I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s that time of year when everything feels a little routine. For the next few days, I am working in a fourth-grade classroom, and I really wanted to spice things up a bit. I’m sharing what I did because the kids loved it.
Have you ever seen Pip? It’s a 4-minute film that honors the work of Southeastern Guide Dogs with an animated story of a small yellow lab’s experience in the program. I’ve watched it countless times now, and I still get teary in one spot. (My daughters all laugh at me.) If you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat.
I’d used it before to work on summarizing skills with students, but it was WAY more fun to use it as a scaffold for narrative writing. Here’s what I did…
1. We watched the film as a class. Some of the kids had already seen it and were THRILLED to be spending writing time watching Pip. Before we watched it, I told them they’d be writing about it in first person and present tense, and I told them to pay attention to the five scenes they could choose from:
- Pip’s arrival
- his struggles
- his successes
- the assessment
- the final scene
2. As we watched, I paused the film between scenes so that it would be clear where to start, depending on the choice of scenes students made.
- The dividing line between struggles and successes is blurry. I recommend ending the struggles with him looking up at Ace’s picture and having a realization.
- It’s also blurry between the assessment and the final scene. I recommend ending the assessment with him looking through the window and a tear falling.
- The easiest scene to write seems consistently to be the first one. The successes one was the trickiest for me to write, so I made sure that some of the stronger writers took that one.
3. Have students begin to write their scenes!
They all got started and I told them that once I saw everyone get going on their scene, I’d play it again so they could focus on the details they needed to write even better. That was motivating! I also reminded them of the tricks writers had for developing a story: action, description, talk, and inner thinking.
4. Play the film again.
This time, I voiced over some of the talk and inner thinking that could be happening, as well as some of the subtle details that could be described, still pausing at the scene breaks. I also reminded students of their narrative transition words: Then, next, suddenly, later, after a little while… many students could barely listen to me because they were so impatient to get writing.
5. At this point, I shared my own writing that I’d done of the first scene. You are welcome to use it, or try doing it yourself. I had so much fun writing from Pip’s head! My writing is in a combination of past and present tense which led to a good conversation about the difference. When I have the lesson to do over again, I may change it to be in all in present tense:
I couldn’t believe I was finally here. I was at the Academy. The place of my dreams. The place where I would become a service dog and learn how to help people who couldn’t see. Little did I know how hard it would be and how hard I’d have to work.
As I walked through the gates, the first thing I saw was the statue of a dog named Ace.
“Hi there,” I said to him, although I knew it was a statue and he couldn’t hear me. “Someday, I’m going to be just like you.”
I kept walking up the sidewalk. All of a sudden, many other dogs bolted by me. They were barking and one of them even clipped my shoulder. They were much bigger than I. They could run so much faster than I could without even trying. Was I going to be able to do this? I felt my ears flatten a little bit as I worried. “You can do this, Pip,” I said to myself. And I kept right on walking through the front door.
As I walk in, a lady stops me.
“We have to measure you,” she says. “I don’t think you’re going to be big enough to stay in the academy. Service dogs have to be a certain height, and they have to be strong.”
My heart pounds as she holds up the measuring stick. She is right. I am small. And the measuring stick is just above my head when I stand on my flat paws. I scrunch my eyes closed, take a breath, and pull myself to the tallest I can possibly be.
“You’re a little below,” she says, “but I’ll let you in.”
I can’t believe my ears. I am through. I am into the Academy! I am on my way to become a service dog. A real live service dog.– Melanie Meehan
6. As students wrote and I circulated, I read and shared examples. They loved hearing each other’s interpretations of Pip’s experiences, and the writing got stronger and stronger! We watched the film again so they could pick up even more details.
7. Once most students completed their scenes, we shared them in the order of scenes. I selected the writing on a volunteer basis, and it was fun to hear the story in different voices.
This is an activity that could span a few days for sure, but it was fun to see what students could do just in a day! Some of them wrote detailed scenes, others moved on to a different scene, and I could see challenging some to try the writing in third person to really change it up. While it’s not asking students to harvest their own lives and experiences for writing ideas, it’s challenging them to think in scenes, work collaboratively, study details, and draft quickly in a short amount of time… and, there was so much energy and joy at the end of February! I’d love to hear if you try it out!