Several years ago, I got really sick of the five-paragraph essay, personal narratives responding to a prompt in preparation for The Test. You know. The test that kills all love of literacy in our students. So I made a decision to teach my students real-world writing. It made sense to me that if students wrote really well, they would transfer that writing to whatever test they were required to take. We are now on our third one in Arkansas. But my students are prepared. And they do not do test-prep writing. Instead we write memoirs. Thank you, Nancie Atwell. And Ralph Fletcher and Joann Portalupi. Order these books. They will change how you teach writing.
What I have developed over the years is born of these two books. I am teaching the children that they are not writing a personal narrative, but are writing a memory that someone would want to read. And it has to be a tiny memory. Just a moment in time. Not even a day from their lives. Just a moment of that day. The change is dramatic. The first year we tried this method, one little guy who read only R.L. Stine wrote an introductory paragraph that beat anything Stine had ever written. Craft Lessons was the source. Every year since, I have begun our narrative writing unit with a lesson from Craft Lessons. And for those of you who must have data-driven instructional strategies, my students scored in the 92nd percentile in writing on the ACT Aspire. That means that of all the eighth graders taking the ACT Aspire test – our state-mandated external assessment – only 8% of the eighth grade writers taking this test nationwide scored higher than we did. Individual students scored higher than that. I guess the scorers are tired of those old personal narratives, too.
Step One: Setting it all up
So what do we do? First, I get a copy of A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Before I read aloud the story, I share my version of Capote’s background, starting with In Cold Blood. I tell them about the murder of the Clutter family on their Kansas farm and how that book scared me to death when I was their age. I talk about the real life Capote. Watch Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning portrayal in the movie Capote for all the background you need. Then I share To Kill a Mockingbird and explain Harper Lee’s life in Monroeville, Alabama. We end by tying Capote’s childhood to that of Harper Lee as Dill and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. By the time I have finished convincing them that Capote is Dill, I have convinced them to read both books. There may be a few inaccuracies in my telling, but I try to hold closely to the truth. I do all this to lead into A Christmas Memory.
I know this isn’t necessary to the teaching of the memoir, but aren’t we always encouraging the connection between reading and writing? And this mish-mash of texts does just that. Some years – if time permits – I pull a great Southern Living article (excerpted below and linked here) celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mockingbird. I want my students to get the connection between the two texts.
The museum offers a walking tour of Monroeville “as Harper Lee and Truman Capote knew it.” Much of the world they grew up in is gone. Nelle’s childhood home on South Alabama Avenue was torn down years ago. The site is now occupied by Mel’s Dairy Dream. The Faulk place next door, where Capote lived, was lost in a fire. All that’s left is a commemorative marker and the rough stone wall that stood between the childhood homes of two of America’s greatest authors.
Step Two: Just Setting
I read aloud just the first paragraph of A Christmas Memory. If you look at it, it is just five sentences, contains only description of the setting, has no characters, and no personal pronouns. This is very important. The students then tell me what they saw as I read the paragraph to them. It takes three readings for them to get all of the details. Then I ask, “What was NOT in this paragraph?” Always someone will eventually give the correct answer – characters. Eventually the students get a copy for their folders, but for the time being, I display it on the Promethean board until they get ready to write their own.
Now I share two setting paragraphs from To Kill a Mockingbird. Early in the text, Lee describes the town of Maycomb as an old town with streets of red dirt and grass growing on the sidewalks. Then she describes the Radley place. Both are excellent yet different setting descriptions that students can identify – a town and a house. Again, there are no characters. This matters because students usually want to start by telling us what they are doing. They have not considered waiting a paragraph or two before they start with the plot. This is a definite shift in their thinking. Some will struggle with this no matter how well we teach it. But hang in there. They can do it.
Step Three – Practice!
Now we stop and talk about a story they could tell. Because we already have lists in our writing notebooks – Territory Lists and Questions for Memoirists (Nancie Atwell), life maps (Ralph Fletcher), and Hands (Linda Rief and Penny Kittle) – the students just flip over and select a memory that would be a good one for this process. We will refine it later. Then we use our model texts to write our own setting paragraphs. Please notice that I keep saying we and our. I am writing with them. On the Promethean board. They watch me struggle and revise as I write mine so that they have permission to do the same when they write theirs. Some students will struggle with putting down their words on the page. They will need to practically copy Harper Lee or Truman Capote. That is okay! They will get better each time they write one. As they write – in a silent room – I walk around and read over their shoulders. Ever so often, I stop and read one aloud with such ENTHUSIASM – like this is soooooo good I just can’t wait for you all to hear it! It becomes a celebration of writing. It becomes – dare I say it? – FUN.
