This past spring, I read a blog post by Dr. Sarah J. Donovan that pushed me to think about how to better integrate Milestones writing tasks into context.  While I certainly am not a fan of teaching to a test, her approach made sense to me because students received regular and gentle writing opporutnities to practice the skills they would be asked to demonstrate on the state assessment.  I have been integrating Quickwrites into our classroom life 2-3x per week (a blog post on that soon), and I felt that our first short story, “Raymond’s Run”, presented an opportunity for us to flex our writing muscles with an extended narrative task since it is a state writing task on the Milestones and is also part of our first district benchmark in October.

In my previous post, I outlined the details of the 4 point extended narrative writing task students in 8th grade will be asked to complete on the state Milestones assessment in late April or early May of 2020:

After seeing these struggles, I am confident that students’ difficulty in punctuating dialogue correctly is where many of them are losing points on our state Milestones test we take each spring, particularly with the extended narrative writing task, a writing task that is worth 4 points:

On the ELA EOG assessment, an extended constructed-response item elicits a longer, more complex and detailed response from the student. The four-point narrative extended constructed-response item requires the student to write a narrative in response to a prompt based on a literary or informational passage he or she has read;
the response will fully develop a real or imagined experience based on the text and will be scored for the Writing and Language domain.

Source:  Georgia Grade 8 EOG Item and Scoring Sampler 

A student who achieves a score of 4 demonstrates these skills on an extended narrative writing task:

  • The student’s response is a well-developed narrative that fully develops a real or imagined experience based on text as a stimulus.
  • Effectively establishes a situation and a point of view and introduces a narrator and/or characters.
  • Organizes an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.
  • Effectively uses narrative techniques, such as dialogue, description, pacing, and reflection, to develop rich, interesting experiences, events, and/or characters.
  • Uses a variety of words and phrases consistently and effectively to convey the sequence of events, signal shifts from one time frame or setting to another, and show the relationships among experiences and events.
  • Uses precise words, phrases, and sensory language to convey experiences and events and capture the action.
  • Provides a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events.
  • Integrates ideas and details from source material effectively.
  • Has very few or no errors in usage and/or conventions that interfere with meaning.

Even though our focus is on composing strong dialogue, this standard 8W3 goes hand in hand with a distinguished (highest level) of achievement in Standard RL3:

Analyzes and evaluates the effectiveness of an author’s use of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama to propel the action, reveal complex aspects of the character, or provoke a decision.

Source:  Georgia Milestones Assessment System Achievement Level Descriptors for Grade 8 English Language Arts

With all of these requirements and possibilities in mind, I crafted our writing task:

The rubric on the back is the one from the state testing resource guide and available for teachers, parents, and students to study on the state DOE website.  I cross-posted the same requirements in our assignment slot in Canvas as well.

We began by talking about what it would mean to continue the story and brainstorming our ideas for continuing the story.  Most students needed a day or so to complete this task; some needed 1.5 days.  I used student work as they completed their planning to share with our other classes as models.  You can get the template for free here:

Once students had completed this first stage of brainstorming, we moved to some more intentional planning.  For three of my sections, I allowed students to choose from one of three graphic organizers to help them focus on developing their plot details OR their characterization in more detail.  One class section was asked to do both one plot planner and the characterization planner because I knew they would need more scaffolding to help them think through their story ideas.

If you like these planners, you can buy them here on Teachers Pay Teachers.  You definitely get the bang for your buck with this purchase as you get many different types of planners and graphic organizers for different types of writing, and they are easy for kids to use!  Some students wanted to incorporate sticky notes into their planners, and another wanted to sketchnote her ideas in addition to completing the regular graphic organizers.

Once I had reviewed students’ planning work (this took approximately 2 days for most students though a few needed 2.5 to 3 days), they were cleared to begin drafting.  We spent approximately three days drafting last week (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday) to get as much detail and depth as possible in our draft.  Students shared their drafts with me as they created their Google Docs, and I provided feedback both on demand and as a “drop in” guest making sure I put eyes on every draft at least twice in those three days.  I honestly don’t have photos from those days because I was helping students bell to bell every period, every day.

In addition, this resource I created a few years ago while teaching Writing Connections was updated and embedded in the Canvas assignment for students who needed help crafting a strong hook, using strong words, or “exploding the moment” in a section of their story.

Though it sounds simple to us as adults, this work was intense for my 8th graders, and it was crazy hectic the entire week we worked on planning and drafting because students were checking in with me regularly for feedback and a final “all clear” before moving on to the next step—in many ways, it was like a playlist learning structure without the actual playlist.  In the future, I might design this planning work as a playlist learning experience.

I will be the first to tell you teaching narrative writing is NOT my wheelhouse since we typically don’t teach it at the high school level, and most of my teaching experience is in grades 9-12.  However, the kids were quite interested in their story ideas and doing their planning, so I am thankful for their optimism and efforts they put into doing some thinking before just randomly hashing out a rough draft.   I feel like these tools and approaches have worked well though I am always interested in exploring other approaches.  With some of our time constraints we’re under, I felt these tools provided enough scaffolding to get my kids started without being overly regimented or overwhelming to them.

What are your best ideas and strategies for teaching narrative writing, especially a state assessment type of task involving narrative writing?

In my next post, I’ll share our next steps once we had a working rough draft completed.