Family Stories: A New “Mini Unit”

Our sixth grade writing workshop year follows a predictable and well planned path: personal narrative, followed by memoir, then feature articles and argument. In between, we attempt mini units such as photo essay and the literary essay.  And we bring the year to an end with our multi genre project.  That is it: our year of writing.

Until my students suggest something new – which happens just about every year.  I love these mini-units best, because they are student inspired and student driven.  They are usually tossed off in the way kids seem to have a knack for: spontaneous, excited, without any thought as to time frame or rubrics or (even) know how.  Here’s the story of this year’s version…

Thursday is Poetry Day in 202 – we share the poems we’ve “unpacked” for homework: i.e. our thoughts about the way the poet has played with language, white space, and structure to craft a message or create a mood.  Our conversations begin with the poems, but veer off into other directions, for poetry inspires us to think and feel and wonder.  many of our poems come from this wonderful collection, Nancie Atwell’s Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons: 


The student poetry in this collection never fail to excite curiosity and interest in my students.  All of them are based on lessons that Nancie centered  around iconic poems (Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Shakespeare, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to name a few) or important themes ( growing up, the senses, the natural world).  They are fresh, and real to my sixth graders – accessible poems they can sink their teeth into and imagine themselves in.  We love them. 

The week before last, we read Adrienne Jaeger’s “New Eyes”:


and last week we read Anna Jaeger’s “Family”:


My kids were struck by the connections between the two poems; what resonated was the idea of looking at old photographs of family members and imagining their lives with “new eyes” – what had they suffered through? what had they imagined? what could we learn from asking questions about their lives? what hidden stories and lessons could we uncover?

And then someone quietly said, as though to herself: “This would be kinda cool to write about.” Indeed. And so a new mini unit is born – Family Stories.  Here’s how I imagine it will go:

  • We  will select a family photograph that intrigues us  and talk through the questions it elicits in each of us after a close examination: what details tell a deeper story? what is known of this person? what do we want to know?  what questions can we ask this person? who can we talk to if this person is no longer alive? 
  • We will figure out questions to ask and conduct an interview process to collect facts, stories, family lore.
  • We will write narratives based on what we learn, illustrated with actual photographs, maps, old passport photographs, or whatever else we can get our hands on.
  • We can go digital with this using Google Presentations or Emaze, perhaps embedding videos of places and using apps like Waterlogue to add painterly effects and Vanilla Pen to create quote posters.   
  • We can celebrate by inviting our families to share our completed stories.

I can’t wait to begin our new mini unit!