Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Writing Workshop Session 5 (Personal Narrative)

Reading Closely to Learn From Other Authors


Apprentices are always trying to imagine the process behind the finished product.

Here is a metaphor to help illustrate this idea.

If you have ever seen my lunch, you would come to realize that I am a serious "foodie".  So, when I eat at a restaurant or a friend's house, I am in research mode!  The bubble above my head sounds something like this "Hmm...that's an interesting presentation for the salad.  It looks like the vegetables have been shaved with some kind micro-peeler to create these translucent ribbon shapes.  And would you look at this sprinkle of purple and red carrots? The colors contrast so nicely with the greens in the salad.  I am going to remember this technique."

I won't simply copy the dishes I admire, but rather bring some of the chef's method into my own cooking.  That chef will influence the taste and sight of my dishes.

This is what writers do--study other authors' published writing in the same way I study professional chef dishes--to learn the new tricks of the trade.

Today I want to teach you that writers read other authors' text not only to experience the character's story, but also to admire, study, and emulate the quality of writing.


When a story has deeply moved you or taken your breath away, this is your cue to pause and to study what the writer did that was so powerful.  

You should ask yourself:
  • What makes this writing so powerful and amazing?
  • How did the author make this?
*The goal is to bring all that you learn from your mentor text into your own writing*

We will read a story that not only has a compelling topic, but was also written with incredible craft.

The first time I read it, I just want you to experience the story.
Then, we will reread the story and study the parts that are especially powerful.

Read "Everything Will Be Okay" by James Howe aloud. 
(students follow along on their copy)

Now let's reread this next section and circle important parts as we go.

“Come on,” Paul says in his take-charge voice, “get that box now. Bring it on in here.”

He flicks on the light in the waiting room. “You’re coming in back with me,” he commands. “I’ll need your help.”

“What are you going to do?” I ask. I am holding the box tight against my chest. I feel Smoky moving around inside.

“What do you think?” he says. “You heard your mother. That kitten is sick, bad sick.” 

This section affects me as reader.  What do you think of Paul?  How about Jim?  How does the craftsmanship of this section get through to you?

The author uses dialogue in a way that lets you know that Paul is condescending and insensitive.  

Let me reread a bit of Paul's talk to you and you can see how his tone comes through in the dialogue

(Make your voice impatient and bossy)

         "Come on, get that box now.  Bring it in here." 

(Then, make your voice slightly more exasperated)

         "What do you think? You heard your mother."

It seems as though the author really thinks about the kind of person the character is, and then based on what he wants to reveal about the character, he makes the character talk in a particular way.  

(Make Chart) 

(Students make in writers notebook too)

Lessons from Mentor Narratives

  •  When characters talk, writers make them say the words and use the tone that show their personalities and hints at the bigger meaning of the moment

Active engagement: 

Let's continue to study more of "Everything Will be Okay".  As I read to you, I want you to try to listen like a reader and a writer, meaning that you should let this part of the story affect you.  You should follow up with asking "How can I do that in my writing?"  Jot down anything you notice onto your copy.

“She’s your mother, too.”
“Well, she happens to be right,” Paul tells me. “With an animal that far gone, you don’t have a choice. It’s got to be put to sleep.”
I think the tears I jam back into my body are going to kill me. I think if I don’t let them out they will kill me. But I won’t let them out. I won’t let Paul see.
“You do have a choice” is all I say. I hug the box for dear life and move to the door. Paul moves faster.
“Come on now” he says, gently taking hold of my arm, “be a man.” “I’m not a man,” I tell him. “I don’t want to be.”
“You’ve got to do what’s right. That kitten is half dead as it is.” “Then it’s half alive, too.”
He shakes his head. “You always have to one-up me, don’t you?” he says.
I don’t know what he means, but I do know that no matter what I say he is going to do what he wants to do.
A few minutes later, we are in the back room. The box is empty. Smoky is inside a big old pretzel can with a hose attached, clawing at the can’s sides as my brother pumps in the gas.
He is telling me it is good for me to watch this, it will toughen me up, help me be more of a
man. Then he starts to lecture me about different methods of putting animals out of their misery, but all I can hear is the scratching. And then the silence.
On your own, study this part closely to figure out what the author has done that you could try in your writing.  Then, share with your partner. 

Who would like to share their ideas with the group??
(add ideas to mentor narrative chart)

Lessons from Mentor Narratives

  • When characters talk, writers make them say the words and use the tone that show their personalities and hints at the bigger meaning of the moment
  • Writers explain why the characters act the way they do
  • Writers zoom in on the small, but powerful details that really capture big moments and feelings


Today we learned that when writers read the work of other authors, they first read to experience the story.  They then reread the text, asking themselves, "What did this author do that I could try in my writing?"  When you go off today, you want to read over "Everything Will Be Okay" and try to find new lessons that you can take away.  

I can't wait to see how you'll use some of the new techniques you've learned from studying a mentor text!


Start a new personal narrative (1 1/2 pages) and try to use a particular technique you just learned from your mentor text.


  1. This piece is not age appropriate for 6th graders. Did you read the end? It's horrible.

  2. My students have been writing stories filled with their hearts after reading and discussing this story. Many kids have experienced a pet's death...or a grandparents. The best way to process grief is to write about it. Thank you for including this story.