Writing: Knowing the Genres

The other day, I assigned my students the following writing prompt:
What if you were a fly on the wall?  What would happen to you if you were?  
What would you do if you were a fly on the wall?

I expected my students to write a narrative story about a time when they were magically turned into a fly on the wall and all of the mischief they would get into.  What I ACTUALLY got back from them were a lot of informational paragraphs listing various, random, non-connected ideas of what could happen to them.  

I realized that I had not been clear with my students about the differences between the genres of writing.  When they were asked to write a narrative, my kids just didn't know what that meant.  They didn't realize that just writing ANYTHING wasn't enough.  They had to write within the correct genre for their response to be counted as correct.

The kids tend to just write and not think about the subtle differences between the three genres -- narrative, informational, and opinion -- that they are being asked to write in.  Often times, they are being asked to write a narrative story, but end up just listing facts, turning their writing into an informational piece.  Or they are asked to write their opinion on a topic and end up telling a story about said topic.   I decided enough was enough and set out to really get through to my kids within these genres.

I started out by creating a three tier chart with my kids.  On that chart, I listed the characteristics of each genre.  What makes that specific genre unique and different from the others.  For example, a narrative is a story with a beginning, middle, and end while discussing EVENTS, whereas an opinion piece will be riddled with REASONS as to why the opinion is valid.  To make it easier for them (and their readers) to know which genre they were writing in,  I also added basic "key words" that might be found within the writing piece.  

Then, we went back to the original prompt.  I asked them how we could make sure that what we were writing was NARRATIVE instead of INFORMATIONAL.  With some gentle prodding and leading, I was able to get the kids to see that we need events and a story line in a narrative.  That they had to be turned into a fly somehow, fly from wall to wall, encountering things, and then have some sort of ending.  I showed them how this was different from just listing possibilities of what might happen if they were a fly on the wall -- as they were already writing.
The kids seemed to get it, and they were off to the races writing their narrative.  This time around, I did get stories back from them.  They were imaginative, had events, and told the beginning, middle, and end.  They were definitely and clearly different than the informational writing I originally received.

Since we were at it, I asked the kids to then write an opinion piece.  Would you like or dislike being a fly on the wall?  This time the kids knew that they needed to pick a side and have REASONS for their choice.  There was no right or wrong, as long as they could support their reasons with evidence or examples.  Again, the kids consulted the chart and made sure they kept their writing within the genre.

I have to say, I LOVED what transpired from all of this.  What started as a disaster, turned into a glorious teaching moment.  So I decided to keep up with this theme and idea.  I came up with 10 more prompt topics (a total of 30 prompts) for the kids to focus on writing across the genres.  First up, since we were learning about the Branches of Government, we wrote opinion, informational, and narrative pieces on that topic.  I gave them a brainstorm sheet so they could organize their thoughts within the genre specifically for each prompt.  I put the chart points on each piece of writing paper for them so they had the key ideas for each genre right on the paper.  (you can pick up the Branches of Govt one for F R E E  here). 

For the rest of this year, I am going to keep hitting this idea hard.  I have lots of prompts ready to go form them, and excited to see where this all leads.  My hope is that they will get those differences between the genres engrained in them.  You can pick up the prompts I am using, and all of the graphic organizers and lesson plan, here.  

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