As we begin to draw the curtain on another school year, many of us take time to rest, to reflect, and to read—books we didn’t have time to check out all year, novels that we heard about but couldn’t find the time, stories that stayed on a list or sat untouched by our bedsides.
Exploring a narrative is an act of restoration and rejuvenation, and taking time to enjoy that great endeavor is essential. Therefore, as we peel back book covers this summer, we should spend time uncovering our own school and classroom stories as well—to look back and plan ahead. And I can think of no better tool to help us than the classic plot diagram.
For those unfamiliar with this revolutionary instrument, the plot diagram is typically used by ELA and reading teachers to help students navigate a new story, summarize a current story, or reflect on a past story. By breaking down a narrative into discrete parts, the plot diagram gives students the "handholds" they need to successfully climb the textual edifice of a short story or novel.
In addition to a tool for reading, the plot diagram can be used to help students with writing. Writing a story can be an overwhelming task for some students, but the plot diagram can make it a more concrete and digestible process.
But how can the plot diagram be used for classroom and school-wide improvement efforts in the middle level? This tool can help us look back on the school year and examine why something was or wasn’t successful, and it can help us plan for a goal down the road. Sound challenging?
While improving a middle grades classroom or school can be difficult, the revolutionary plot diagram tool can make it simple. Here are the five easy steps to create a successful story for next year:
STEP 1: Highest Point of Action
Every good story has a climax (a dangerous word in middle school, so be careful). This is the story’s highest point of action. In terms of classroom and school improvement, this would be a goal or an aim. What do you want to achieve as a classroom teacher next year? What do you hope to achieve as a school administrator? What is a goal you have for your interdisciplinary team? Pick one goal and make that the highest point of action in your story. And if you can determine the month when you want to achieve that goal, that’s even better (and also important for step 3).
STEP 2: Characters
Every good story has a setting and characters. The setting for classroom and school improvement can be very broad or very specific, depending on your goal in step 1. For instance, if your goal is to improve vocabulary acquisition in every seventh grade science class, the setting is going to be fairly broad—those classrooms—and the characters are going to be all of the seventh grade students. However, if your goal is to engage reluctant readers by building a classroom library in your sixth grade ELA class, the setting and the characters are more specific.
For the characters in your story, there are other vital considerations. As you try to reach the goal you’ve chosen, you will have the support of protagonists (helpers, heroes, positive folks) and the challenge of antagonists (detractors, villains, negative folks) along the way. There will be people who believe in your goal, and those who may want to tear it down. As you plan for classroom and school improvement, it’s critical to identify those people now so you can figure out how you are going to work with both your protagonists and antagonists. How and when will you assemble your supporters at the beginning of the year so they understand and will work on your goal? And how will you engage your detractors in a positive way so they will either work with you or stay out of the way?
STEP 3: Rising Actions
Every good story builds with rising action towards the highest point of action. These are the internal and external conflicts, the plot twists, and the unexpected triumphs that make a story cook leading up to the high point or climax. When planning ahead toward your goal for next school year, you can anticipate what these rising actions may be, and because you have your characters in mind, you can anticipate with whom they may happen, as well. And if you’ve chosen the month or date you want to achieve your goal, you can plot out these rising actions on your school year calendar.
For instance, if you are trying to win over reluctant readers with a classroom library by November, what do you need to do by September—and what challenges do you think you’ll face and from whom? If you want to get all science teachers on board with vocabulary acquisition by January, when are you going to introduce them to Frayer Diagrams—and who will resist you in that effort? Plotting out the rising actions towards a classroom or school improvement goal is a great way to build a successful story for you, your students, and your school.
STEPS 4 & 5: Falling Actions and Denouement
Every good story has time for reflection and celebration. Once you’ve reached the climax of your story and you’ve achieved your classroom or school improvement goals, the next steps are also essential parts of a successful story—though they sometimes are forgotten. The falling actions and the denouement of a story help us see the "so what?" elements. This is the time in a story when characters look back on their achievement to wonder, celebrate, and consider what went well and what went wrong along the way.
In terms of classroom and school improvement planning, it’s important to think ahead about those moments in your story too. When and how will you assess and celebrate your achievement? For whom will you raise the praise? Where will these assessments and celebrations take place? If things did not go well, how will you keep your characters hopeful for the future? What enduring themes do you hope to learn and for your students, content area teachers, or team members to learn? Asking these questions after reaching your goal is not just a nice thing to do; rather, it is a vital action. It will help you, your students, your team, and your school become more reflective, and it will help them set goals and plan more effectively in the future.
So as you crack open that best seller, favorite magazine, or classic novel this summer, don’t neglect your own story. Pick up a plot diagram to look back on your classroom and school narratives, and then use it to write a successful middle grades story in the school year ahead. Author! Author!
Writing Your Middle Grades Success Story!
Dru Tomlin is director of middle level services for the Association for Middle Level Education.