Fostering Reflection in Narrative Writing

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Today’s guest post is from Liz Matheny (@matheeli)

I like to open and close the year with reflective, narrative writing. I do this for two reasons: to help my students explore themselves and their experiences, but also to help them see the growth in their writing. One of my favorite ways to do is to have my students reflect on personal change through the lens of E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”.

Becoming an adult is tricky, especially for my juniors and seniors. They have one foot planted in adolescence, but want the independence and confidence of adults. That duality is exactly why White’s essay works so well with older high school students.

Just like my students, White yearns for summer. He recalls sweet memories of vacationing at a lake in Maine every August with his family. He recalls the sights, the sounds, the little intricacies one only notices in the sweltering heat summer solitude. Eventually his nostalgia gets the best of him and he revisits the lake as an adult with his son. White’s new experience–visiting the lake as an adult– is all consuming. He tries to enjoy all the things he once did as a boy, but realizes he no longer fits in. It is his son that must enjoy the subtle nuances of this magical place.

When I introduce the essay to my students, I give very little context other than they probably know E.B. White as the writer of Charlotte’s Web. I request that as they read they mark up their noticings. What moves does White make that make the essay work?

Once they finish reading, I see students caught up in their own daydreams, lusting for summer or the past. I ask them to form a small group (no more than 4 people) and share out their noticings. I want them to talk it out and pick up on noticings they may not have recognized.

After their 5-minute conversation, we compile a class set of noticings on the board.  As they share their noticings, I request that they add noticings from other groups to their own annotations. As they contribute various noticings, I ask them to explain the impact of that move on White’s essay. How did it impact the reader’s experience?

Here’s a sample of what my 6th period class noticed:

  • Varied sentence structure and lengths (to create intensity and emphasize certain emotions).
  • Repetition (to create rhythm)
  • The use of contrast (to help the reader see his “a-ha” moment)
  • Tone shifts (to contrast before and after)
  • Imagery (symbolism of lightning; keen attention to detail and description)
  • Duality of experience (past vs. present comparison)
  • Organization: before/after, past/present, compare/contrast (to show his own growth and awareness)
  • Concluding recognition (the realization his experience at the lake will never be the same and he will have to live through his son’s experience)

I then ask my students to talk within their groups and select the three or four most meaningful moves White makes. We reconvene, and the groups discuss and whittle away at our master list. My mod 6 determined these moves as the most significant, meaningful moves:

  • Varied sentence length
  • Detail & description
  • Repeition
  • past/present organization

We spend a few minutes talking about what they liked about the essay: their favorite lines, if they could relate. I share some of my favorite lines (“…sometimes in the summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of the lake in the woods.”).

I close our conversation by talking about the reflective nature of personal narratives. How these essays often reflect human nature and experience more authentically than any other form. Then, I give students the following prompt:

Use White’s “Once More to the Lake” as a mentor text for your own reflective narrative.

  • Incorporate at least 3 of White’s moves that your class selected.
  • Pick an approach:
    • Tell about an occasion when you revisited a place that you no longer “fit” into.
    • Consider a belief you once had that changed or developed. Tell about the experience prompted the change?

My students spend the rest of class brainstorming and writing. I encourage them to go back to White’s essays frequently to study the moves so they can play in their own writing. I tend to give them about 48-hours to compose their narratives.

Over the next two or three class periods, we work on the essay by re-reading White’s moves and sharing their writing with one another. They label the top of their essays with the moves they incorporated in their own essays. This helps their partners give feedback about the success or limits of how the move is used. They consult their copies of “Once More to the Lake” again and again, deeply analyzing how White’s moves function. They compare White’s writing to their own and their peers’. They see how they’ve used the same moves similarly, or in unique ways.

Our final step is to use White’s title as inspiration. Over the years I’ve read essays entitled  “Once More to the 1st Grade Classroom”, “Once More to the Church”, “Once More to the Soccer Field”. Just as my students learn so much about themselves and each other through this process, I also learn about them, too. I learn about their experiences as people, but I also get to see my risk-takers when it comes to writing. I get to see who put themselves out there and who kept guard. I get to know them as people and as writers.

Teachers (especially high school teachers!)  love “Once More to the Lake” — how have you used this text to spark writing in your classroom? Are there other texts you use as mentors for reflective narratives? Leave us a comment below! 

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