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This year, I am turning to writing journals to help my students develop a better understanding of the author's craft. By using literary techniques in their writing, my hope is that my sixth graders will better understand the elements of plot and literary devices when analyzing literature.
In the process, personal writing is working its way into my classroom, creating a more balanced writing curriculum while serving as a stepping-stone for literacy analysis. In this journaling activity we explore how the setting contributes to the development of mood. Additional journaling activities are shared as well.
Objective: Describe a setting that depicts two different moods.
Introduce the lesson by going over the following: definition, notes, examples, purpose, and journal directions. Download a copy of my "Setting" notes to use in your classroom. I have students reserve the left side of the journal pages for teacher notes and the right side for student journal entries. Having my notes on the left side provides a reference for my sixth graders when they are writing. You can organize it any way that meets the needs of your students. However, this is the structure that works best for us.
After the notes were finished, I shared my journal entry — a description of a fall day — without using the word fall in my writing:
We discussed how the description of the setting made them feel. I did not mention mood at this time, not wanting to get bogged down in academic terminology. Instead, I read a second description of the same setting:
Feel free to use my descriptions to get you started with this activity.
After stating how demented I was (okay, my word, not theirs), my students compared the sensory details that contributed to the opposing feelings: peaceful and depressing. I explained that the feeling a reader experiences is called mood. I further explained that the setting serves many purposes in the development of plot. However, for now, the focus is on the setting and how it contributes to the development of mood.
I clarified the goal. Use sensory details to describe the same setting that depicts two different moods. I didn't dig deep into mood vocabulary. We just focused on the mad, sad, or glad categories of mood. Later, we will take a more in-depth exploration of terms to describe mood. I mentioned that there are other ways to create mood, but for now we are focusing on the use of sensory language.
Before putting pen to paper, we went on a 15-minute field trip on a chilly fall day — a walk around the school. The goal was to use our senses to observe our setting and select a unique detail that others may not notice. I confess that was much easier said than done. Many students struggled with observations, looking closely and not scanning, and making general comments. I had to teach them to observe, stating, "Look at the frost on the grass. It is sparkling beneath the morning sun as it fades away." Periodically we stopped so they could close their eyes and listen to the sounds of fall. We touched trees. Smelled leaves. Watched our shadows stalking us. They learned to look, touch, taste, hear, and smell autumn.
We returned to school eager to write. While students wrote two descriptions of the same setting, I played background music, instrumental music. You might like "Music for New Season: Fall," a playlist on Spotify that is great for this writing activity. Music reflects a mood, so it helps those students who are musically inclined to be more creative. English is a 60-minute class, 15 minutes of which was spent writing in our journals. Most students finished. A few, those who love to write and got carried away, finished it as homework.
At the end of class, we spent 10 minutes sharing our journal entries. Their writing was engaging and original, not cliché Students cheered each other on. Motivation skyrocketed. The next day we started class by sharing a couple more student entries.
Common Core Connection
This activity scaffolds toward the analytical reading of fictional literature. By creating different moods using the same setting, my students developed a schema that has helped them to expand their understanding of how the setting contributes to the development of plot. For example, in December, we discussed how the setting contributes to the conflicts in the plot and what the setting reveals about the character when we read How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss, which is described in "Plotting with the Grinch" (December 2016). Digging deeper into a more complex text is less of a challenge because of this activity. The blank stares are gone. You can see them making connections and how the elements of plot connect and how literary techniques are used to foster this connection. The author's craft became a living, breathing element of our classroom.
Implementing Writing Journals
Since this experience, we use writing journals frequently. I have very few rules in the journals. I want this to be a sandbox for students to play with writing. I don't want them worrying about my red pen wreaking havoc on their creative world, which is why I grade them each quarter by the number of completed assignments. For example, if we have 10 journal assignments, and they complete 8 out of the 10, the score is an 80 for journaling.
After we finish exploring fiction, they will select one of their journaling assignments and bring it to their finished piece, a fictional story. For now, students are allowed to write and explore personal writing beyond class activities. Students who don't like writing, are writing. One student filled her notebook and is on her way to filling a second. Yay!
Organizing the Writing Journals
When we first started, I just jumped right in — a baptism by fire approach. If you over think it, you will give up before you start because everything is so interconnected. It was messy, and it continues to be a work in progress. This past week, I ended up creating a format similar to the "Grammar Journal" format (March 2012). Duh! I am not sure why I didn't think of this sooner. Like I said, baptism by fire.
