly. After studying text, the students had several questions remaining as we arrived at the last few chapters. To answer these questions, students wrote – their own versions of the end.
You might ask, “How did the kids react?” As you would expect them to. They wanted to read the end of the book. Of course, who wouldn’t? When I offered them the chance to write the end of the book, they were even more enthralled. And who wouldn’t be? Here lies the opportunity to predict the ending and make it the way you want it to be. The students were all about it.
This activity permits a situation where I could assess reading comprehension, determine how students consider author’s craft, and how sense of narrative writing as writers. For reading comprehension, whatever students wrote had to connect back to previous events or wrap up threads that the author wove through the story. For instance, would the Juniper’s relationship end in the last chapter? What happened to the guy at the table? What would become of the parents? Was Skeskyl die? Among many other questions students had from the text, they had to conclude the story by resolving the open-ended issues, or leave some open, perhaps for a second book?
I would know, by reading the students’ version of the story, what they understood about the book’s themes and plot. If this was one place where aliens suddenly took Juniper and her family away, was the student following along and genuinely doesn’t understand or are they simply doing their own thing? Or does the writer reunite Juniper and her parents? How? Did the parents change? How or why? All of these questions can be answered in the students version of the final chapter, which is really a sophisticated prediction or written comprehension response.
For author’s craft, when I read students writing, I ask, how closely did they follow the author’s style? This emulation is important as students learn to develop their own writing styles. Did students use first or third person? How did they use dialogue? Was figurative language used, like the author? Did the students maintain the characters’ personality? If students simply wrote as they always have, I know instruction around author’s craft is needed. I cull a ton of mini-lessons from this form of assessment. Information you would not receive simply through traditional writing assignments.
This is where reading/writing reciprocity takes over. Do students posses a sense of narrative writing when they write their own versions? Is emulation apparent? Is experimentation apparent? Or, is more of what students already know dominating their writing? If so, why?
I never expect a student to match their writing perfectly to the text we study, or even come close to perfect. Right now, as I continue to develop these practices, I find most students are far off from matching the text. Not in terms of content, (which shows they are comprehending the text) but the sense in how a chapter is constructed, how a story develops, or what really comprises narrative writing. Most students write two pages on an assignment like this, handwritten, lined paper. The book’s chapter is significantly longer in manuscript form. (Actually, this is the next stage of instruction I need to develop).
When we first did this exercise, students stuck to what they know in the “small moment story.” They certainly continue the story line, but in a very simple, no frills,way. Students know how to start a problem and end it, but lack in voice, emotion through dialogue, or vocabulary that sets the tone or emotions of the character’s. Again, mini-lesson ideas proliferated for reading and writing instruction. Which, in turn, makes this a fun assignment to revisit several times over the course of a year.
These observations give us a sense of how well the student is comprehending the text. Are the just reading to obtain the gist or are they closely reading to consider the details? In their writing, the gist comes through in the small moment, single plot, little dialogue texts students write. If their writing contains details or attempts at inclusion of elements recall from the story, then I know students possess a deeper understanding of what they read.
When students finally read the final chapter, they can compare their writing to the author’s. Did the author throw in a plot twist? Did the reader anticipate the plot twist? Or did the story play out the way the reader expected? Can the reader/writer justify their writing choice and how they predicted the story would carry out in a manner? Did the reader wrap up every loose end in their writing? Did the reader pick out loose ends the author did not? Why is this? Why did the author leave certain events unresolved or certain threads dangling?
As this practice evolves over the course of the year, students gain a greater sense of writing and craft. Their reading comprehension improves because they are moving beyond literal into analytical. Close reading becomes more natural because readers think and notice more while they read – active engagement. Consequently, writing improves because these maturing writer experiment with ideas they found in reading that spices up their own writing. Stories are not going to be perfect. In fact most of these pieces are messy first drafts.