Monday, December 12, 2011

Another View of A Backstory

Posted by Picasa                  The Tuesday Slice of Life Posts can be found at Two Writing Teachers.

According to Writer’s Digest, online, In Hollywood-speak, a character’s "backstory" is what happened before he or she leaped onto the silver screen.   It’s   considered wise to spend time and energy working at the backstory of a fictional character, but I’d also like to introduce this term as a part of lesson planning.  This kind of backstory includes the work that either has already occurred  or that needs to be introduced before a unit of study begins. 
Perhaps it’s an investigation in a study of fiction writing.  Maybe you’d like to introduce your students to literature circles.  Or poetry group is starting and one idea you’ve read about is that art postcards invite wonderful word images, a motivating introduction to the poetry unit.  Students will need at least part of the backstory of whatever topic is being introduced in order to fully participate in the learning, and sometimes different students need different backstories.  
Every time I believe it’s time to create a new unit of study, I back up to see what specific skills/experiences are important to include.  How do I do that?  I begin with working out what I see as the end goal.  For example, I will be teaching a group who are choosing to learn about writing memoirs in January.  For this, I would consider my goal, and then list all the background skills that seemed important for students to bring to the lesson.  As I work, I also list what has already happened during the year that might give support to the experience, too.  Since it is not my classroom this time, I will confer with the teacher so I can find this information.
Here’s one way I plan when I want to consider the backstory, and examples of the notes I would take:

The end goal:  a written memoir, as opposed to a personal narrative.  A memoir differs from the narrative in that although it is a story, it includes the writer’s personal view of the impact of the event (or events) on one’s life.  Usually it’s about just a few events.  Before starting, I will have discussed with the teacher that students in the class are ready for this kind of writing, different from just narrating an event from their lives. This time they will need to make a personal connection of life learning to the event they will write.  It invites a deeper thought process.

Skills  & experiences I believe are important in order to reach the goal
*Ability to write an organized piece in some story form; and to include plot, characters, setting and dialogue if needed. 
            *Understanding the need to choose an audience for which to write & use a certain style for that audience
            *Use of different kinds of sentences in order to make the writing more interesting
            *Deeper examination of different memoirs
*Leads are important in all genres, and if students have not had previous lessons in ‘reeling the reader in’, a lesson in this is important. 
             *Setting is another way to firm up the background of one’s memoir.  An examination of the way it works in memoir compared with fiction is important.
             *Transitions help the ease of reading any kind of writing, and in the memoir genre, transitions are important because one must lead the reader into both time and place as smoothly as possible.  An examination of authors’ style of transitions will add to the students’ skills.

Skills already taught & experiences that have previously occurred
      *Students have written about different memories from writers’ notebook entries and mini-lessons/conversations held in class
      *Completed specific lessons in fiction-both reading and writing.
      *Read multiple samples of memoirs created for various audiences.  (I might introduce some new examples from Ralph Fletcher’s new book, Mentor Author, Mentor Texts)
     *Teacher has read aloud memoir samples for discussion. 
      *Students have worked in a variety of ways with word work, looking both for kinds of wording that authors use, and for different words that appeal.

I realize that one can’t teach every single skill, like how to craft a sentence or how to use more sophisticated punctuation, but by the time I am ready to begin a new genre study, I should know the students’ abilities well, and know what the next step in each individual’s needs might be.  Planning some parts of what I call the backstory  (in this case for the memoir unit) aids students to move further in the study than if we just jumped right in.
Note:  As I gather and organize them, I’ll post a list of sources that are useful in teaching this unit.


  1. What a great post. I loved how you set up this post. Then you carefully showed us your thinking process. What a great way to model planning!

  2. You have expressed so eloquently what I have been trying to get teachers to understand. Thanks for spelling it out in such a clear way. I look forward to you sharing the resources for this.

  3. Ahh...backstory. I think a lot about backstory in different aspects of life, and especially in my narrative writing. What I think is interesting about backstory is if we don't know it then the writing isn't as strong, yet if we include too much backstory in the actual text, then it is weakened. It's a conundrum, isn't least it is to me. It's kind of like a duck paddling under the water -- we never see it, but it's how he gets where he's going.

    Love the idea of using it to think about unit planning.

  4. What a great post. I printed it off so I can reflect on it further as I plan for a new creative writing class second semester. I'm changing things up AGAIN and this piece gets me thinking! Thanks for sharing!

  5. What a great way to explain the 'backstory.' The idea of backward planning is essential in meeting the needs of our students. And you are so right -- some kids need different backstories!

    Thanks for sharing your insightful thinking! Can't wait to hear about how the memoir writing goes with your students!

  6. Thanks for modeling your well-thought-out ideas and process for everyone! I plan the same way and I believe it's essential for getting students where we want them to go. In grad school, we called it "backwards design" but "backstory" is a creative term for it!

  7. Love your thinking! Great ideas!Looking forward to reading about your lessons.

  8. My eyes are open to new thinking every time I read your post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on backstory. I look forward to reading more.

  9. Love how much reflection is embedded into your planning. This is what I've been trying to get my student teacher to see. Look forward to reading more of your writing.

  10. I always love how detailed and thoughtful your posts are. Makes me feel ten times smarter than before I dropped by. I shall definitely recommend this piece to some of my teacher students, I'm sure they'd learn a lot from it. :)

  11. Thanks for your comment! I LOVE the Mother Teresa quotation you posted -- I'm putting it on my Moodle page where I have a quotation of the day for my students! The Teaching Tolerance website looks really interesting too -- it's now in my Netvibes so I can keep reading articles from it! :-)

  12. I love your background right now - perfect for the winter!

    I enjoyed reading your connection between backstories and planning. It seemed to really highlight the intentionality of lesson planning, as well as close observations of students to inform practice well.


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