Ending Where We Began: Writing Realistic Fiction

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It’s mid-May. In the Northern Hemisphere, spring is in the air and in the U.S.,  Memorial Day is just around the bend. In many classrooms, the end of the school year means wrapping up, celebrating, reflecting, heading outside. Many teachers admit that they oscillate between desperately wanting to finish the million and one items left on the agenda and wanting to go hands-off-the-wheel.
Perhaps this feeling is never more pronounced than in writing workshop. We want to make sure our students are taking with them all they need for the next year, that they have reached end of year benchmarks. We want to make sure we’ve covered as much of the writing curriculum as possible, even if it means cramming minilessons into spaces that are quickly being squeezed by end-of-year performances, assemblies, and picnics. However, we also want to be able to step back and admire the routines and independence we’ve worked so hard to establish. We are tempted to kick back and read a book in the corner, because our students are writing with more diligence and autonomy than ever before.
What might be helpful for managing this time of year is choosing a writing unit that is both familiar to children and that offers plenty of room for growth. Realistic fiction is one such unit. It’s likely that this will not be a new genre to children, thus allowing teachers to skip the instruction on characteristics of this genre and to jump right into instruction on how to make writing better, better, better.
Realistic fiction is one example of a nice year-end unit, and here are a few reasons why.
  1. You have spent all year establishing an environment of trust in which students can feel safe exploring issues and themes in their own lives through writing. Realistic fiction, with its emphasis on students drawing from their own lives, is a unit that supports self-reflection and self-analysis.
  2. Realistic fiction is a genre for which many, many beautiful mentors are readily available.
  3. Because students know this genre well, they can spend less time getting to know characteristics of the genre and more time working on their craft.
  4. There is such joy that comes from doing something with which one feels familiar.
  5. Realistic fiction supports re-connection with notebook work, where good writing very often begins. And, as Kate and Maggie posted recently on their brilliant blog Indent,  spring is the perfect time to remind kids of some of the things that notebooks are actually for–exploration, creation, and building identity.
Setting End-of-Year Goals
This is a great time to ask your students to complete one more on-demand assessment to help you to plan your instruction. Time will be tight, and will likely get tighter, so it’s crucial that all of your teaching be as targeted as possible. Because this is a familiar genre, it’s likely that you will be able to skip a good-sized portion of the suggested curriculum.
You might ask your students to write a short narrative, either a personal narrative or a scene from a realistic fiction story. Whatever you choose, it’s important that you set up your students to write something that they can reasonably write in one writing workshop.
Before studying the writing that your students do, consider the biggest goals you have for your students’ writing, and let these be the lenses you use to study their on-demands. Douglas Reeves’s writing on Power Standards (via Larry Ainsworth) might help you to choose the goals that are really important for your students. Reeves explains that three criteria can help teachers to choose the standards (or skills) they will emphasize in their curriculum. First, the skill must have leverage in other subject areas (or in other writing experiences). Also, it must endure beyond that unit or that school year. In other words, it must be a skill important for the student always. Finally, it must be essential for the next level of learning. Ask yourself which writing skills most fit these criteria, and plan to emphasize those in your teaching.
Prioritizing Instruction
Once you have assessed your students’ writing according to your goals, you can pick teaching points that will get at exactly what it is you would like students to be able to do before the end of the school year.

You might decide to just concentrate your teaching on unpacking what exactly “show, don’t tell” means, and how to do it. With your students, you might study ways authors show how a character is feeling through her words, actions, and thoughts. Or, you might study ways authors unfold setting details over the course of the action instead of just throwing out places and dates in the beginning. 

If you teach reading using a workshop model, you might think about the work your students have done getting to know the characters in their fiction books and plan your teaching to help them create character and story arcs that match the books they are reading. Upper grade students might try their hands at writing stories with multiple characters moving through multiple story arcs, for example. 

Alternately, you might decide to angle the unit toward helping your students bring out deeper meaning in their writing. Teach them to consider what their stories will really be about right at the start. One way to do this is to consider what lessons readers might learn from a story. Then, angle the beginning, middle, and end to support these lessons.

Choosing just an area or two of focus for this unit instead of giving equal priority of all parts of a large unit will help you to support depth and transference in these areas.

Assessing and Celebrating

This is a time of year for the assessment to get meta. Ask your students to do plenty of self-reflection using familiar checklists, rubrics, or other tools. Then, assess their reflections. Are they honest? Can they point to multiple places in their work where they tried certain skills? Can they explain what the skills mean or are they only checking boxes? Sending your students to the next grade with the ability to reflect honestly and realistically on their writing is perhaps the most important skill of all.

To celebrate, really think about whether an intimate or a larger gathering feels more appropriate. Because the school year’s end often brings sadness at moving on, you might ask students to leave their mark on your classroom by dedicating their writing to your class library for next year’s class to enjoy.

Of course, there are many writing units that make for wonderful finishes to the year. Perhaps you are following an established curriculum and don’t have much choice in the unit. Regardless, you can consider ways to emphasize the skills, habits, and depth that you most want your students to bring with them next year, and always.