This is going to be a fun couple of blog posts! I absolutely adore sharing writing workshop lessons with other teachers. After you go through this process, you might want to teach these lessons in your own classroom. If so, you can head to our Teachers Pay Teachers store to purchase a resource packet that you can use to lead your students – in any language – through this method of generating ideas for personal stories, selecting a “seed idea”, and planning using a story mountain.
Overview of Personal Stories:
How personal stories fit into the Stepping Stones Scope and Sequence and our Year of Free Curriculum: In Cycle Two, Narration, we move into stories. This cycle builds upon the work you did in Cycle One, Description, because stories contain description of the setting, the characters’ external traits, their internal traits, and their thoughts and feelings.
Phase One of Cycle Two is “Personal Stories.” The following three phases in this cycle move into other categories of narratives:
Cycle Two, Phase Two — Cultural Stories (for example, legends or folktales)
Cycle Two, Phase Three — Imaginative/Literary Stories (for example, creating an imaginative story with your class or telling a story from literature)
Cycle Two, Phase Four — Historical Stories (about real people in history or perhaps current events).
To download the phases from the Free Year of Curriculum, in multiple languages, please visit our Teachers Pay Teachers store.
Writing Workshop for Teachers — Generating ideas for personal stories and planning using a story mountain
This process is drawn from my experiences teaching English Language Arts using the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) writing workshop approach.
In an ELA class, I would use similar anchor charts and modeling to demonstrate my own writing process, leading the students through a series of lessons, over about two or three weeks, to craft their own personal narratives.
If you teach students whose language proficiency is strong enough to tackle this kind of work, you might adapt this process and teach similar lessons in your language, or download the resource pack from our TpT store here.
For most teachers, this process will simply be a “teacher tool” that helps you generate ideas for meaningful stories from your life, select a “seed idea”, and develop it into a personal story to use in Cycle Two Phase One (Narrating Personal Stories).
I’m excited to share this process with you!
First, here is an anchor chart. Just like an anchor chart you would use in the classroom, this anchor chart is designed to hold a list of possible strategies or tools that writers can use to accomplish a certain task. In this case, the list will be various strategies to generate ideas for your personal story.
We are going to complete the entire process in one big go, because we are busy teachers. With actual students, each strategy on the anchor chart would probably be an entire lesson. However, nobody has time for all that, so we will complete the whole process in one sitting.
After each new strategy is added to the anchor chart, I will model my own process using stories from my own life. In an actual class for students who have enough proficiency to tackle writing workshop, you would most likely spend an entire lesson on each strategy. First, you would add the name of the new strategy to the anchor chart, then you would model your own writing, thinking aloud as if you were doing the work for the first time (but, in reality, you would most likely already have a good idea of what you would “work on” to model for the students), and then providing time for students to try out the strategy in their own notebook or portfolio.
The first strategy that I have found super-helpful in getting ideas for powerful stories from my life is to make a T-chart of people who are important to me, and then listing one or two small moments with them that I remember with crystal-clear clarity. I am looking for the kind of moments that are seared into my memory because they were so “big” to me when they were happening.
Life is not actually comprised of a ton of moments like this. So, if we remember a moment with “crystal-clear clarity” then it is most likely super-significant to us, and therefore it just might make an awesome seed for a personal story worth sharing with our students (or readers).
If I list out the most important people from my life, this is a possible T-chart I could make. Maire, my daughter, Nicki, my sister, and my parents.
If I were modeling for students, I would avoid adding my daughter. Even though she is – of course – pretty much the most important human on the planet in my book, my goal here is to generate stories of my YOUTH, so that my students, who are youths themselves, can relate to the stories I share. It is more difficult for most students to imagine what it is like to have a daughter, so I would avoid listing her, if my goal is to find stories that will be engaging and relatable for my students.
So, even though it pains me, I am crossing off my darling daughter since I am doing this work for my students.
My next step is to think of moments from the 80s and 90s, when I was a youth, that involve these people and that I remember with “crystal-clear clarity.”
Now, I need to make sure that the moments are NARROW. That means that they only really lasted about five to ten minutes in my actual life.
For example, my sister’s brain aneurysm and recovery lasted for years. But I want to just focus on the moment when Grandma took me home from the hospital where Nicki was in a coma, and we forgot the house keys in all the chaos, and I had to climb into the house through a window that happened to be Nicki’s room, and I saw her eighteen Cabbage Patch Kids (what can I say? It was 1988!) on her bed and the gravity of the situation sank in all at once, when I had the thought, “If Nicki doesn’t survive, those dolls will be orphans!”
