Teaching Reflection // Who Writes a Good Story? A Mini-Lesson on Story Elements

This post is part of a series written by Live It Learn It’s Experiential Learning Fellows. During their year-long fellowship with LILI, Fellows are planning their own experience-driven mini-units that include both classroom and field components. In these posts, Fellows will reflect on the experience of planning and leading a Live It Learn It-style unit of study.

In today’s post we’re highlighting a teaching reflection from Eleni Marsie-Hazen on her Mini-Lesson. Ms. Hazen is a Kindergarten teacher at LaSalle-Backus Education Campus in DC’s Ward 4.

In researching how to develop the Mini-Lesson as a part of my Experiential Learning Fellowship, I chose my unit based on DC Public School’s units of study. Knowing I had to teach story elements as a part of the English language arts focus, I decided to introduce writing skills to create a unit that had adequate time for modeling and independent practice; this allowed for an hour a day to focus on the Mini-Lesson. Once I decided on my Mini-Lesson, “Who Writes a Good Story?”, I reached out to a friend and former Kindergarten teacher to inquire about destinations that would pair well, resulting in a field trip to 826DC – a nonprofit organization that aims to help students build creative writing skills.

First selecting where we were going allowed me to work backwards in developing the content for my students.  826 DC actually provided me with a list of words that the students should know before arriving, so I was able to work those words into my lessons leading up to our trip. I determined that my students would need to know about characters, settings, problem/solution, and events (beginning, middle, and end). Once I established that, I chose three BrainPOP videos and texts that would help me highlight these skills in meaningful ways: Character, Setting, and Plot.

In an effort to collect background knowledge, I asked students at the beginning of our unit,  “What does a story need?” and received some interesting answers. For example, one student said that a story needs people, which prompted another student to say that a story needs “vampires”. That opened the door for a conversation about characters in an authentic way. So we were able to discuss how characters can be people, creatures, or animals. Other answers were drawings, pictures, scenery, and a title. I dictated students’ responses on an anchor chart using red ink to symbolize answers given before background was taught and green to symbolize answers given after background knowledge was taught.

As I shared in my Mini-Lesson, I used three different BrainPOP videos – character, setting, and plot – and played each one at the beginning of the days’ lesson.  To begin, we watched the Characters video and I created a character with the class and realized that students were struggling to give adjectives to describe the character. I ended up putting a pin in that lesson and starting over again the next day by reading the poem Sick, by Shel Silverstein. This poem offers many different ways to describe the main character, Peggy Ann McKay. I found that taking away visual clues to how she look actually helped students to imagine her in their heads. Students loved recalling all the adjectives and details of how Peggy Ann McKay looked, as I wrote their responses on the board. It also led to a great conversation about Peggy Ann McKay’s personality attributes; some said she was smart, sneaky, and a liar. I posed the question, What makes you say that? giving them the space to share evidence from the poem in support of their answers. I modeled how to create a character for the class by making a mummy and asking students to describe how she looked.  After completing this activity, students were able to come up with characters and give them both physical attributes and personality traits.

To continue building background knowledge, I showed a second BrainPOP video on Setting. In this video, students learned that a setting was not only where and when a story takes place, but how the characters have to fit into a setting for the story to make sense. We read the book Knuffle Bunny Free, by Mo Willems, while focusing on the settings of the story. I projected the images of the book on my smart board and did a See, Think, Wonder thinking routine before reading the words on the pages to help highlight the contrast between these two story elements. I would typically read a story without interruption and then try and incorporate the skill the following day. I wish I had done this activity on the first day of reading the story because students were unable to give original thoughts during the See, Think, Wonder routine. They somewhat knew the story and just kept skipping ahead to what they already knew verses really thinking and wondering about what they saw.

Next, we talked about how there can be multiple settings in stories, which allowed the students to create multiple settings for my original character the day before. We decided that a mummy would need a house, a school, and a bus. Students were given time to brainstorm and draw a setting(s) for his or her original story, keeping in mind that they had to pick a setting that would match their character.

I intended on digging deeper into the events in a story, but the character and setting portion took longer than I expected. We were able to discover some background knowledge of what a story entails in the beginning, middle, and end using the Plot video by BrainPOP. While the students didn’t get the chance to work on these sections of their original stories, we were still able to use Knuffle Bunny Free as our example. This gave my students the practice they needed to finish a collaborative story during the field trip.

Field Experience

On the day of the field trip, we arrived a little early to 826 DC and they were not yet open. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day and we were able to let the kids run around in the Columbia Heights circle area; which worked out well since students had to sit for a long time during the trip. 826DC does not advertise that they work with kindergarten, but they kindly agreed to take us since our unit matched. The staff was very helpful during our time, however I think having such dependent students was a new experience for them. Additionally, lunch is not factored into the time frame they give you. We were able to arrange a stopping point for lunch prior to going on the trip, so our students could eat bag lunches.  Note: enter from the Park road entrance, not 14th street.

Reflection

If I were to do this lesson again, I would have taken out the element of writing independent stories in class. It is nice to have students apply the skill, but after seeing the shared story in the field trip, I realized this exercise is a more manageable way to document student learning and understanding. In the classroom, it was overwhelming trying to keep track of 20 different sets of characters, settings, and events. During the field trip, they had everyone collectively create a beginning and middle of story, leaving the problem unsolved. Each student then created his or her individual end to the story.  Next year, I will mirror this model before going on the trip because it will not only prepare them for the actual trip, but get them accustomed to making a story with everyone’s ideas included. I was really pleased with the outcome of the collaborate stories.

 If you take photos and post them on social media, be sure to tag us @liveitlearnitdc or #LILIpad. We’d love to hear how you introduced writing elements in your classroom! 

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