using plans 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.

planning our stories is one way we support students in zooming in on the most important part(s), and set them up to write closer to what’s most important when it’s time to draft.

we use a storybook during the first unit of study to plan our stories. it’s a piece of computer paper folded twice so that it becomes a little booklet with three pages (or four, if the middle is viewed as two separate pages rather than one).

these are the steps we model during our mini-lesson focused on making a plan across the storybook pages:

1. think about the three events in your story, and how you would summarize them in a sentence or a phrase

2. write them on post-its to show the beginning, middle, and end

3. decide where the heart of your story is – the heart will be the longest, most important part of your story. it’s likely where there’s some tension or trouble. the heart would never be at the beginning of your story; usually it’s the middle, but it could be the end. put a heart on the post-it that’s the heart of your story to help you remember that this is the part you’ll write the longest when you draft. (you’ll see that the last picture – the third event  of my story – is where the heart of my story is.)

4. practice your story by storytelling it to partners. you could storytell it from start to finish, or you might pick one scene at a time to storytell. remember when you storytell the heart it should be the longest part!

we’ll remind our students that they’ve learned other ways to make a plan, and we’ll ask them what those ways are. usually students have used a timeline or a story mountain, and so we’ll add those to our chart of ways to make a plan for a story. we want, and encourage, our kids to carry the writing work they’ve learned already with them – across our year, but also from year to year – and so putting the strategies they know already on our class chart is a way to emphasize that they know things already, and they should be doing them.

we intentionally model one way to make a plan during this first unit, though it’s of course exciting if students use a way that they already know as writers, so that there aren’t too many choices nor time spent on teaching how to make a plan. for now, we think having a plan is what’s important, and we build our repertoire of planning strategies in later narrative units of study. in small groups or conferences, we might offer other ways to plan like a storyboard or showing the events across a sentence strip (for students who are more visual or maybe more reluctant writers, as they allow for space for illustrations that accompany the sentence or phrase describing each event).

the goals for everyone before drafting day are to have a plan that shows a clear beginning, middle, and end to their story, and that students are able to identify the heart of their story (and, of course, can explain why it’s the heart). our expectation will be that they have their plan next to them as they draft.

we’ve found that taking the time to make a plan sets students up to be more successful with writing small and also more likely to zoom in on what’s most important, so that they know where to do the most elaboration (and, it’s there also that the details will matter the most).

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