using oral storytelling to support 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.

every year, our on demands (the pre-assessment writing piece) confirm that our two biggest goals for our first unit of study are 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. this is the second post in a series that addresses how we support our students in this small moment writing.

teaching students to tell stories orally using the types of details that we expect in their written stories supports their writing because it helps them begin to think with a storytelling voice and gives them a chance to rehearse how their stories might go before writing them.

we launch storytelling a few weeks into the year with monday headlines, something that we’ll do every monday morning for the rest of the year, usually as our morning meeting on mondays (when our schedule allows for that). we also teach our students that oral storytelling is a way to rehearse their writing before drafting, and give students chances and space to do that with partners in class.

here’s our process for monday headlines, which takes about 10-15 minutes from start to finish:

  1. make a list of story ideas from the weekend in the back of their notebooks using the phrase “the time when…and…”
  2. choose a story idea that they’ve written down to be this week’s monday headline
  3. write the monday headline on a post-it (if my story idea in my notebook was “the time when i went for a run and got stuck in a thunderstorm,” my headline on the post-it might sound like “runner gets caught in a thunderstorm.” we give tips over the weeks about how to write a headline, and have students share headlines to highlight different things they might try in their own.)
  4. storytell our monday headline story to the class
  5. have three different classmates give us feedback, so that we get a total of two pluses and one wish. this provides a chance to practice giving and hearing feedback as a whole-class
  6. storytell their monday headline to their partner (we choose to have a monday headline partner as a long-term partner so that there’s not time spent shuffling around or anyone at risk of being excluded. this is always a partner different from their writing partner, and the partnership is almost always created intentionally so that students are able to provide support to one another in oral storytelling.)
  7. before switching who’s the storyteller and who’s the listener, give your partner two pluses and one wish. (we encourage our students to write the wish down on their post-it so they have it for homework. pluses are things we’ll want to do more of when we storytell and write the story, and wishes are things we’ll work to include.)
  8. one student will storytell his story to the class, and three different classmates will give feedback so that the storyteller gets two pluses and one wish
  9. write the monday headline story in your notebook for homework monday night (we remind our students that the written one will be even stronger than the one they story told because they’ve practiced it and gotten feedback on it.)

each week at the beginning of the year, we’ll choose one detail to focus on as we’re storytelling our monday headline to the class. we model using our craft moves chart to choose the detail that will be our focus each week. focusing on details slowly across weeks helps to immerse our students in this type of writing and storytelling, and also makes it more likely to transfer to their own writing.

as students become more proficient at the process for monday headlines as well as more confident in talking about writing craft (maybe two months into the school year), we’ll introduce setting goals for our storytelling as part of their job as they write their headline on a post-it. we’ll suggest that they consider wishes that partners often give them, and try to make one of those their goals, and write the goal on their post-it under their headline. that way, at night they have their headline, a goal, and a wish all written on the post-it so that they’re set up to do the strongest writing they can.

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everyone – us included – has a page for monday headlines in their writer’s notebook. we keep the post-its with all of our monday headlines here. each post-it has the date, and will eventually include a wish (you can see the “w” on some post-its) as well as a goal (“g”). learning how to most efficiently fill a page with post-its is a teaching point of its own!

we’ve found that giving our writers time to practice telling stories orally improves their written stories. additionally, the thinking and talking work around the types of details that they’re using, which is required when they’re setting goals for themselves or giving feedback to their partners, helps them to transfer the work to their writing more successfully.

for those students who struggle with writing – either because they don’t see themselves as writers yet or some aspect of writing is physically difficult for them – building their oral storytelling muscles is so important. there are so many ways to use dictation to write on a  computer these days, that being comfortable with oral storytelling helps all students practice the mental writing work that’s most necessary for writing a good story. the other part – the actual physical writing of it – is secondary, as it should be.

and, an added bonus, though not any less important, is that telling stories to one another this regularly is a great way to build community.

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