Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Focusing Moments for Writers

One of the most powerful ways to help struggling writers is to help them to focus their stories. I have been reading many samples of student work over the last week from across several grades and there is no doubt that children love to tell stories. I have read many accounts of car rides on the way to vacation followed by play-by-play, day-by-day accounts of the entire trip. In some of the narratives, I've even gotten to read about the car ride home right up until the garage closes behind them.

I know that many of these students have had instruction on "seeds versus watermelons"-- one of my favorite third-grade lessons involves drawing a watermelon slice to represent a big idea such as "vacation" and all of the seeds represent the small moments of the vacation.  I know that our students have heard about small moments and the power of zeroing in on them as writers.

Since the evidence of these messages is not always apparent in student writing, I am percolating some bullet points that could be a classroom chart, a mini-lesson, a checklist, or a set of writing rules in elementary classrooms--I'm open to ideas about what to add and how to use them, but here are some thoughts...please know that these thoughts are for short stories and don't apply to novels; my assumption is that we don't come across many novelists in elementary schools. :)

Strong personal narratives, realistic fiction stories, and imaginative fiction stories generally:

  • occur within an hour or two of real time. They can even occur within just a few moments. One of the strongest pieces of fourth-grade writing I read was about the twenty seconds or less that it took her to dribble a soccer ball down a field, score, and look at her dad.
  • happen within one or two scenes. Again, if the story's movie camera would have to move from the garage to the car to the campground to the lake to the dining hall, then there's probably too much going on for a young writer's powerful narrative. (I might even argue for an experienced writer's powerful narrative.)
  • have an obvious most-important-moment. This moment should be apparent to both the reader and the writer.
  • have the majority of the writing happen before the most-important-moment.
  • don't play by the rule that more is better. Filling up lines and papers is only beneficial if what's on them drives the action forward or builds up to the heart of the narrative.
Strong beginnings, story arcs, tension building, and strong endings will have greater chances if the time and setting are managed for writers. What are other thoughts out there? How have you all helped students to focus their stories and empower them to include elaboration that really matters to the story?

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