Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Offering Cultural & Historical Context to Young Writers

Building on yesterday's momentum of identifying intriguing aspects of our family history and culture, we started today by analyzing at an excerpt from James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues.
Houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap. It might be said, perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a schoolteacher; or that Sonny had, he hadn’t lived in Harlem for years. Yet, as the cab moved uptown through the streets which seemed, with a rush, to darken with people, and as I covertly studied Sonny’s face, it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind.
Using the cultural and historical context noted in our textbooks, I asked two questions:
  • where do we see explicit evidence of Baldwin's feelings about his neighborhood?
  • what basic human values must be a part of these characters' existence?
Continuing our exploration of the intriguing pieces of our family history, we will work towards writing a short narrative. Break off a piece of our family history and tell that story in that moment and in its proper context.

Today is about helping the students understand context through a three-step exercise:
  1. Identify Protagonists & Values
  2. Knowledge Dump
  3. Five Minute Scene
Narrative will give us a slightly different experience from the direct questioning and interviewing of the past few days. Narrative will provide another challenge. It will ask students to consider components of their family history and culture beyond the names and dates.

1. Identify Protagonists & Values
Ask the students to write and follow along as you create a short list of family members who would make for good protagonists for a narrative from their family history. In addition to names, identify core human values connected to each person.

After writing and modeling you own list, ask students to share out their protagonist lists.

Point out that aligning a human value with a specific protagonist in their family history helps us remember relevant anecdotes and information gathered over the last few days.

2. Knowledge Dump
Choose one protagonist and start listing all of our facts, quotes, memories, and stories about him/her.

While we have been talking with family and asking questions for over a week, giving our young writers a narrative to share with family is a good way to encourage deeper conversation about culture and history. Our narratives can stir up context our basic questioning may not have accessed. People identify with story. Stories fire our memories and make old details glow.

Observing is one essential tool of the researcher. Another is questioning and interviewing. Learning how to ask questions that prompt others to share their stories and  their take on things is a skill that can be difficult for even more experienced writers (90).

3. Five-Minute Story
Write alongside of your students for five minutes. 

Take a protagonist from the family and write a short narrative. Some young writers may struggle--stuck not knowing what to write--but this is where guiding them back to their memories triggered by basic human values comes in. Advise them to write an anecdote they have been told or know firsthand but do so with a specific basic human value in mind.

After five minutes, ask students to note what gaps exist in their first few lines. Help them understand that they now have more questions to bring home, more details to discover.

Today isn't about the perfect paper or a final draft. It is about walking students through another process of thinking and writing. Using narrative as a part of the process will take them deeper into their family history and culture because it asks them to understand their history in the context of a specific era, country, and social system.

Remember, our endgame is giving our students enough writing experiences to build a one-minute video about their family history and culture next week--a video that will be built on the overarching question: How does culture shape us? 

My students don't know the overarching question yet. That will be revealed in three classes and will provide a new lens for the students to analyze their family history and culture. More on that later.

Tomorrow, we will compose a digital draft of our short narratives and post it to our classroom blogs. 

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