A Mountain of Stories

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3; CCRA.W.5

What You Need: Writing notebooks; staplers; sticky notes; lined paper; pens; mentor texts such as Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña

What to Do: Dahlia Dallal, founder and director of Literacy Partners, which provides professional literacy development to schools, says that starting the year with personal narrative writing “is one of the best ways to build a strong classroom community. Students can learn about one another through their own stories, personal experiences, and struggles.”   

Dallal begins by reading aloud personal narratives such as Last Stop on Market Street. She then has students “dive into” their own lives by asking them to think about these topics: people they know well, places they go to often, things they do all the time, and things they care deeply about. Thinking aloud, she quickly models her own thoughts, jotting them down in words or pictures on sticky notes, which she places on separate pages in her writer’s notebook. (Dallal also recommends reading aloud student writing samples.)

Students then use four large sticky notes and follow Dallal’s model. She asks them to choose one entry they want to develop and she has them discuss with a partner why that entry matters most. 

Next, Dallal teaches students how to plan their writing before they draft. She does this with a “story mountain,” where the writer lists the actions from a particular event that build up to the main event or the moment of strongest feeling and then describes what happens afterward. Lastly, students draft their personal narratives, writing with detail and feeling.


Digital Mind Map

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.3; W.5.3

What You Need: Access to technology (iPads, laptops, or chromebooks) or mind map graphic organizers (see sidebar) 

What to Do: Kimberly Welcome, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 682 in Brooklyn, New York, tackles prewriting strategies using technology. Padlet is one application, free in the basic version, that she uses.

Welcome explains that mind mapping allows students to develop “seed” ideas based on a prompt or topic—and then enables them to identify connections among the ideas. “My students have experienced many moments in their young lives. The challenge is choosing a moment significant enough to write about.” She explains that writers use Padlet to jot down ideas on virtual Post-its, prompted by statements such as “Think of a time when…” and “I felt this emotion when….”

Welcome begins by creating a new Padlet on the app, giving it a title related to the prewriting activity that students will use to guide their thinking. The app also provides her with a link or QR code that lets students access the mind map she’s created. Then, each student proceeds to open the application on his or her device by typing in the provided link or by scanning the QR code. Welcome explains that the mind map will be filled with shared ideas from their peers that will help them brainstorm seed ideas for their own personal narratives.

After giving students the prompt, she asks them to enter their ideas on a virtual Post-it and, when all have finished, read through each entry. Students then identify similar ideas and link them by clicking “Connect to a Post.” This allows writers to organize entries, thus creating a mind map. Finally, students generate a piece of writing built on their compiled ideas.


A Sense of Place

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3; CCRA.W.5

What You Need: Queen of the Falls, by Chris Van Allsburg; chart paper; writing notebooks; mementos, photos, and drawings of places you and your students have visited; graphic organizers 

What to Do: Begin the school year with a read-aloud, such as Queen of the Falls, that conveys a strong sense of place. Then, tell your own story of a trip that left a big impression. Share mementos, drawings, or photos to illustrate. For example, if you visited Niagara Falls, you might share photos of the falls and wear a T-shirt you bought there.

With your artifacts displayed, think aloud to complete a graphic organizer to “house” your experiences. Model how the organizer begins to grow as you expand on your story. Then, tell students they’ll talk about a visit to a memorable place and share mementos with a partner. Prompt them with comments and questions like “Take us with you!” “What did you see?” “How did you get there?” Next, using one of their artifacts, students complete their organizers, putting the artifact in the center and adding details that expand outward. Each entry becomes its own narrative and students choose one to begin writing their story draft. 


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Photo: Courtesy of Beth Newingham