The Inside Cover
In an effort make my life easier and to provide opportunities for students to take notes on their writing, we wrote the rules on the inside cover.
- Number the bottom of each page.
- Write a heading on each journal entry: Assignment, Title, and Date
- Stories are written on the right side, the odd pages numbers.
- Notes (teacher and student) go on the left pages, the even page numbers.
- Skip lines when writing to provide room for editing and revising.
The backsides of each page (those that I haven't used for notes), are extra spaces for the students to insert ideas or notes they might want to write should they decide to take it to final copy. If they write stories on these pages, they don't have any place for editorial notes.
Teacher Notes: The Left Side
Notes and journal directions are recorded on the left side. These notes guide student with their writing goal. When I create a note, I try to include the following information:
- The title or topic
- Definition of the term
- Notes, if necessary
- Examples, if necessary
- Purpose (Why it is important?)
- Journal directions
Feel free do download my "Planning Page for Journal Lessons" to use or modify to fit your needs. I write in the journal as well. I feel it is important for my students to see me engaging in the writing process as well.
Student Pages: The Right Side
This is an important timesaver. In order to quickly check that students are completing the journal assignments, I have them record the assignment title and due date at the top of each journal entry. I decided this week, that we are going to use paper clips to mark where I last checked their journals. When we first started, it wasn't an issue, but some students write pages and pages. This allows me to quickly walk around the room and flip to the journal entries while they are working on class assignments.
Other Writing Journal Lessons
When I first started the writing journals, my goal was to integrate more personal writing into my curriculum and provide the opportunity for my students to develop writing fluency. I felt guilty that so much time was spent on academic writing: argument and expository. At the beginning of the year, I used the journals get to know my students better, which is why after reading The Great Rat Hunt by Laurence Yep, I had them write a memoir, a story about one memory that they cherish. It helped my sixth graders to differentiate between a biography and an autobiography because they had to create a memoir, not tell their whole life story or write an account about someone else's life. We transferred this experience to developing elements of a good fictional story that will help us successfully analyze complex literature. I scanned the teacher notes that I have so far, so you can download them and use them in your classroom.
Using Mentor Texts
In many of my activities, I use mentor texts, novels, and picture books when journaling. We explore literary elements and literary techniques. Picture books help students to better understand these concepts before jumping into more complex texts. My struggling readers especially, are more successful. Below are a few examples of how to incorporate mentor texts:
Rump by Liesl Shurtliff, Young Man and the Sea by Rodman Philbrick, and Charlotte's Web by E. B. White
When teaching point of view, I pulled an excerpts from the expositions of these three books. I chose these great novels because they had intriguing first lines that demonstrate how authors establish the points of view in the exposition. We identify the pronouns to determine the point of view before creating our own. In their journals, my sixth graders revised each excerpt (no offense to the authors intended), and rewrote them, creating different points of view. Usually my students struggle with identifying the different points of view, often confusing first and second person point of view, but this activity took care of that problem.
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigsby Jon Scieszka
While teaching narration, my students often struggle with the impact narration has on a story, so I read this picture book to demonstrate that the point of view impacts the information the reader receives. The 10 minutes it takes to read the story is time well spent. They quickly figure out how the wolf's retelling of the events is vastly different from the three pigs' perspective. I wish I had assigned a journal entry requiring them to rewrite their favorite childhood tale from the perspective of a different character. Next year, I will be better prepared and my students will to this to demonstrate how a different perspective impacts the development of plot.
Owl Moonby Jane Yolen
It is winter in northern New York, and I just finished introducing figurative language. So naturally, I plan on turning the pages of one of my favorite picture books to model how imagery contributes to the mood, demonstrating how figurative language paints pictures in the minds of the reader. It also exemplifies how the comparison sends a message to the reader. Students are going to use figurative language to describe their favorite place to be. We will extend this to include figurative language to describe how a character moves, a segue into characterization.
Lengthier assignments are completed outside of class — outside writing assignments. Shorter assignments are completed in class. At first, I was a little concerned over the use of valuable class time when it takes about a week to dig into a piece of complex literature and then another week to write about it, but journaling is well worth the time. Comprehension goes beyond the literal meaning of the text, discussions are deeper, and writing fluency is improving. Many of my students would stare into space to think, and then write, repeating the process until an assignment was done. More and more, they are developing the ability to think and write coherently at the same time.
My hope is that as you read this, it will spur all kinds of creative ideas you can use to journal with your students, integrating a little personal writing and inspiring future writers. Please feel free to share your experiences below.
I hope your New Year bring all kinds of success for your students.