As promised, I want to share another lesson I presented at High Bridge Elementary. Lynn H. requested a lesson that would help her fourth graders write the middle of their stories or personal narratives. There are oodles of lessons for teaching beginnings and endings, but how do we guide students through the midsection?
As I told the students, I , like so many of us who write fiction, complain about the "murky middle." Leaving my beginning behind, I feel as if I’ve stepped into a swamp, and can only hope that somehow my words will get me to the other side. With sound advice from many talented writers, however, I’ve developed a fairly reliable navigational system. It doesn’t stop me from occasionally losing my way (there are so many ways to veer in a wrong direction), but it has helped me gain some much needed forward motion. What do I do? It’s quite simple. I identify a question I want raised in the reader’s mind. The middle continues to ask the question, but the tension (the desire to know the answer to the question) is ratcheted up. That question becomes my through line — keeping me on course.
I used one of my personal essays to model this technique. (Are you writing every day? Good! Then you have examples, too!) Here is the opening of my essay:
My son requested a single gift for Christmas. At seven, he knew the odds: ask for one thing — one thing only — and you’re guaranteed to get it. His wish, scrawled in second grade handwriting, was a pocketknife.
The question raised: Will my son get the pocketknife? The essay goes on to describe the struggle between my values/fears and my son’s desire for a jacknife, each paragraph increasing the tension. Here’s one such paragraph:
“What is it with boys and knives?” I asked the L.L.Bean clerk. “A pocketknife isn’t a weapon,” he replied. “It’s a tool.” He proceeded to recommend just the knife for a child. It was small — tiny in fact. And the prominent gadget on this classic was a pair of scissors. Scissors that could be useful when applied to gum-foil, string and other stuff that boys carry in their pockets. Scissors that would allow this mother to give her son the tool he really wanted. Still, it had a blade.
After introducing this idea of raising a question in the reader’s mind, we considered favorite stories. What question did the author raise? I also projected writing samples on the overhead, and again we discussed whether the author had effectively raised a question. We discussed how some authors, by raising a question in our mind, let us know why we’re reading. They give us a purpose.
Lynn’s fourth graders took this idea and ran with it. It was gratifying to conference with students who were so willing to embrace this technique. They wrote to thank me for helping them to “build their stories.” However, I want to caution teachers against asking students to write to an inflexible formula. As fourth grade Claudia wrote: