Friday, November 3, 2017

Tackling the Personal Narrative, Part 2

On Wednesday, I wrote about some of the reasons students struggle to write personal narratives and provided ideas that might help them. You can scroll down to read that post.

Today I’ll be discussing a resource that really helps young writers—mentor texts.

You can save student work from year to year and share good examples with your class. It’s powerful for kids to know that a piece of writing was created by someone at their school. The authenticity of these mentor texts will give your students confidence in their own abilities.

You can also share examples from professional writers. The books in the image above will work, but today I’m going to focus on a terrific personal narrative written by one of my favorite nonfiction authors, Sarah Albee (@sarahalbee). It appeared on Cynsations, a great children's-YA literature blog created and maintained by bestselling and award-winning author Cynthia Leitich Smith (@CynLeitichSmith).

Because Sarah’s essay is available online, it’s easy to access. It’s just the right length to share with intermediate and middle-grade students, and the topic is highly focused.

Sarah’s beginning engages readers and clearly and succinctly states her purpose. Then, in paragraph 4, the essay turns personal.  

The idea of describing what’s on my desk seems boring to me. After all, I see those items every single day. But am I curious to know what’s on another writer’s desk? You bet! I can’t wait to take a peek at Sarah’s projects and process. Young writers, many of whom have read Sarah’s wonderful books, will be curious too.  

As we read Sarah’s lively, humorous description (skillfully presented as a bulleted list to keep the text tight and engaging), we discover just how many different projects she has going on. And that begs a question: How in the world does she juggle it all?

In the next paragraph, Sarah answers our question by doing exactly what Phillip Lopate suggests (See Wednesday’s post.). She gives us a new idea to consider—the Deep Thinking Zone. I love that term. Can’t you just see teachers across America saying, “Okay writers, time to enter your Deep Thinking Zone?”

After explaining what her Deep Thinking Zone is and how it works, Sarah humbly admits that she sometimes gets sidetracked. But then she surprises us by describing why the distractions are actually a critical part of her process. They help her generate ideas for future books.

Not only is this fascinating, it highlights a real world solution to a problem that young writers often struggle with—coming up with a topic for a nonfiction report or project. It shows students that professional writers recognize and record ideas as the strike. (Students can do this too if they have a system in place.)

After sharing the chain of ideas that led her from one book to the next, Sarah deftly concludes her piece by linking back to an earlier part of an essay and adding a final touch of humor. It’s the perfect ending.

Why is Sarah’s essay such a good mentor text? Because it accomplishes two important goals simultaneously.

1.    It’s a great example of a personal narrative that’s interesting but not “too” personal. Her style and approach will appeal to students concerned about the risk of sharing details of their home life or family.

2.    It provides fascinating insight into the process and practices of a professional writer, which students can model throughout the year.

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