Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Establishing Focus in Student Writing

For many students, one of the hardest aspects of narrative writing is maintaining focus. I have written other posts suggesting several constraints that teachers can put on student writing in order to help them maintain focus. Limiting the number of characters, the number of scenes, and the length of time the story covers all help to keep students focused on what the story is really about.

Last week, I worked with some struggling fourth grade writers. They were all having a hard time coming up with topics so we sat down with a piece of chart paper and began listing ideas for stories. Within the topic of a baseball game, we listed hitting the ball, catching the ball, losing a seat, dropping a hotdog, going to the bathroom, missing a final important play, and striking out a final batter. When we talked about the local amusement park, we had stories about winning a prize, going on the scary roller coaster, eating a batch of fried dough, dropping an ice cream cone, and getting separated from a family.

Because these children had recently completed prompts where their stories were problem-free and plotless (we've all seen the types),  we went back to these charted story ideas and together worked on answering what would that story really, REALLY be about. I've written a post about this question as well, because I think that it is such an important question for young writers to be able to answer. Through this inquiry-based approach, the students realized that all of the stories could fall within four main categories:

  • Solving a problem
  • Finding something
  • Overcoming a fear and
  • achieving something
I don't teach these students regularly, but if I did, I would work on constructing a chart with them that I'd envision looking something like this:

A few years ago, I attended a writing workshop at the Highlights Foundation with Sandy Asher and one of the most important take-aways for me was that everything in a story or novel should drive the action forward. With this chart in place, then the concept of relevant details and events that drive the story forward seems so much more tangible and teachable. If the story is really, REALLY about getting lost and finding your family at an amusement park, then all of the action, details and dialogue should move the story toward the finding-the-family resolution.

I think that if students understood that there aren't too many big ideas that a plot-driven story can REALLY be about, then the executive processing and planning component becomes simpler for all levels of writers.

Keeping the focus,


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