Barrel of Monkeys – Supporting Struggling Writers


Photo by Will Cowan
Photo by Will Cowan

Narrative writing can be a wonderful experience for many students.  However, for some it is a demoralizing reminder of the writing skills they lack.  Sequencing was one skill that I’d incorrectly assumed would be easy to teach.   For years I was baffled by the students who struggled to put a events in order,  and/or who could not seem to generate details to help the reader follow the connection from event to event.

After reading A Framework for Understanding Poverty: A Cognitive Approach by Ruby Payne I went to hear her speak.   One of the things that Ms. Payne spoke about was that students who come from poverty remember events in the order of emotional importance. This means that the events in their minds may not be in chronological order.  It also means that events of perceived lesser importance may be forgotten. When I thought back to my struggling writers, I realized that often times it was sequencing, and/ or developing the cause and effect details that was hindering their progress as writers. This lead me to the idea of using a Barrel of Monkeys to help my struggling students.

I reasoned students needed a manipulative that would visually suggest a sequential order of events.  The plastic monkeys were perfect.

I remember working with one student in particular.  He was writing a personal narrative about time he learned a valuable lesson.  His narrative consisted of one run-on sentence.   “I got suspended because a kid talked about my mother and I punched him in the face.”

The first thing I did was have him break the sentence into three separate events.  For each event, I gave him one monkey and asked him to put the monkeys in chronological order.  Then I handed him six more monkeys and told him that he needed to add those six monkeys someplace in the story to help me understand how the situation got from ‘monkey to monkey.

I held up his first monkey and asked him how it came to be that the kid started talking about his mother. I wanted to know who did it, when it happened, where it happened, etc..  After thinking, he said that it happened during third grade on the bus.  So I held up one of his ‘extra’ monkeys and told him, “Maybe you should start with you getting on the bus.” That became the first monkey of his story.

We continued  with me asking him questions to help him get to each of his three original events.  Throughout the entire conversation,  I held the chain of monkeys in the air so that he could see how each event resulted in the events that followed.  He quickly surpassed his goal of adding six monkeys and proudly kept track of how many he added.

When he finished, I had him hold the chain and retell the story, touching each monkey as went.   While he spoke, I prompted him as needed and took bulleted-notes.  We were both excited by the extra details that emerged during his retelling.  It was if knowing that he already had a story that made sense helped him to relax enough to flesh it out.  This retelling gave me plenty of opportunities to provide feedback and ask questions.

He was much more prepared to write his personal narrative after this experience.  Not only was he more confident about the story itself, he’d had time to reflect on what he’d learned from the experience.  He was very proud that his original one-sentence story had expanded into a short narrative of roughly twenty sentences that included sensory details, dialogue, and a reflection.

I am sure that Post-it notes, magnets,  jellybeans, or  matchbox cars could also be used for this activity. I use the Barrel of Monkeys because they are a simple, visual reminder that events in a story must connect to the preceding and following events.



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