supporting small moment writing

our year begins, like many others’, with a focus on narrative writing. our students are asked to write small moment personal narratives – that is, a true story from their life that happened in 20 minutes or less.

many of our writers struggle with writing small. their tendency is to tell about an entire day or an entire trip. our guess is that this happens because they feel like they’ll be able to write more (and, they think that more, longer writing means better writing) when it’s about a longer period of time and also because they’re unsure of how to zoom into what’s most important (or maybe even not sure of how to determine what’s most important).

we call our students’ writing that focuses on an entire day or an entire trip or an entire game “bed to bed” stories because these pieces include everything from the start to finish of the day or trip (or game – you get the idea). these pieces are usually summaries; they don’t feel like they’re written in the moment, like the story is happening now, but, instead, summarize what happened (because, when you’re telling about all of it, it’s hard to write all of the little details!).

after reading our on-demands, our two biggest goals for our first unit of study are  almost always to make sure that everyone is able to zoom in and write smaller than they were able to at the beginning of the year, and also that they write in the moment, like the story is happening now.

we have four main ways that we support students in writing smaller and more in the moment:

this post will be the first in a series and will explain how we use the phrase “the time when…and…” to gather story ideas. we’ll link to the other posts in the series above as they’re published. (while this series is about small moment writing, it can also be used for other narrative units, like realistic fiction or fantasy or memoir. we think of those genres as having multiple small moments – scenes – and so the work is certainly transferable to those stories, as well. we want our kids to transfer it!)

in our very first days of gathering story ideas – like, the second or third day of school – we teach our students to use the phrase “the time when…and…” when gathering story ideas in their notebooks.


a notebook page from a mini-lesson. the gathering strategy for these ideas was to think of important people, places, or things, and then moments related to those. every small moment story idea we write uses “the time when…and” to help the story idea be more focused.

on the second or third day of school, we’ll read aloud fireflies! by julie brinckloe and pause because it reminds us of the time in our life when we caught lightning bugs with our neighbors and one neighbor pinched the glow part off of the lightning bug and stuck it to her finger like a glow in the dark ring. as we think aloud about this small moment, we model using the phrase “the time when…and…” this story idea usually sparks others in our students, often unrelated to fireflies or lightning bugs (because writers allow themselves to be open to ideas sparking from anything), and we listen in as they share with a partner:

“collecting cicada shells” we hear, and so we interrupt:

try it again using “the time when…and…” 

the student tries again, “the time when we collected cicada shells,” and then she pauses and looks to her partner, ready to hear her partners’ idea.

you forgot the “and!” we’ll say. try again – the time we collected cicada shells and…say it all together, starting from the beginning.  

the student is thoughtful for a moment, and then repeats it, adding the and: “the time when we collected cicada shells and buried them all in the garden, like a cicada funeral.”

amazing! we’ll say. do you realize you started with a big moment – collecting cicada shells – and then you zoomed in to the smaller moment, the one that felt most important to you, by using “the time when…and…” in the end, you’re not going to write all about collecting cicada shells, but the time when you collected cicada shells and you buried them in the garden, like a cicada funeral! we can’t wait to read that story.

and so it will continue, every time we listen in to a turn and talk about story ideas or read over our students’ shoulders as they’re making a list of story ideas in their notebook for the first month of school. we’ll remind them to go back and revise their words, starting over so that they’re using the phrase “the time when…and…” we’ll also encourage partners to prompt one another to start over using the phrase when they forget it, until it becomes a natural way we think about story ideas.

we find that saying story ideas aloud or writing them down in notebooks using these words helps the writers zoom into a small moment. they won’t have to wonder what about collecting cicadas they were going to write about when they return to their notebooks to write an entry about it; they’ll already know that it’s going to focus on the cicada funeral because the story idea in their notebook was small and specific.




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