Choose Your Own Adventure: Exploring Cause & Effect in 5th Grade with Nikki Grimes’ Jazmin’s Notebook

Diane Bezucha
Learning Through Stories
8 min readJan 6, 2019


5th graders Fatima, Erianne, and Genesis work on their story about Nikki Grimes’ book “Jazmin’s Notebook.”

What’s the most important decision you have ever made? What might your life be like if you had chosen differently? How do your actions today affect your life tomorrow? These are the questions 5th grade students at P.S. 359 grappled with in our recent Li’l Stories lab. The class was reading Nikki Grime’s Jazmin’s Notebook — a story about a young girl growing up in 1960’s Harlem, struggling to stay focused on her future while dealing with peer pressure, racism, the loss of her father, and an ill mother. Because students were exploring the book’s central theme of personal agency, we decided to lead a Li’l Stories lab that focused on choices and life paths.

This was our first time working with 5th graders, but these students participated in Li’l Stories last year as 4th graders, so we knew we could tackle a more complex storytelling project. We designed a brand new storyboard that splits in the middle to offer two possible endings. This adaptation was based partly on last year’s experience with Kindergarteners at P.S. 359 who planned to use the storyboard to retell Judy Blume’s Freckle Juice. But when the class hadn’t read as far as we had planned, we used the storyboard to have students make predictions for the story’s ending. If Kindergarteners could predict future events, 5th graders, we reasoned, could anticipate the outcomes for two possible actions.

This storyboard allows students to develop two possible endings.

In the new storyboard, students are asked to identify a main character, a conflict or villain, and a key decision the character must make. In the first two boxes of the story, students outline the events leading to the decisive moment. Students then have three boxes to outline the events that result from each decision, followed by a fourth box to identify a likely long-term outcome. Initially, our plan was to introduce the storyboard by having students retell a key moment from Jazmin’s Notebook, outlining what actually happened in the story, as well as an alternate option, predicting the long-term outcome in Jazmin’s life from both. Afterwards, we planned for students to create a second storyboard in which they would outline fictional stories about real conflicts they face as 5th graders and then record these stories in iMovie. It was evident from day 1 that this plan was not going to work.

Day 1: Talking About the Book
What was immediately clear on day one is that older students love to talk. And reading a book with such complex themes gives them a lot to talk about. Students were eager to talk to us about the book’s themes and the challenging situations Jazmin faced, not unlike what many of the students themselves experience. Even with an extended 90-minute class period, we spent the majority of the class discussing possible scenarios from the book to address and then modeling one scenario on a sample storyboard. In an effort to reinforce thinking strategies students were already learning, we had students use Circle Maps to brainstorm conflicts Jazmin faced in the story. Once students began coming up with ideas (gun violence, being poor, sexual assault) and attempting to map them on the storyboard, we realized we had four problems in our lesson plan:

  1. The directions on the storyboard were asking students to identify key problems and “villains,” but what we really needed was for students to identify moments when Jazmin made an important decision. We made this realization in the first class and were able to adjust our language in the second class and saw a much more productive brainstorm. With the more focused directions, students were able to identify many moments in the story when Jazmin made a critical decision.
  2. Jazmin’s Notebook is written as a series of diary entries and rarely uses the linear storytelling structure that lends itself to storyboarding. It helped to combine our brainstorms and generate a class list of key decisions Jazmin made and then have students pick a scenario from the list. This way, we knew they were choosing a scenario that would align with the storyboard structure, though many groups chose the same scenario.
  3. Circle maps were not the right brainstorming tool. In a circle map, a key term or concept is written in the middle, while examples, definitions, and related ideas are written around it. While they were a little helpful in brainstorming decisions Jazmin made, students needed to use a cause and effect map to actually brainstorm the outcomes resulting from each decision.
  4. This was going to take much longer than we expected. We decided to scrap the idea of mapping a fictional story and instead, we would have students develop a really fleshed out storyboard based on Jazmin’s Notebook.

With the added structure and guidance, each pair of students was able to choose the key decision they were outlining and begin to brainstorm what they would draw in each story box.

