Snapshot Stories: Capturing a Narrative Writing Moment

4th and 5th grade students use candy to help them narrow down their focus when writing.These past few years, I spent a great deal of time honing in on the students' narrative writing skills.  Of course we have been using Paragraph of the Week since school started, and throughout the year they really did get good at basic writing structure, but teaching them to tell a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, in a way that is exciting and engaging for the reader, is a whole different story.

Most of my students were writing "bed to bed" stories, where they would tell me every.single.detail about their entire life when they really are trying to tell me about what happened last Christmas Eve.  This just isn't a great way to tell a narrative.  Sure it encompasses the actual event they are trying to tell, but I would fall asleep in the midst of trying to find out about that event ;)  So I had to do something to get the kids on track.  What better way to do that then to use candy!

Now, I will say right off the bat, this wasn't the cheapest route to go (as I had to buy all the candy stuff myself) but it was fun, memorable, AND helped my students to really focus on the small moment I wanted them to!  Win-win for everyone involved!

Helping the students to narrow down their focus when telling a story.We began the "unit" (and I use that term loosely) by discussing narrative writing and how the author really is just trying to get a snapshot of what is happening to put on paper for the reader.  It isn't everything that author ever thought of, just those important, interesting, and focused details.  Together, we created this anchor chart.

Then, I handed each student a piece of gum.  Before I even let them put it in their mouth, we brainstormed everything that we were thinking.  These kids were so excited that I was going to let them chew gum in class, there were a great deal of thoughts, emotions, and ideas coming from them.  I wrote everything down in a class chart.  Then, I told them to unwrap it and put the gum in their mouths.   Again, while they were chewing I asked them to tell me what they were thinking.  What was happening during that time that they could describe vividly?  All of their thoughts went on our chart.  Finally, to audible groans, I asked them to throw the gum away and describe their thoughts after the experience was over.  When our chart was filled in, I then recounted the gum chewing experience aloud, using the chart we made.

The next day, I wanted to do the same thing but hand off more responsibility for the narrative to the kids.  So I gave them a recording sheet similar to the chart we had used previously, and a pack of Pop Rocks.  Now, here, I must say...my students were stunned.  Some had never had popping candy before and were terrified.  Others were flabbergasted I even thought to give them candy in the first place.  With stunned looks on their faces, I asked them to write all of their ideas down on paper.  Then I followed the same steps as with the gum, this time without creating a class chart.

When the popping candy experience was over, I asked the kids to recount their story to their neighbor.  This oral rehearsing was perfect for them to really get the narrowed down account, using only the adjectives and feelings from their brainstorm chart.  Then, I asked them to write the experience down using a sentence frame.  Again, only giving them enough space to recount just the before, during, and after of the candy eating helped them to focus in on what was important and not on what they were wearing that day.

The next lesson (which was a few days later because writing the last account took a bit of time), I broke the kids into groups and told them they were going to play Bean Boozled.  If you thought the Pop Rocks uproar was big, well, this was just too much for some of them.  They were all sorts of excited!  Using the same format as before, I asked the kids to think a bit harder while playing the game.  Not only did they have to describe what was going through their head before, during, and after the game as a whole, but they had to ALSO do it for their turn to spin on one bean.  They were going to narrow their focus even more, essentially telling a story within a story.

The kids played, and had the best time!  While they were playing, I could hear each of them reminding their partners to write down the experiences AND they were helping them to get the vocabulary necessary to adequately describe how gross some of the beans were!  It really was a lot of fun.  When it was all over, the students then wrote two paragraphs, describing the game as a whole and their experience with one bean.

Using this method really helped my students to see that a narrative that is focused on one specific event and is narrowed down is much more engaging and exciting to read.  They also had an amazing time (which helps when writing a narrative too ;) )  If you would like all of my lesson plans and the printables I used in my class, click here.

What have you done to help your students learn to narrow down their focus a bit more?  I would love to hear your ideas!


3 comments

  1. Wow! What great ideas to help children focus on those details. Thank you for sharing.

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  2. I recently started following you and I’m new to Instagram for teaching and Twitter. Thank you for your blog. It’s excellent learning from great teachers online. I’ve been teaching 5th for 19 years and am so excited about new approaches to old stuff! At any rate, our district has a strict policy on use of candy/food in the classroom. Basically, stay away from it. Do you have any suggestions for this lesson, to get them as excited and reflective without using any food? Thank you!

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