Why do I want to tell such a narrow story? Because that will allow me to really go deep into my inner thinking and feelings, and show how come THIS moment was a significant turning point in my life.
You try it!
Maybe you have a ton of awesome stories from just this one strategy. If you do, then you might just skip to the next step, below. But maybe you want to try some other strategies to see if you can unearth an EVEN BETTER story. If so, I will show you examples of a few other strategies that have helped me and my students.
This is an important point about anchor charts. They are NOT a “list of the daily assignments.” They are more like a toolbelt that you gradually add more and more tools to, so that students can use the ones that work for them. Of course, on the very first day of a new anchor chart, the students have only seen you model one strategy, so they are pretty apt to just try that one out. However, the goal is “getting ideas for small moments,” NOT “make this specific T-chart,” so a student in a writing workshop class who knows other ways that work for them, or can modify the strategy you modeled that day, or can invent their own way to do this task, then that is totally fair game.
If you want to try out some other strategies, read on.
Some other options that are very much like the first one are to make other T-charts that list important PLACES or OBJECTS and follow the same process of thinking back and listing moments you remember super-clearly, and then narrowing those moments down to about five to ten minutes of the most important part of the whole experience.
I literally cannot stress enough how powerful these strategies are. Every single story that I use in writing workshop, and many of the personal stories that I share as Guided Oral Input in my World Language classes came from working through these strategies in TCRWP Summer Institutes or in my own classroom, teaching my ELA students.
Another strategy that I really love is listing strong emotions and then moments that I experienced them.
Here are some examples of strong emotions. With my students, I always liked to brainstorm this list together, and then model thinking back and retrieving my own stories, for some of the emotions. You can’t always find a personal experience for every single emotion, but two or three will probably jog your memory.
Here are some of my own personal stories from my own childhood and adolescent years, narrowed down to their “seed”:
Wow, some powerful stories there! The one about the note in the locker is a doozy. They’re all doozies, actually. Maybe one day I will write them all. What a treasure chest.
You might want to try using this strategy yourself. Go ahead, I’ll be here when you get back.
Here is the final strategy, and it can be a real tear-jerker. You think of the first time or the last time you did something, and work to recall a small moment from within that experience. This one taps into loss and growing up, so I have found it very effective in helping students find powerful stories.
Here are some of my own firsts and lasts from CHILDHOOD. Of course, as an adult, I have a lot more firsts and lasts. Last alcoholic drink is one that most folks who have given up the booze tend to enjoy sharing. But, again, I am doing this work for the purpose of teaching the youth, who (most of them, hopefully) would not relate to my Last Drink in Hawaii Story.
You can see here that I have generated the ideas and then narrowed them down further.
When your students (or you) have a nice collection of possible ideas, it is a good idea to work with the concept of a “seed” idea versus a “watermelon” idea. This is a very handy metaphor that my first writing workshop teacher, Maggie Beatty, shared with us at TCRWP Summer Institutes. I have used it in my own teaching every year since then. It is such a widespread metaphor, and so easy for students to grasp, that in schools where the students begin workshop in kindergarten, even the littles can explain what a “seed story” is and how we need to avoid trying to write a “whole watermelon.” Here is a short explanation.
Like all the slides, it is included in the resource packet on our TpT store.
The next step leads to another “bend in the path” of the writing process. We move away from generating ideas and into selecting the ideas that will make the most powerful personal narratives.
Here is a second anchor chart that I have found useful to teach and model how to select the “seed idea” that will lead to the finished piece.
Look over your ideas through this lens, and find a couple-three that fit the bill. These are the raw material that you will use to plan the stories you share in Cycle Two Phase One.
Here’s another chart that often comes in handy at this juncture to demonstrate with your own story how to make sure this is a “worthy” seed idea to develop into a full-on story. Let’s look at a possible seed idea from my own writer’s notebook: the story of the first time I saw Chinese writing. It literally blew my eight-year-old mind back in the pre-internet days of 1984.
Looks like a winner! It checks all the boxes, at least.
You might want to take a few to go look for your own seed idea. I suggest choosing two or even three, so you can develop them all when you need them later.
Once you have selected your story, you will be well-served by taking a few moments to ponder its significance, and maybe even doing a little bit of quick jotting to help you uncover its depths of meaning. The anchor chart below has some useful pointers.
Once you are done with this, you are ready to use a story mountain to plan the way you will tell the story. That’s the topic of the next blog post. See you then!