When we tell our stories, we humanize ourselves. Storytelling allows us to build relationships and connections with a group that may not know us. It is through a shared experience of human conditions that we create communities of respect, empathy, and understanding. Through this creative writing unit, students used their personal memories to develop stories with deeper messages.
Teaching writing is a challenge for many of us, but English Language Learners have an additional challenge to think abstractly and descriptively in a foreign language. They must create a piece of writing that is clearly understood while building suspense, structure, and interest. Through the “GREEN CIRCLE” Project, I have developed a process for ELLs to be able to talk about themselves, connect their memories to larger experiences, and demonstrate what is special about their stories.
Students begin with a simple listing of three distinct memories from their life. From there, they engage in a brainstorm of what these statements say about themselves. Do they showcase the perseverance or risk taking or kindness that lives inside of them? A summary statement is created. Katya’s summary statement said, “This shows that I am…. Imaginative and living in my own world since i was little. I had to create homes in strange places.”
Now it is back to the drawing board, literally. Students choose one memory and draw a picture of the moment as if it were a photograph. They are encouraged to write down sensory details around the margins of the picture. This is a great place for sentence stems such as: this feels like, this sounds like, this smells like. It is also an opportunity to introduce new vocabulary for overused terms like good and bad. They are collecting valuable ideas and words that can be woven into their stories. Katya’s picture was her grandparents’ home in El Salvador.
Finally, it’s time to start writing. Students draw a green circle around one piece of the picture. This is where they begin, with a description of the items found only in the circle. What occurs from this is a story that follows a unique pattern of organization. Instead of starting at the beginning and following a predictable sequence of events, it starts with collections of details from different places in the picture. As a result, the story is revealed instead of told. The descriptions allow readers to build mental pictures and text connections. Katya began, “It was an old house made of mud…”
After 10 minutes of silent writing, students circle a new piece of the picture and begin the writing process again, careful to only talk about what is in the circle. After “chunks” of writing are completed, they put all of their pieces together and reflect on what “holes” need to be filled in the story. At this point, students are building their story, introducing transitions, and refining the clarity of the bigger message.
There are several student-led reflect and revise sessions in addition to peer reviews. I give a list of editing suggestions: (1) Deleting words that don’t add value; (2) Using long and short sentences to affect the pacing; (3) Changing word choice; (4) Elaborating some descriptions. However, students are advising each other on how to improve the quality of the story and dig deeper into the message the story represents. Students are testing the clarity of the writing and offering ways to improve.
The result of the Green Circle Project has been engaging storytelling in which a student group with diverse writing abilities can approach narrative building at their own pace, without the usual barriers of “but what do I write about?” These stories can also be turned into college essays. I wanted to give students the freedom to explore some other parts of themselves. This has enabled students to take a simple process of description and turn it into stories with extended metaphors and messages. Through their narratives, they have been able to speak about the human condition, the things that bond all of us together. Katya’s memory was of her home in El Salvador.
She applies figurative language and sensory words to create a beautiful picture of her home. However, she weaves in larger themes of her lineage, history, and memories of what it means to remember home and build a new one. Simple descriptions of household objects become compelling narratives about deeper thematic messages of family and home.
In the final phase, students adapted their stories into a 2 minute “TED Talk” where they use their story to communicate a persuasive message to an audience. It applies many of the skills we have learned this year in ELA, and it was a cathartic unit for the end of the year.
Katya’s Story: “Casetta”
I would love to live here and feel alive rather than to be in the city. Home is where you are happy, it doesn’t matter if a house is modest and tired, what matters is the love that is shared with each other.
After my grandmother died when my mom was 7, she and her 4 other sisters lived in that house. They didn’t have a comfortable childhood, they worked and moved to other places. Cracks in the walls represent problems that have passed and vanished colors show how the family has broken apart. I’m here with no idea of what happened, just living what I have to live. It feels calm to breathe. I like to feel a breeze, looking at the fields of corn and tall mango trees. Fresh sight through my eyes, what’s better than smelling the air that is not polluted.
Waking up in the morning and looking at the sun come out, kids running, ready to have breakfast in a beautiful place.
Who am I? A greenish girl… not with green eyes but loyal and emotional.
I loved to play in the mud, using my imagination like I do now, but now I worry about things that I shouldn’t. Well, we all do when we have gotten through a lot in your childhood. What was better than play outside with my cousin, he is such an amazing person, now he can be judged for whom he decided to be. But what can we do to change someone that is really in our body?
The time has gone by too quickly. When you think, what you wanted to do, the time has passed. Someone else lives there now.
We make memories in these houses. They are more than mud and mortar, they are places for us to keep our stories. They tell stories about who has gone before us. It is important to preserve these memories and make these homes meaningful for our present and future. No matter where you come from you takes your roots with you.
Today, I live in a new home. I have made new memories. It is hard for a child, a student, who is also an immigrant, to have the responsibility to be the strength and pride of the family.
In the north of a village there is a place that is for the community. The trees are always green, but there is no grass, only fallen leaves. It’s a quiet place that people don’t like to visit, . It’s surrounded by machinery that is used to grab water from the ground like teachers pulling knowledge from students. It was an empty place that was slowly transformed into a lovely place, where the art was learning. The song of the birds was pleasant, but not as soothing as the sounds of a crowd struggling to learn. It’s a hive of people representing the cruel past of their own.
It’s an ordinary day in the village, a crowd of older people is walking from the gate to greet the ones who have already arrived. As they congregate in that place, it smells sweaty, they look old fashioned, it feels like the old world. Dreams are coming true. They don’t care about anything but learning. Their faces are weather beaten, it is hard working in the sun. They look impatient and timid, they know the struggle to learn new things. The field is their home, the crops are their conversation. They sound very loud, they are talking over each other like they haven’t seen each other for years.
It’s a reunion of sorts, though they have never left each other.
They sit quietly in their chairs, they look ready to learn. I greet them, “Saludos, Listos a aprender!” 11 The class starts, there is only one voice, it is my voice. I see them irritated when they don’t know how to make letters correctly. I can see in their face that they are facionados and motivated by the process, some of them are younger and others are older. They respectfully ask each other for help when I can’t help them. Its a crowd of sixty learning, questioning and searching. Time passes and it is stressful, some of their faces are worried, their mouths open, they need help. I hear people complaining, “No puedo, me doy por vencido, I give up.”
Some people are laughing at their mistakes, some are sad, and some are trying as hard as they can because their motivation to challenge themselves is stronger than their barriers to entry.
Schools are not made of walls, schools are made of attitudes, a little thing that can make a big difference. “None of them could read, but give them any plan and they can follow it to the last line.”(John Jackson, African American Museum of Art). Making illiterates learn to read and write the lines of a book is a gift for them to change the reality of their future. It is never is too late to learn and it is never too early to teach. Changing the barriers of an uneducated society in my community gave me the most powerful weapon to fight ignorance.
I am not so different than they are. I sit in a school in the United States, challenged by a new language and new culture. I too am frustrated at times, but I remember the perseverance of people who are faced with much more than I am.
Perhaps these people are not the most informed or educated, but they are unconditionally open to learning, they are open to a new world of an educated society. They are open to the new experience that were denied to them. It is never too late. We don’t need a certificate to be a teacher, and we don’t need a diploma to be student. A teacher is a candle that consumes itself with the task of lighting the way so that others may arrive.