Another way to brainstorm for the narrative is to have the students make a list of people who have impacted their lives. Just four or five, more if they have them. Mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, grandparents, guardians, family friend, coach, pastor…you get the idea. Then have them list memories shared with each person on the list. I model this first so that their memories begin to flow. As I tell stories from my childhood, they begin writing their own. It almost never fails. Some students will struggle with their memories, and when they do, I start asking questions. Did he ever teach you how to do something? What was your favorite thing to do with her? What is your earliest memory of him? For those who still can’t think of anything, I tell them to make. it. up. When they realize that I don’t remember anything won’t get them a pass, they will finally find a memory worth telling.
Then I let them write the setting paragraph. I just read them. When I read one that has birds tweeting or squirrels scampering or the leaves swaying in the breeze, I stop and hurry to the board like I have just remembered something very, very important. I forgot to tell you! There are no squirrels allowed. And no leaves or grass or trees swaying in the wind. And they groan. But they also laugh, and we start REVISING. If we don’t revise right then and there before they get too far along in the essay, they just won’t. Eighth graders have a firm belief that when they get to the end of their writing, they are finished. Last paragraph? Done. No matter how many times Truman Capote rewrote In Cold Blood, they don’t believe me that they need to revise and edit. So before they move to another paragraph, they fix this one. By the way, if they are writing about birds and squirrels, they don’t really have a setting. What do you see? What is around you? Where are you standing? What color is the house? Is there anything on the porch? Is anyone cooking something?
Step Four – Crafting Characters
I believe the most important part of this process is to continue showing great examples of memoir writing. They have studied the settings of A Christmas Memory and To Kill a Mockingbird. Those are some pretty lofty goals for fourteen-year-olds. So we return to Craft Lessons before we start the character paragraph. I read aloud the second paragraph from A Christmas Memory, and we analyze it for details just as we did the setting paragraph. It is all about how the main character looks. Then we use another great lesson from the Fletcher/Portalupi book using The Watsons Go to Birmingham. I read aloud the description of Mama and the gesture she is known for – she covers her mouth when she laughs because of a gap between her two front teeth. At the end of the book, she screams without covering her mouth at the sight of the Birmingham Church Bombing. Then we brainstorm gestures. Hair twirling. Knuckle popping. Gum chewing. Nail biting. Foot tapping. Whatever the students think of. They begin to write the description of the ONE character who is in the story with them. This is so hard for them. Not the writing – they are feeling more confident and producing better writing. The hard part is to write just about the other person without writing about themselves. I list the personal pronouns on the board so they can remember not to use them. No I, me, my, mine, we, us, our. I keep saying, “You are not here yet! You don’t show up until paragraph 3…” More groans. And they go around the building telling other teachers that Mrs. Hamilton is so hard! Read that with a whiny voice, please.
Step Five – Plot, Plot, Plot
Now before we go on to plot, I share another piece of writing. This one is a student example saved from a previous year. I have had many wonderful writers come through my class over the years. And I have saved some particularly good pieces. It is enough to share professional work by published authors, but I also like to share writing by another teenager who has sat where they sit. One piece of writing in particular is about jumping on a trampoline – a simple memory. I also share writing by Rick Bragg because is the king of simple memories. And he writes with such style and voice. A southern voice. He writes, as one of my students said, “like we talk.” On the last page of every issue of Southern Living magazine is an essay written by Bragg. And they are always entertaining and usually great for teaching style and voice. He uses allusions. He uses the Rule of Three and the Rule of Four, which I teach my students to notice and use. He writes with action verbs and wonderful vocabulary. And he writes about simple stuff. Getting the cranberry sauce out of the can, pick-up trucks, Halloween, football in the south. He writes about life. So before they write plot, they read Rick Bragg.
As you can see, this is not a quick process. But we are using the Reading-Writing Workshop model, remember? So the students and I read and write and read and write. I teach a mini-lesson and they work. I circulate. I confer. We annotate the texts that we are using as our models, digging into them to look at writer’s craft. We play with our writing to see how we can incorporate the elements that these accomplished writers have mastered. We become real writers, the kind that write for a real public. Our goal is to craft writing that does not sound like it was written in an English classroom for the teacher. And what these young people create is astonishingly good.
They make me very proud. They make themselves very proud, too.