Using Flowers to Help Personal Narrative Writing
Sensory Writing in Springtime
Spring Break time in Michigan! I am feeling oddly under the weather...maybe it has to do with the fact that it is 40 degrees and is supposed to rain the rest of the week. April showers....right. I love the rain, but I am also starting to get that "spring fever" that comes with teaching this time of year. The positive growth mindset in me is screaming, "at least it isn't snowing!"
One reason I love writing in all forms and genres is that it has the power to pull you out of a funky mood. No matter what. While I was working on the Where I'm From Poem post, I thought of certain types of flowers. Lilacs to be exact. Lilacs are important to me and are included in my Where I'm From poem because of two reasons: 1.) There were lilac bushes in front of my grandmother's house and 2.) We had a lilac bush in front of my home when I was a kid.
Thus, despite being rainy, I was thinking of ways to use flowers as a guide to help students of writing with personal narrative assignments. It also seems very "springy" of me to do. Not only are flowers beautiful, but their scent and how they seemingly "pop-up" in different aspects of life can help the writer get in tune with themselves. All four of these "flower power" prompts/activities that will be talked about in this post can be used in combination with each other, or they can be used as stand alone assignments to get students talking and writing about their own lives. Remember, identity work is they key to getting to know the writer. Nothing is more powerful than the personal narratives that bind a classroom together.
Flower Power #1: Using Flowers to Recall a Memory (Lilacs)
POINT: When working on personal narrative, you will have to work with students on memory recall. I like to call this their memory showcase. They are not used to talking about themselves in a way that is so official that it deserves paper.
I'll start with the lilacs. One of the strongest memories I have as a kid is when my mother and sister and I used to pick lilacs from the bush outside of our house and put them in tiny dixie cups on all of the surfaces. The smell...oh, the smell. If only I could bottle that smell! The memory here is more so when there was a group of people who came and picked away all the flowers one spring time afternoon. The bush was in full bloom, and we had gone to the store. People were walking by our house, and they had ransacked the bush. Only small patches of purple were left in places on the branches. As we pulled into the driveway, it was like a scene from a dramatic 90's sitcom. Small purple petals were on the ground, branches were broken, and a tiny trail of flower stems made a trail down the sidewalk to almost invite the inner crime fighter in me to want to hunt down the perps.
I cried. A lot. It was a good moment for my mother to teach me that these things grow back. All will be restored with time. It always seems to be more effective as a writer to write about our sorrows rather than our joys. I have never fully understood this because what an inaccurate stereotype it is to just be a writer that is sad all the time (as I sit on a rainy day writing...hmm). I try often to break the mindset that all writers are the moody types. Writing is necessary in all times. Sad and happy included.
The other memory associated with lilacs is a memory I wish I had. My grandmother. I remember her hands. I talk about this in my Where I'm From post, but I really wish I had known this woman. This inspires many parts of my writing life for myself because I use physical objects as cues for part of my memory showcase. What is a memory showcase you ask?
Memory Showcase: Important memories that are linked by physical objects, feelings, emotions, scents, etc.
The memory showcase is the key to getting students to write and also in getting them to know themselves better. Often when I start the Where I'm From poem project, I will ask students, "what are your important memories?" 9/10 will give a shrug to begin with not because they don't have memories, but it is due to the fact students are uncomfortable talking about their memory showcase. Sadly, education is not about the student. Education is all to often about how comfortable the teacher is with teaching. This top-down approach to education bleeds through in writing instruction. We, as teachers of writing, need to brave enough to show ourselves to students, so they in turn feel alright with showing themselves to the world through their writing. This includes using your personal stories as exemplars in the classroom.
Flower Power #2: Using Flowers to Represent Areas of Growth (Yellow Roses)
POINT: When working on personal narrative, students will need to recognize their own character flaws, weaknesses, or areas of growth.
I have killed every plant that I have tried to grow as an adult. The only plants that stick around me are the plants that can tend themselves. The yellow rose bush outside of my home as a child would have stood a fighting chance in my adult life because it was largely neglected, and it kept thriving year after year. Two different mindsets:
Fixed Mindset: I will never be able to be a master gardener.
Growth Mindset: I recognize that if I am really determined to make myself into a "green thumb guru," I could.
Carol Dweck's work on growth mindset has had a large impact on how I teach students. The message should be had early on in education that often students get tracked or lumped into categories of jobs or positions, and they shouldn't be. This happens automatically with the achievement gap and between gender, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and so on. However, students become who they will be later in life at school. We should be encouraging them to try every avenue and encourage a mindset of growth particularly when the phrases "I can't" or "I am not good at this" come up. I love teaching Growth Mindset lessons because I learn where students are at in terms of their thinking. This thinking affects their ability to change into people they never thought they could be in the first place.
Flower Power #3: Flowers Show Emotions (Snapdragons)
POINT: Flowers can help students and teachers relate to one another through emotions or feelings.
Think of when flowers showed up in your life. These can be sad moments, but more than likely they are associated with moments of joy. Flowers are seen on birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, formals, and in times of celebration. I like to use flowers when I am starting a poetry unit or working with students on writing about feelings. This can be incorporated when working with color poems or when working with students on how to put feelings in their writing that may represent themselves or a character.
So, I bring up snapdragons. Snapdragons are special because they bring about the happy moment of going to the greenhouse with my mom and dad as a kid. I loved snapdragons because they were interactive flowers. Not just bits of pretty that can stand out in fields of green. They open and close. I remember putting my fingers up to the flowers and seeing them react to my touch. This made me so happy. Just so happy. In turn, I will tell this story when I am trying to convey to a student how they write a human reaction or a response in their personal narratives or in a work of fiction.
Moments of joy...or any emotion rather are important to work into writing because feelings are relatable. We have all been mad, happy, sad, anxious, depressed, nervous, scared, and so on. Teachers of writing talk about building community, and the #1 way to do so is making yourself relatable to students. I strive to ask my students how they are each day. I ask, "How are you?" But, do I ever really know? Writing helps this conversation.
Flower Power #4: Using Flowers to Teach a Specific Writing Strategy (Baby's Breath)
POINT: Use real-life objects to teach specific writing skills. The small details turn in to the small moments in narrative writing.
I had baby's breath in mason jars at my wedding. Take a peek:
This last strategy seems like an obvious choice, however, we, as educators, should take advantage of any opportunity we can to teach strategies in a new way that mean something to students. Here are the top ways to teach personal narrative writing skill by using flowers:
- Dialogue tags-quotation marks, commas, periods, creative tags
- Adjectives to add detail in the form of snapshots or thought shots (Barry Lane)
- Playing with time-teaching how to pick up or slow down time in your writing
- Character development
- Sequence skills-putting steps to a story in order
- Sentence stretching-have students summarize or state what happened and then teach them the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY sentence stretching technique
- Types of conflict: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self, man vs. society, and man vs. technology
- 5 Things in a story: Plot, character, conflict, theme, and setting (Flocabulary video)
These are also some of the key strategies I use when I work with Pixar shorts in narrative writing. I like to use baby's breath as my example because I "zoom in" on the moment where I made each of these mason jar bouquets, or to a specific moment on my wedding day for example. We can teach those technical skills using feel-good moments found in narrative writing. This is how creative writing bridges over to connect with academic writing. Case in point, I often will use the same verbiage when I am asking a student to "zoom in" when I am also asking them to elaborate more on a point in their formal paper.
Writing Mindset Reflection: What everyday objects inspire writing prompts in your classroom? What are YOU inspired by? What flower brings back memories for you?