Sometimes I think of the beginning of a writing unit as the beginning of a snowman. You start with a patch of snow, and then you start rolling. You hope that other snow sticks and that the ball will grow bigger and bigger. A few teachers invited me to work together in launching realistic fiction with their fifth graders. The students had already completed a few personal narrative stories, so they had some solid teaching points under their belt within narrative writing. Additionally, by the time students are in fifth grade, they’ve had a lot of narrative writing instruction.
I started by just filling out the chart below with them, leading them to the aha realization that personal narrative writing is not too different from realistic fiction writing. When we filled it out, the only main difference was that in realistic fiction, the writers get to create a character. I talked to them about the excitement around that since they had so much power to create the stories that they wished would happen in the world as opposed to feeling stuck with what really did happen.
In the past, I have talked to students about the importance of getting to know their characters, and in earlier grades, students spend time drawing their characters with thoughts about their external and internal traits. For the first time, I changed the way we did this, mostly inspired by my own life as a writer. To get to know some of the characters in a book I am writing, I wrote about them, beginning with “Meet ________.” What I found when I did this is that my introductions to my characters automatically led to stories. I read my introduction to Taylor to students, and I challenged them to listen for stories within the introduction. Some students found eight stories that I could write from the 1½-page entry I wrote about my imagined character.
After we had this discussion, I asked students to think of a character and work in their notebooks to introduce their character in the same style I’d used for Taylor. As soon as they could tell me the name of their character, I dismissed them from the circle to their writing places and their notebooks. As I walked around the room, I found that some students, generally the less enthusiastic writers, still wrote with lists, bullets, or phrases. I pushed those students to slip into paragraph format, and I left them with a special pen from the bag of markers I carry. (Kids LOVE special pens!) Some of the students asked for different colors for different parts of their character introduction.
Even students who typically don’t produce a lot of writing during writing workshop got going with ideas for their characters. Some of the most effective prompts for getting their ideas to overflow to paper were these:
Where does your character hang out?
Tell about siblings.
What have been some really scary moments in his or her life?
What have been some painful moments in his or her life?
Several of the students who tend to write a lot filled of two or three pages, because they kept having ideas about their character. There were probably four or five students in each of the classrooms I visited whose notebook looked something like the one in this photo. They couldn’t believe how many stories they had to choose from.
By the end of the hour, every student had several stories to harvest from their descriptions of their characters. They were excited to tell each other about their characters, and they were also excited to choose a story and get writing. That writing snowball was growing quickly in all of the classrooms, well on its way to becoming a fabulous snowman!