Reviewed by Michelle Voelker
If you’ve ever had the privilege of attending a writing project training, you know that the real power of this presentation is that a class teacher presents. And I don’t mean someone who was in the classroom a long time ago.
No. Get the right deal with Writing Project training sessions. These teachers will tell you what they did in their classroom, what worked, what didn’t, and show you some student work as evidence of how class with real kids went.
Even if you are attending training courses that you are not sure will work with your students, always go away with ideas on how to adapt what you have just learned to the children you will have again on Monday will see. You get that in Liz Prather’s book, Story Matters.
Prather teaches atand is a teaching advisor to the Kentucky Writing Project, which is part of the National Writing Project. Reading her book feels like sitting in a Saturday workout with her and learning how to get children to write.
Beyond narrative, argumentative and informative silos
One of the things I learned with the writing project during my summer school is that we are often caught trying to classify our writing tasks into one of three “writing types” – narrative, argumentative and informative.
The writing project is intended to show teachers how to get children to write about the types of text, because in real life writing often requires us to do just that. Story Matters gives teachers concrete opportunities to “become real” – getting children to write, reading, and writing more! It is a book that every middle or high school English teacher should get their hands on.
There are a lot of great things in these seven chapters: ideas in addition to ideas for mentoring texts, teaching ideas for teaching certain writing skills or techniques, and many examples of students from Prathers classes. I am impressed with how many articles she reads and how she can think about how she can use what she reads to teach students to be stronger writers.
Mentor texts are really the shining star of this book, and Prather does not disappoint and gives readers of her book plenty of additional reading to take them to their own classrooms. And don’t worry if you read this book and think that the books and articles she mentions are slightly above my children’s reading level. I thought the same. At various points in the book, Prather mentions what works best for your students and gives tips on how to choose items to use as mentor texts in your classroom, in the middle or in height.
Narration is everywhere
Chapter one explains their philosophy: narrative is everywhere. Narrative, Prather argues, is essential for strong arguments and to inform others about the world. Narrative is how we deal with each other.
To make her point clear, Prather uses a mentor text and guides her readers like one of her own classes. She goes through an article about urban rats paragraph by paragraph, highlighting the special writing movements that students may later want to emulate when writing their own play.
The nice thing about Chapter 1 was that it gives both beginners and experienced teachers the opportunity to explicitly point out what writers do so that students don’t wonder how a writer made their play. To emphasize this idea, she then shows a student script based on the article on urban rats.
I was able to use this idea in my classroom the week after reading! It’s a task I need to work on and improve for future classes, but I had the confidence to try it thanks to Prather’s guidance.
Write what interests you
“Writing what you know is not as important as writing what is important to you” (29). The next chapter is about getting students to want to write well. Prather argues that assigning general topics and asking students to deal enough with the topic and Indeed, writing well means killing students’ joy in writing.
Instead, we need to help students find interesting stories in topics or topics in stories. If you do, you will want to engage in the struggle of writing. This chapter contains various exercises that help students learn to search for things that are important to them and that they want to write about.
Chapter three focuses on characters when writing non-fiction. Instead of creating characters as a writer would in a fictional play, we now have to find the characters in nonfiction. By using human stories when writing non-fiction, students can not only base the reader on something familiar, but also involve them immediately.
Prather describes several ways a writer can find his character, human or not, and can explain his point of view as well, if not better, than a writer who does not use narrative techniques.
Tension. It is what makes stories worth reading, and I have always had trouble teaching my young writers. In Chapter 4, Prather gives some practical tips to help students drive writing so that readers keep coming back to learn more.
It is not difficult for the students to see how boring writing without tension can be. Prather offers you the tools you can use to teach students how to add tension to their parts.
Exemption of students from the five-paragraph essay
Chapter five was extremely useful, especially if you want to drop the five-paragraph essay. The importance of mentoring texts is particularly well emphasized in this chapter. Prather shows how the three types of text can be interwoven by pointing out different structure types in a large number of mentor texts. She also writes about how students disassemble and rebuild a piece, focusing specifically on structure.
Many of the lessons she mentions in Chapter 5 are so convenient that you can use them in class the next day if you have to. Each lesson shows where stories can be integrated into the structure of a non-fiction book and where students can take a more creative approach to an essay, rather than writing a thesis and substantiating it with three pieces of text. Prather argues that instead we should anchor our readers in the stories within our topics and choose a structure that best suits our needs.
As in the previous chapters, Chapter 6 leaves nothing to be desired. The chapter covers how we include details in our writing. Again, Prather uses mentor text to highlight both specific and targeted details, and explains how she works with students to select details for her pieces.
In this sense, chapter seven deals with language. In this last chapter, both the choice of words and the sentence structure are examined. Prather gives various teaching ideas so that the students can practice these skills in their plays. Both chapters six and seven are about using stories within nonfiction writing and ensuring that students can see how published authors choose details and how they form strong, deliberate sentences.
Sample unit plans and much more
At the end of the book, Prather gives the readers sample plans. The unit plans are divided daily and each day contains a mentor text for review or a writing focus for the students to practice. It is extremely helpful to see how a writing teacher of her caliber aligns her class and it will be useful to me when planning future writing assignments.
The final nugget in this book is an eight-page list of potential mentor texts. All are relatively new since this book was published in 2019, and all have been mentioned in the chapters of the book at some point, even if they have not been studied in detail.
This book is so valuable. If we want to teach students to be better writers and better communicators, we have to teach them to write in the real world. Story Matters is the guide teachers need to do just that. Writing does not have to be torture, nor does teaching teaching write!
Michelle Voelker is an 8th grade English and American history teacher at a Title I school in Sacramento, CA. Recently, she was a fellow of the Area 3 Writing Project, a sub-group of the National Writing Project at her summer school, and is now a teacher advisor who offers workshops on history writing. Before Michelle became a teacher, she was a member of the AmeriCorps for a program that enabled reading interventions in Title I elementary schools. Since then, she has worked to make every child enjoy reading and acquire the skills required to become a lifelong reader.
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