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A Differentiated Narrative Lesson Promoting Student Choice
an on-line lesson shared during the NNWP's teacher workshops

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The Lesson's Author:

Corbett Harrison has been a Northern Nevada Writing Project Teacher Consultant since 1996. He teaches a variety of inservice classes for the NNWP, including the narrative writing workshop for teachers, where he demonstrates this lesson for teachers.

Corbett maintains a personal website where he stores most of his favorite lessons.

Teacher's Guide:

A Narrative Warm-up:
Two Safe
Frame Choices

This lesson is featured during the
Northern Nevada Writing Project's
Narrative Writing Workshop
. The write-up comes from NNWP Consultant, Corbett Harrison, who features it during his Seven Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson Workshop for Teachers.

This lesson is based on two narrative picture books that can be compared and contrasted. The first picture book is When I was Five by Arthur Howard, which features a very imitate-able frame for writing.

The second book is Jamie Lee Curtis' When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of her Youth, which provides a similar but smaller frame that is also very imitate-able.

Students compare the two frames and choose the one that works best for them.

A note for teachers: These lessons are posted so that you may borrow ideas from them, but our intention in providing this resource is not to give teachers a word-for-word script to follow. Please, use this lesson's big ideas but adapt everything else. And adapt it recklessly; adaptation is how one becomes a truly authentic writing teacher.

Brainstorming Topics to Write About:

At least a day before writing, tell students they will need to think about how much they've changed from a time when they were in a different grade. This can be the difference of just one small grade, or it can be several grades' span. Ask them to think about small and interesting differences between now and then: differences in personal appearance, favorite foods or TV shows, recess activities, etc.

Challenge them to talk about this topic with friends or family so they can come back to school with many ideas to write about.

Focusing in on Trait-Based Skills:

All levels of writers will focus on idea development as they use either of the frames with this lesson. In particular, they should be focused on using interesting and specific details--not general ones--in their drafts. Both mentor texts work on tying together two different ideas (one from the past, one from the present), but When I Was Five does it in a more spread-out and sophisticated manner; more sophisticated writers can be urged to do this with their writing.

Your more sophisticated writers can also work on their sentence fluency skills with this piece of writing. Both mentor texts urge the use of complex sentences, which can be discussed in variety of ways. There is also the repetition that can be discussed, and how it establishes a rhythm with words and ideas. Finally, your most sophisticated writers can be urged to create complex sentences with the frames that feature parallelism.

Comparing the two Mentor Texts:

Start with When I Was Five by Arthur Howard. You might consider typing out the text so it looks like a story with two distinct parts (When I was five... and Now that I'm Six...). You can show your students the pictures later after they discuss how the story's two parts complement each other. Make sure they see that both halves of the story connect with different-but-similar images and objects.

Next--perhaps even on a different day--share When I Was Little by Jamie Lee Curtis. Again, consider typing out the text. With this text, you can type it out as a story with many short paragraphs (partitioned between the When I was little... and Now I... parts) or you could type it out to resemble a poem.

Ask students to compare and contrast the two texts after they have enjoyed both.

Guide a class discussion, helping students eventually see that the stories: a) look at the simple differences between two separate times in a single life; and b) one does it with two larger parts that tie together while the other is made of many parts that don't necessarily connect to each other.

Ask, "Which format do you think makes a better story? Fewer story parts that are longer and connected, or more story parts that are shorter and not necessarily connected?"

Assure them there is no right answer. Each story has its own structure and style.

Tell them they will be writing their own narrative that borrows from whichever story's frame they prefer.

A Simple Graphic Organizer

No fancy handout needed. Simply have students fold a piece of paper into two columns, writing "Now" and "Then" above each column. Ask them to think of a specific time in their past and to begin writing down things they did or liked that made them different than who they are now. Those ideas go under the "Then" column; as they write down ideas, have them add a description to their "Now" column that shows how it's different in the present time.

  • my hair is long
  • I take piano lessons
  • I have a brother
  • my hair was short
  • I didn't know how to play piano
  • I didn't have a brother

To get them started, remind them to think about the small and interesting differences between now and then that you prompted before: personal appearance differences, favorite foods or TV shows, recess activities, etc.

Talking throughout the Process

After a few minutes, your students will begin thinking of unique ideas for their graphic organizer, and as soon as that starts happening, have them stop brainstorming and start talking to each other. The simple act of sharing unique ideas out loud will inspire your students to create longer lists of ideas about themselves.

Once they all have a list of at least ten ideas, have them continue the conversation with a new group of students. Tell them you will be assessing their writing on their use of interesting and specific details. What they have on their lists are probably just general details...challenge them to ask each other for more specific details with items on their lists. Model this, of course, and then let them talk to each other.

  • My hair is long enough to make a pony tail but I don't make one.
  • I take piano lessons every other Tuesday and I am learning to play a song by Beethoven.
  • I have a brother and we argue about who gets to watch what.
  • We kept my hair short because I didn't like to brush it.
  • I pounded on the piano at Grandma's and drove people crazy with the noise.
  • I didn't have a brother and I got to watch anything on TV I wanted.

