Wow. February was quite a month. It felt like seven.
So, as you know, we were in the middle of preparing for our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which was a resounding success. Everybody had their lines, cues, and business down. The house rocked with laughter! It was beautiful. Many of these students have real chops, but they didn’t rely on them. They worked hard to make the play fun and understandable. Huzzah!
Once that was over, we had a week of school before our second winter break. I wanted the students to get back in the swing of things, but I didn’t want to set a writing project that was too long. I knew we would be starting our Humanities 4 paper when we returned from break. So, I pulled a narrative essay from an old favorite, James Herriot. Many of you may be familiar with the Prentice Hall literature textbooks. I’m pretty sure I read out of them when I was a kid. Silver, Bronze, Copper, Pewter, Lead– whatever. In my classroom we have a class set of the Coppers and a few Bronze level books which someone, hundreds of years ago, thought would be leveled for 5th and 6th graders.
Although there is very little in the books that I enjoy teaching (Ahh, some day I will loosen my tongue and write a scathing response to these books… but not to worry, I won’t do it today), there is the narrative of the very social cat. “Cat on the Go”? I’d need to look it up. Anyway, we read it along with one of my favorite chapters, “The Beast”, from Stephanie Pearl-McFee’s book of essays on knitting. This is a hilarious narrative essay about one woman’s fight to keep a local grey squirrel from stealing her yarn.
Then I asked the students to make a list of events in their lives which could be used to tell a story. We talked about the four important elements of a narrative essay. 1) It is a story in essay form. This means that the details of the story might be manipulated to make a point. 2) It is written in 1st person. It must come from (or feel like it comes from) a real life experience. And that in itself was an interesting discussion. James Herriot did not write an autobiography, he wrote narrative essays that were based on his real life experiences. We don’t know if the story is “the truth”, and, in fact, it doesn’t matter because of point number 3): It must have evidence of meta-cognition or musing. As in, the author is using the events in the story to reflect upon life and muse on how it happens. Which brings us to point number 4): The story carries universal truths which can be understood even if you aren’t a knitter who is being attacked by a squirrel. The universals lead us often to a lesson we learn about life from this essay.
Students then brainstormed stories from their own lives which could be used as a jumping off point for their essays. Once they had three or more ideas, they chose one to “drill down on”. Then they did a miniature plot chart, just to remind themselves what happened. This became the outline for their essays. Then they wrote the first drafts. They revised them by having them read aloud back to the writer. They made changes to the papers to reflect the necessary components. I asked them to ask themselves if they kept it in 1st person? was it a story? did they muse on why the events happened the way they did? did they find a universal truth in their story?
Then students wrote a second draft which I edited for grammar and mechanics. And finally, they presented me with final drafts. I have to say, and I know I’m biased, there are some incredible essays. Granted, these are 5th and 6th graders, but even so, I was pleased to see them write with such honesty.
There really isn’t room here to present them, but some of the students have given permission for me to publish them here. Stay tuned.