Day 2: Storyboarding
With most of the wrinkles ironed out in day one, the rest of the week went fairly smoothly. With another extended 90-minute period on day 2, students had plenty of time to finish their brainstorming and complete their storyboards. At the end of class, we had a few groups share their storyboards, which allowed us to identify where there were still some misunderstandings. With this new bifurcated storyboard, we had to clarify that one of the branches was what actually happened in the book while the other was made up. Additionally, for the final box in each branch, we had to clarify the difference between a short term outcome (getting detention) and a long-term outcome (going to college).

Fatima, Erianne, and Genesis explored Jazmin’s experience standing up to a school counselor who did not believe in her abilities.
Sayd and Jermaine focused on the chapter when Jazmin considered shoplifting.

Day 3: Writing Scripts
Days 3, 4, and 5 were only 60-minute class periods, which made a big difference. On Day 3, students made revisions to their storyboards and then transferred their Post-It Notes to a writing board. For each scene in their story, students wrote the script they would use when recording their stories in iMovie. Because half of their stories involved retelling, we had to work with students on finding their “story voice” and adding in interesting details to make their scripts more interesting. At the end of class, we identified groups with strong scripts and had them read aloud to the class. P.S. 359 regularly uses the TAG peer feedback framework in which you Tell the writer what you liked, Ask a question, and then Give feedback, which helped students clearly identify what made some scripts stronger than others.

Once students complete their storyboard, they transfer their Post-It Notes to a writing board where they draft scripts for their stories.

Day 4: iMovie
On day 4, we introduced iMovie, which was a hit. 5th grade students at P.S. 359 had already been learning iMovie and the school provides students with iPads, so this was a great opportunity to reinforce those skills while also testing out a more involved digital component than the Li’l Stories App. While some pairs finished their scripts, others began recording in iMovie. With minimal modeling and instruction, students were able to navigate iMovie with ease. For our purposes, we had students photograph each of their Post-it Notes and then import those images into iMovie. After arranging the photos in the proper order, students recorded audio of their scripts, adjusting the length of each image to match its audio clip.

Sayd and Jermaine record their story in iMovie.

Day 5: More iMovie
Unlike the simple to use Li’l Stories App, iMovie took a little more time to finish, but it produced videos that were much more sophisticated and customized. On the second day of using the program, students started to get creative, adding titles to introduce their stories and call attention to the alternate endings. One tip for working in iMovie: It helps to have other rooms and areas where students can spread out and record their audio without capturing other groups in the background. We found that this project was so engaging that even groups with the biggest behavior challenges stayed on task while working in iMovie. Because the process took longer than using the Li’l Stories App, we did not have time on the last day to watch every video, though all pairs did finish.

Jayla & Jayden’s final video:

Overall, this first attempt using a new storyboard and a more complex digital component with older students was a success and we took away several key lessons for future labs:

  • Complex themes work: Fiction and storytelling were an effective way to explore real issues in a safe way, without having to rely on potentially painful personal experiences.
  • Identify the right tools: Small tweaks to the structure or language of a storyboard or other brainstorming tool can make a huge difference in focusing student thinking in the right direction.
  • Li’l Stories works for older students, but More time is better: With a slightly more challenging storyboard and digital component, older students were just as (if not more) engaged in the process as younger students. However, this increased level of engagement in discussion (and use of more complicated tools like iMovie) slows the process and necessitates more time. For older students, the 90-minute class periods were preferable.
  • Our storyboard is flexible: Once again, we have seen that the storyboard can be reconfigured for retelling, predictions, original stories, and even alternate endings. We look forward to exploring even more possibilities.
  • Other digital products are possible: The ease with which students adapted to iMovie makes us realize that there are many possible ways to publish and share student stories.
  • Adaptability is key: As always, nothing goes as planned. The ability to communicate as co-teachers and adapt on the fly was key to the success of this experimental lab.

Just like Jazmin’s Notebook this storytelling lab had its own twists, turns, and alternate endings. We look forward to exploring new storyboards and digital tools in the spring!

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