Quick Tip Tuesday: Finding the small moments that inspire great writing

February 3rd, 2009

Student and writers are often told to write what they know about. “This sounds deceptively simple until it is tried,” writes Mark Overmeyer in his book, When Writing Workshop Isn’t Working. “What do we know?” He suggests that the most obvious place to point students is their own lives. Students might feel that they are too young to write a memoir or look back at their childhood while they are still in it, but with the help of mentor texts teachers can guide students to find the small moments in their lives that are worth writing about.

Many children’s authors write memoir very effectively. The most effective titles I have used to model the idea that stories come from very small moments include Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe. Both of these books are deceptively simple. Before I introduce Fireflies, I tell students that Brinckloe could have written the entire book in one sentence: I saw a bunch of fireflies and caught them and then let them go. I then ask them to listen carefully to see how the author stretches the story to make it interesting for the reader. Owl Moon and Fireflies help students to see that they have stories in their own lives and that they can begin looking for small moments to write about.

One way to convince students they can write effective memoirs, and even enjoy it, is to maximize the chances for success during short mini-lessons. Think of an experience you can share that may resonate with the students in your class. I often tell the story about taking care of my friend’s cat, Milo. Milo stayed at my apartment, and one day when I went home I couldn’t find him. I had done laundry early in the morning in the laundry room down the hall, and I worried that he had gotten out and I didn’t notice. I describe looking for him everywhere, and then finally discovering him playing with the soap in the bathtub. This moment works well as a story because I can add many details about looking for the cat, and I can describe my feelings of worry and relief. The texts mentioned above, Owl Moon and Fireflies, are gently emotional pieces that I have found students can identify with. I intentionally avoid big moments: weddings attended, birth of a brother or sister, or death. These are very appropriate for a memoir, but for helping students to feel they have something to say in a short amount of time, these topics tend to be too large.
After sharing my story, I ask students for some title ideas. “Missing Milo” or “Where’s the Cat?” work better as titles than “The Cat” because they help limit the time frame to just a few minutes. I ask students to think about a story they might write about, and then to share titles. Putting a few of these titles on the board is normally enough to get everyone started, and then I let students write.

Below is a sample of some titles for small moment stories from different grade level groups:

“Where’d She Go?” – a fifth grader’s story about losing her sister when she was supposed to be babysitting.
“Scavenger Hunt” – a fifth grader’s story about cleaning up after the dogs in the backyard.
“Frosting Trouble” – a second grader’s story about licking all the frosting off the cake at her birthday party.

Sometimes, students want to tell your story instead of focusing on their own. I have worked in many classrooms, and unless I am very specific, I can receive four or five stories about trying to find a pet cat, and invariably, the cat ends up being in the bathtub, playing with the soap. I tell students that they can tell a story about a pet, but they must focus on a different set of details.

“Your story cannot be about finding your car in the bathtub,” I tell them, “even if this really happened. Think of something else you can tell me about your cat.”

Below is a story by Dorion, a third-grade student at Sunrise Elementary:

Once I had a cat and I took the cat food out of the cabinet and took the cookies out of the pot and I put the cat food in the pot and the cat had the cookies. Then my brother Michael asked my mom if he could have a cookie. And my mom said yes. And my brother reached into the pot and he said mom the cookies are all mushy something went wrong. And he took some out and ate it and he said it was bad and it tasted like kitty food.

Dorion’s story is about something that happened in just a few minutes. He writes with detail from the very beginning, and the ending we anticipated makes us laugh when we get there. Dorion was successful because he chose a moment in his life that he can remember, and he is able to create a story from it.
Not all successful writing experiences have to come from student’s lives. I have used many different writing activities over the years to spark student interest and confidence in writing.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Writing

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