Developing Story Arcs with Sarah Weeks

One of the key and most practical take aways I had this summer from the Teachers College Writing Institute was during my session with author, Sarah Weeks. I attended her class on writing children’s books. She shared with us the importance of a balanced story arc in children’s stories. We examined how the best children’s books out there had really strong story arcs. She had story arcs written out for various well known children’s books. We looked at the story arc of the action in the story, which showed what was happening in the beginning, middle and end. Then, she had us also examine the emotional story that the character went through.

The next step was to start creating our own story arcs for the picture books we would write that week. She shared with us how some teachers, actually had a piece of string that they used to represent the arc. Another method was to use post-its. One color post-it would represent the action of the story, and another color post-it would represent the emotional story arc of my main character. I really loved using the post-its verses just writing it down in my notebook, because I could move around the post-its, add more details, and I could clearly distinguish between the two different arcs. After many hours, I finally had a story arc for my children’s book (still a work in progress).

Last week, I found myself whipping out the story arc I created this past summer, during one of my mini-lessons for our fantasy unit. My students were collecting ideas for their fantasy stories and we had just gone over the story arc of The Paper Bag Princess. I modeled for them creating a story arc of the action and then the emotions of the princess. Then, I showed them the story arc that I created for my children’s book as another model.


Then, I had them create their own story arcs. I gave them post-it notes, bigger sized white paper, and let them go. I encouraged them to be creative and manipulate the size of the post-its as they needed. I had a few students add another arc, of the setting, with another post-it color. Another student included small drawings on her post-its along with the description. I even had some students layering the post-its on top of each other as they added more details. As the students worked on their story arcs, I kept emphasizing the importance of how having a strong story arc would help them write a better story. Plus, it would make the drafting process a lot easier.  And this was a lesson I definitely learned after spending many hours writing and revising my own story arc this past summer.

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Making your Students feel like REAL Authors!

Several months ago one of our first grade teachers had an idea (I am pretty sure she got it from Lucy Calkins- we really like her here at our school). What if after we had a publishing party with our students final stories, we put the books in the school library? Then the whole elementary school could check out each other’s books, and the students would really be real authors! We e-mailed the school librarian to see if we could get a shelf reserved for this, and if we could put the books in the computer system. She happily obliged.

Can I be honest with you? I thought it was a great idea— really I did! The thing is… each first grade teacher only has six students, and laminating each page of each student’s book (so they wouldn’t get destroyed by the other students) for them, wasn’t too bad of a challenge. I have twice as many students (which is still a small class I know!), and my students- being in second grade- might write more, especially since we were doing our fairy tale unit. The thought of laminated a hundred pages (if not more!) of student’s writing was overwhelming. But after my students were able to check out the first grade “books” in our library, I had to do it. Their faces lit up when they held those books.

AND I AM SO GLAD I DID. I have never seen my students more proud and excited to complete their final published story. Being able to see it on the shelf, in our school library, was a huge excitement for them. They even got to LOOK up their books in the library catalog online. They looked so official.

Here is a picture if you made a search for a second grade book (sorry it’s dark!):

If you have the means to do this, DO IT. The corner shelf in our library has become very popular since their books showed up!

An example of what our books look like, this was from our “All About” unit. The students design a cover and back page:

What are some ways you get your students excited about their writing? 

Poetry Centers

To piggyback off of Jee Young’s post, I thought I would share what  I do during my poetry unit. I love, love, love, it when it is time to write poetry!

To kick off the unit I give my students a poetry notepad that they get to design, I purposefully make it long and skinny to help the students create line breaks. Here are a few examples of my students’ notepads from last year:

I love how each student’s is so unique (some of my students used three our four notepads throughout the unit!).

Since it is unrealistic to expect a child to write poetry for thirty to forty-five minutes, my teaching partner and I created centers. First, we have our mini-lesson (courtesy Lucy Calkins), and then we slowly introduce centers. For the first week, I explain a different center every day, or every other day. As the unit goes on, they are required to do each center a certain amount of times each week, along with their writing time.

I am including a few of the centers we do:

Missing Titles“- Students read a poem with the title missing and have word bank of titles to choose from.Click on the title for the link to the poems I use!

“Line Breaks”- Students are given a poem in paragraph form, they get the chance to create their own line breaks, and then they rewrite the poem. Here are a couple of examples: Beavers in the Bathroom,Hammock,Broccoli for Breakfast,Wavy Hair, and Shaking.

Visualize the Poem“- At this center, students read a poem and then draw a picture of the poem. Simple! The link is to the poems that I use.

“List Poem”- at the beginning of the poetry unit have each student bring in a random object from home (anything from an old watch, to a stuff animal, to a Pokemon card). Keep these objects in a basket, and allow students to look through the basket to create a list poem.

I also have a center where students can read poems to each other, practicing how to read a poem.

Here is a poem that I love to use when I start of my unit (poet’s look at everyday objects with fresh eyes), thanks to Lucy Calkins!

Pencil Sharpener
by Zoe Ryder White

I think there are a hundred bees
inside the pencil sharpener
and they buzz
and buzz
and buzz
until my point
is sharp!

Do you have a center you love to use during your poetry unit? SHARE!

Poetry is back!

Poetry is definitely one of my favorite units to teach in reading and writing workshop. I love poetry because it is a nice refreshing break from writing literary essays and reading challenging historical fiction books. It is a unit where the students get completely immersed in poetry in both reading and writing. This week, we are launching our poetry unit in my class. I’m hoping to tweak this unit from the past, by using some of the suggestions and ideas from the 5th grade Curricular Plan for the Writing Workshop unit from Lucy Calkins.

Some of things that I like to do during this unit is have a poetry wall in my classroom. I just get a large sheet of colored paper that I put on the wall. I have the students write down poetry on the wall. They can write sentences, verses, complete poems, and even draw. It’s a wall to inspire them and others. It’s like poetry graffiti that is totally allowed.

Some other good ideas that are in the Lucy Calkins’ curricular plan is to start off with a class anthology of poetry. Usually I have them create a self portrait poetry anthology at the end of the unit, but it might be fun to have them doing a whole class anthology in the beginning of the unit as well.  I will brainstorm with my students this week on different possible topics we could do a class anthology on.

One of my personal goals for this poetry unit is to write more of my own poems and write in my writer’s notebook along with the kids. I would like to say in theory that I do that all year long, but that unfortunately doesn’t happen. So, I’m hoping to write more with my students in this unit and use my writing as an example of mentor text as well. So let the poetry begin…

Part 2: Tips for Launching Successful Book Clubs

Here is part 2 on my series on books clubs. Part 1 you can find here. 🙂

Part 2: Tips for Launching Successful Book Clubs

1. Observe & Model Book Club Discussions– I do a fishbowl activity, where one book club sits in the middle and has their discussion. The rest of the class sits on the outside and makes a circle around them. They sit silently and take notes on what they notice about the discussion. After a few minutes of the discussion, they stop talking and we share what noticed.

2. Book Club Constitution– Have students come up with a constitution that has expectations and roles on how their book club will work. Some of my groups came up with a set order that the kids will share when they first start their discussion.

3. Book Club Chart- This something new I’m doing this year. I got this idea from Lucy Calkin’s unit of study book, Tackling Complex Texts. It is a chart where each group has a row where they write down the book they are reading and the assignment they have until their next meeting day. It’s nice to have it hanging up so I can see it and it helps them as well.

4. Schedule- Try to have a consistent schedule on when book clubs meet. I have students meet every other day in their book clubs. On days that they don’t meet, they are doing independent reading of book club books or their other books they are reading.

What things do you do to get your book clubs running smoothly?