October 8, 2010

Autobiography -- Highlights of My Life

Brainstorming / Idea Generation:
Before giving a class a one page narrative assignment, walk them through some intensive brainstorming activities. This type of idea generation is essential before any writing takes place. You have to help the young writer get in touch with their knowledge base. You will know Idea Generation is working well when students have several strong topics to choose from before they ever think about writing a story, essay, or report. There are certain autobiographical themes to which most beginning writers can relate:
  • Accidents
  • Discovering something new (learning outside of school).
  • Embarrassing moments
  • Loss
  • Overcoming fear (Sports / Performances)
  • Insane adventures with friends
  • Are you an Expert? Tell us! (push for expertise outside of school...)
Review this cluster map, Autobiographical Highlights of My Life
This technique will work on a chalkboard, white board, or overhead projector. However, if you have a visual learning tool like Inspiration running on a computer attached to a projection device or large TV-monitor you can quickly call up a graphic organizer (and provide a copy for each learner).

Next, I model idea generation, while leading a class discussion. I bubble out a wild diagram as I explain each organizing point. I ask for single words that capture an idea. Then I pepper the main idea with single words that capture detail. All the while I am running down short anecdotes from my own life that illustrate the autobiographical themes. I describe highly detailed single event experiences since I will be asking for just a one-page story. I focus on events that will draw a sharp emotional reaction, hoping for a story that makes the reader cringe, laugh, or cry.

Accidents -- While trying to catch a kickball in the third grade it bounced off the tip of my finger. I looked down and my ring finger was taking a right angle over my pinkie.

Embarrassing moments - - When I was in the seventh grade my parents had the house up for sale and kept bringing strangers through my room on tours. Once I hid in my closet rather than face them. I can still remember hearing my Dad say, "Let me show you how big the closets are in this room."

Loss -- (I generally steer this one towards pets) --

I like this process because I can tell self-revealing stories and create a relaxed atmosphere. All the while I am encouraging students to make notes on their graphic organizer or to make a list if they hate clustering. I usually call this "Clistering" a combination of cluster and list. Any method that helps them to get the ideas down on paper is fine.
By the end of this exercise most of the class will have several viable topics. Time to move around the room checking on the ones you're worried about. Urge them to provide detailed notes about each potential topic. If they can't generate detail, tell them to abandon that topic and find one that really jumps off the page. Have them share their ideas with their classmates.

While this is going on, conduct mini-interviews with the students who are stuck. Often just repeating the categories and probing a bit will get them started. I listen for topics with inherently strong structure. Most students have crashed and have an accident story. You would be surprised how often a reluctant writer will light up when I ask, "Have you ever had stitches? Ever had a bike wreck?'

First Draft:

Next are 10 - 15 minutes for a fast-blast first-draft. After the brainstorming and the chatter, you need to shift to silent writing, so out comes the stopwatch. This provides the focus and makes the time limit an outside enemy that settles everyone down. Focus on a single topic and 1-2-3 Write! Just get the ideas down!

Why so much time on topic generation? Because a topic you care about, a topic you know in your bones, will help you find your voice and express your ideas more naturally. I will often repeat this brainstorm and first draft experience two or three times at the beginning of the year. When the time comes to revise, I will ask the young writer to choose the most powerful topic of the first draft exercises.
"I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography, I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction, so since I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn't."
~ Philip Roth, U.S. novelist, short-story writer
Fictionalized Narrative:

This is an additional technique that seems to free the pen of reluctant autobiographical writers. "It's okay to lie your socks off-- as long as I can't tell you're lying!" I like to start this idea off with a bold and shocking statement. Once I have their attention, I explain that writers are free to bend and blend their own experience with everything else they can think of. Children's author Sue Alexander once told me that she wrote, "So the world would turn out the way it was supposed to be, rather than the way it is." I go on to explain that by using vivid details, dialog, and strong setting descriptions you can write a story that sounds absolutely true, while fictionalizing elements to make your story more interesting. Once this concept sinks in, the students love it. (It appeals to their skeptical nature.) This also gives the young writer a little   'plausible deniability ', and might help them risk some true self-revelation. This is never an easy thing for adolescents. This technique is only suggested, never required. I've found it a potent motivator, as I said earlier -- Just get the ideas down!

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