Recently, the mom of one of my students talked to our class about her work as a writer of YA books. She prepared a PowerPoint presentation using Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt as her mentor text. The following list includes some of the tips she gave the children.
(1) First, it’s important to write about what you know so that you can write with confidence and authority.
(2) A well-developed beginning, middle, and ending is a critical component to any story. Just writing “the end” is not enough. It was great to have a professional writer point this out to the children since often that is how they end their stories because they’ve figured out that they don’t have anything else to say. The truth is that either they didn’t plan their story before sitting down to write, or they didn’t have a problem in the story that needed development and resolution. This is something I’m planning to address during the last term of this year.
(3) Pay especial attention to the beginning of your story. A well-written and interesting beginning will often be the determining factor for whether or not the reader will want to continue reading.
(4) Make sure there is a conflict in the story. If there is no plot, the story will be boring.
(5) The ending should wrap things up for the reader in some way. My student’s parent mentioned that she didn’t like cliff hanger endings. I respectfully disagree. Sometimes those are the best endings because they leave me wanting to read more. More books, more by the same author, and more in a series, if that’s the case. I don’t always think cliff hanger endings are a bad idea unless it seems obvious that the author couldn’t think of an ending and so decided to have no ending instead.
All of this was very instructive and validated much of what I’ve been teaching this year. However, what piqued my interest the most was when this parent shared her “character collage”. A character collage allows the writer to think about and develop a character before she even starts to write her story. By using magazine images and words the writer can create a picture of a character’s interests and traits. And, this collage can be a work in progress as the writer starts to write and think about major and minor characters, plot, and setting. This is the next step I am planning to take as we continue thinking and analyzing character traits in my classroom. I will write more about how this went with the children during the first week of April. In the meantime, just in case you’re curious about character collages, read this post at http://www.stinalindenblatt.com/2010/10/getting-to-know-your-character.html at my student’s mom’s blog/website.
I’d love to hear any thoughts about the tips mentioned above from readers of this blog. Please, feel free to leave a comment with your ideas.
About a year ago, maybe more, I read The Complete Four by Pam Allyn. See it here http://amzn.to/zpRRWl I appreciated the concept of integrating reading and writing lessons so that what you do in reading workshop directly impacts what you do in writing workshop. Here’s what the authors say about “the complete year”: “Organized around the Complete 4 components (Process, Genre, Strategy and Conventions) and four unit stages (Immersion, Identification, Guided Practice, and Commitment), each book in the Complete Year series features a year’s worth of integrated reading and writing curriculum. Because we honor your professional decision-making, you will find the Complete Year provides a flexible framework, easily adapted to your state standards and to the needs and goals of your community, your students, and your teaching style.” I particularly like the last sentence of the above description of the “complete year”, and that is why I’ve put the quote in italics and bold, as well as underlined it for the sake of emphasis.
Although this is not a new idea, subsequent grade level books fleshed this out even more and I went ahead and purchased the grade 2 book, The Complete Year in Reading and Writing by Patty Vitale-Reily and Pam Allyn which I am just getting into right now. You can view the grade 2 book here http://amzn.to/yIxNjX I didn’t start at the beginning of the calendar year (the book is divided by seasons – early fall, late fall, winter, and spring) but I went smack to the middle of the book to the section entitled The Second Grader as Researcher, which includes lessons on recognizing strong characters in reading and applying these understandings in writing.
Yesterday I started reading workshop by talking about different ways that an author lets us know what his or her character is like – telling us, through the character’s actions, or by what the character says. Then I read Jessica by Kevin Henkes and we briefly discussed the main character, who is not named Jessica by the way, and what we could say about what she’s like from her actions. The discussion was not easy but the children were engaged and there were hints of potential gems in some of their comments. To be fair, we didn’t have enough time for a full disclosure type of conversation; we’ll get back to that today.
The biggest stumbling block, however, was when we started listing “character traits”. I have found that although it seems like children should know about character traits, they don’t. (Of course, should is the absolutely wrong word to use here but I won’t edit it out for the moment as it exemplifies my thinking in this particular process. I recognized that I rarely talk about this when we discuss books during read alouds. That’s a change I am going to make immediately.) Nevertheless, I plunged ahead and we created a list of character traits after I explained that a trait is more about what a character is like inside, rather than on the outside (in their heart and mind). This wasn’t an easy process. Some children used words like sad, happy, nice, good, and bad until I said that we needed to think of other words besides nice, good, and bad. (Sad and happy are for another character traits discussion.) After a few words had been on the list they started coming up with opposites which will allow for further discussion. When we started our discussion of the main character of Kevin Henkes’s book, a few children suggested that we could use our list to talk about what the character is like.
Our final list included the following words: honesty; dishonesty; responsible; irresponsible; smart, etc. I can’t wait to get back to this discussion later today. I will write more on this as it develops. My big question to readers is: how do you teach character traits in an early childhood classroom? What are some books with strong characters for doing this? What do you do prior to identifying the traits of a particular character? Why do this in the first place anyway? How do you get children as young as 6 or 7 to think about characters in a more robust way? I look forward to reading your comments.