“Raymond’s Run”

Designing a Meaningful Extended Narrative Writing Assignment in Context

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.

Exploring Characterization in “Raymond’s Run” with Playlist Stations

After our reading of “Raymond’s Run”, I wanted to find a way to engage students in thinking about character that would also get them up and moving since they had been sitting and doing some quiet thinking/reading work for a few days.  I decided to craft a new playlist station activity with a focus on character, and I crafted stations that included:

  1.  Station 1:  Notice and Note Signpost “Contrasts and Contradictions”
  2.  Station 2:  Choose your best HOTS questions from your reading reflections without repeating one that has already been posted on the dry erase board.
  3. Station 3:  Character Focus STEAL–Speech
  4. Station 4: Character Focus STEAL–Thoughts
  5. Station 5: Character Focus STEAL-Effect on Others
  6. Station 6: Character Focus STEAL-Actions
  7. Station 7: Character Focus STEAL-Looks/Physical Appearance
  8. Station 8: Character Continuum Activity
  9. Station 9:  Silent Table Talk (looking at Squeaky through a feminist lens)

I used this blank station template to design my station signs; I also purchased and used these marvelous STEAL thinking prompts to go with stations 3-7.    You can access my playlist handout for students by clicking here.

I gave students a starting point for their stations, and then they could move on as they saw fit and choose their next station.  I let them work at their own pace, and we completed the activity in two days.   Students could work alone or with a partner; best of all, I could quickly see if students were struggling with their understanding of a concept because of the “checkpoints” built into each station with the playlist concept.

On Day 3, I used a variety of methods to bring it all together, including small group or partner talk to highlight what they felt were the most interesting insightful responses from each station across classes.  We also followed up our discussion with a Kahoot story review before taking an open note, open story quiz in Canvas.

Students who finished early on Day 2 could work on Membean or read their library book.  Though I have other fun and meaningful learning activities I’ve used in the past for generating thinking and discussion about characterization, this activity I designed seemed to be a good fit for where we were last week.

Getting Ready for a Short Story with Pre-Reading Learning Stations

As you know, I love trying new learning activities and strategies.  I’m teaching a formal short story unit this year for the first time in years, and I wanted to do something fun and meaningful to kick off our first whole class story study.  This summer I purchased this bundle of awesome activities from “Write on with Ms. G” on Teachers Pay Teachers, and decided to modify the template for the “Pre Reading Learning Stations for ANY Novel: Engage students before reading!” for our first mentor text, “Raymond’s Run.”

The original plan calls for the stations to be completed as timed rotations, and I think high school students, especially those in an accelerated section of Language Arts, could  complete the stations in a 60 time period; if you are on a block schedule with a longer class session of 70-90 minutes, you could definitely complete the pre-reading stations in one class session.  I tried this method with my 1st period class and even provided a structured work session at each station giving them 3-4 minutes for quiet thinking/jot your notes time and 3/4 minutes of conversation time.  However, I could see my 8th graders needed more time to process the the task presented at each station, so I made some modifications:

  1. Modification 1:  Modify station notes to be more structured for 8th graders.  I took the thinking prompts from the station task card and added language to their note-taking tickets to help them think and write down their ideas for each question prompt.

2. Modification 2:  Break station work into two class periods.  For the remaining three classes, students began at their assigned table area and then visited the  remaining five stations in any order.  Day 1 was devoted to them doing their quiet silent thinking and notetaking.

As it turned out, we actually needed 1.5 to 2 days of class time to do the quiet thinking and notetaking work.  Students who finished early could work on Membean, an awesome vocabulary resource provided by our district, or they could read their library books.  When students finished all six stations on Day 2, they had the chance to take a sticky note and indicate their top three stations they felt represented their strongest work and that they would feel comfortable discussing in a small group and sharing out with the whole class.  I used this information to form Table Talk groups for each station on the following day.

We used the first half of class on Day 3 to do our Table Talks; group assignments by table/station were posted on a Google Slide as students arrived.  Depending on the class, I used either a “3-2-1” reflection structure or each person was asked to share his/her responses and then choose their “best thinking” they wanted to share aloud to the entire class.  While these reflection structures sound simple, they are big steps forward early in the year for 8th graders, especially for those not used to interacting in small groups or speaking in front of their peers even from a seated table area.  I did appoint “table captains” to kick off discussions in the small group share as well as the whole group share to help facilitate table talk in a timely way.  I am happy to report all classes did a terrific job with their discussion and sharing tasks!

The pre-reading stations included:

  • Station 1:  Anticipation Guide Statements and Discussion
  • Station 2:  Inferring Character Traits Based on Two Passages from the Story
  • Station 3:  Inferring Setting
  • Station 4:  Excerpt Analysis
  • Station 5:  Making Predictions Based on the Story Title and a Photo
  • Station 6:  Identifying Similes and Their Importance to the Story


Though the stations took more time than I planned (the story of my life!), I think pre-reading stations are a worthwhile investment at the beginning of a unit, for an extended study of a text, or with a challenging text.  What kinds of pre-reading activities do you like to do with students to get them ready for a short story or novel?