Have them share their expanded details with a different partner, and have their partner choose the four or five favorite ideas from the list they heard. Have students put stars next to ideas that got voted on.

It's Time to Model the Frame

I stress the importance of having your own teacher model to share at this point of the lesson. From personal experience, I can tell you that your students will write much more from the heart if they know you are a writer too.

I share with you my two rough drafts that I share with students, hoping you'll be inspired to create your own. One is based on the frame from When I Was Five by Arthur Howard; the other is based on Jamie Lee Curtis's frame.

Graphic Organizer:

A lot of your students won't need a graphic organizer at this point, but for your students who do, here are two that you can use:

After graphic organizers are filled out, require students to write their rough drafts on lined paper.

Share Original Graphic Organizers (for Pre-Writing)
from Your Teaching Toolbox.

We share graphic organizers with our peers, we find them in books, and we think we should also be able to find tried-and-true ones online at WritingFix. This year, if you create an original graphic organizer (or adapt one of ours) when you teach this page's lesson, and post it, we might just end up publishing it directly here at WritingFix, and we will post it here, giving you full credit.

  • Original graphic organizers for specific lessons, like this one, can be submitted as an attachment at this link. Look for the "Reply to this Box" beneath the post. To be able to post, you will need to be a member of our free Writing Lesson of the Month Network.

Encourage Revision:

Two tools for possible response and revision are posted here. Have students self-rank their use of skills in their draft using one of WritingFix's Post-it templates:

Remember, when students rank (instead of rate), they are only allowed to have one of each number on the Post-It.

I like to have the students then work with a partner who also ranks their idea development skills on a fresh Post-It. While the partner is ranking, the writer keeps his/her self-ranking a secret. When the partner is done ranking, I have them talk about the similarities and differences in both Post-it® Note-sized templates. From the conversation, each writer should walk away with some ways they can improve their idea development in a revised draft.

You can learn how to print these revision tools on actual Post-it® Note-sized templates by visiting our Post-It Homepage here at WritingFix.

Share Original Revision Techniques or
Adaptations from Your Toolbox.

Inspired by Barry Lane's Reviser's Toolbox, the WritingFix website encourages its teacher users to adapt our lessons, especially the tools of revision we have posted here. If you create an original revision tool (or adapt one of ours) when you teach this page's lesson, and post it, we might just end up publishing it directly here at WritingFix, and we will post it here, giving you full credit.

  • Original revision ideas from teacher users of WritingFix can be submitted through copy/paste or as an attachment at this link. Look for the "Reply to this Box" beneath the post. To be able to post, you will need to be a member of our free Writing Lesson of the Month Network.

Sharing Student Samples for this Lesson:
(and earn a free resource for your classroom)

WritingFix Safely Publishes Students from Around the World! In 2008, we first began accepting students samples from teachers anywhere who use this lesson. Hundreds of new published students now go up at our site annually!

We're currently looking for student samples for many grade levels for this lesson!  Help us obtain some from your students, and we'll send you a free resource for your classroom!  Visit this lesson's on-line blog to post up to three of your students' samples.

Learn about WritingFix's Publishing Policies by clicking here.

Elementary Samples:

When I Was Five
by Hannah, fifth grade writer

When I was five, I was such a princess. I loved to dress up in fancy clothes. It made me feel superior. Being a five year old child, I always had to have a babysitter. I could not be left alone. At the age of five, I hated to read because I thought it was boring. Even though reading was not my favorite thing to do, I still read little books about Dora the Explorer. These were usually about five pages long.

Now that I am nine, I feel too girly and beautiful when I wear dresses, so now I only wear shorts and pants. Now that I am older, I am much more mature. My parents know that I am responsible and sometimes they leave me home alone. Now that I am nine, I love to read. Reading a book takes me on exciting new adventures. I read long novels that have over 100 pages.

Life has changed a lot since I was five. I am excited about all of the new changes that still lie ahead of me.

Five Versus Nine
by Maxwell, fifth grade writer

When I was five, I loved certain toys. My toy cars were my favorite. I zoomed them all around the living room. Since I liked playing with cars, I wanted to be a race car driver when I grew up. When I was five, I did not enjoy writing at all. I thought it was hard and boring. When I was five, I liked kicking the soccer ball in the yard. I did not like roller coasters at all because they looked scary, towering so high above me. When I was five, I did not think my brother was funny at all.

Now that I am nine, I zoom my bike all around the neighborhood. Now I enjoy numbers and want to be an economist when I grow up. I love to write now that I am nine. It has become my favorite subject in school. Instead of playing soccer in the backyard, I now play football on a team. Now that I am nine, I still am not crazy about roller coasters, but at least I will ride on them. Now that I am nine I think my brother is the funniest person I know. I now have a little sister that is five, and she reminds me of me when I was five. That is why, once in a while, I look over and give her a grin!


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