Sunday, January 8, 2017

Story is Story: Helping Writers See the Story in Personal Narrative Writing

One of my goals as a teacher of writing is to help my students see how they are growing as writers. An easy way to accomplish this is to ask my writers to produce an on-demand writing piece at the beginning and the end of each unit of study. When putting the two pieces side-by-side, it is easy for writers to see how they have grown.

For our narrative unit, the on-demand prompt simply asks students to write the best true story from their life, AKA a personal narrative. Though we write realistic fiction stories in this unit, I explain to students that we write true stories for these on-demand writes (which have a time constraint of one class period) simply because these stories have already happened; we just need to write them, unlike fiction stories which require a lot more time to plan and create.

As we neared the end of our unit, I reminded my writers of their upcoming writing piece. As soon as the words “personal narrative” exited my mouth, the mood in the room changed almost instantaneously. Personal narratives? Ugh, we’ve been writing these every year since third grade. Hang on, let me rack my brain for something boring to write about…

I knew I had made a mistake by using the phrase “personal narrative.” I’ve found that, by 7th grade, students are burnt out on the genre, equating it with stale essays that have little life or meaning to them. On Twitter, I mused about why this is with my PLN of English teachers. We discussed how some students believe their lives aren’t interesting enough to write about. Some find it difficult to write about their own lives, preferring to escape into fiction.

I wondered how to best help my writers see that personal narratives don’t have to be boring. I knew they all had cultivated some real skills as writers of stories throughout the unit. The evidence was in front of me: 90 published stories that had realistic characters, tension and showed off the voice of each writer. I needed to help them see that these same skills could be used when writing the true stories from their own lives.


That was what I needed to help my writers see. They were writing stories. Story is story, regardless of whether it is true or not. The elements that make a story good are the same across the narrative genre.

So I stopped using the word ‘personal narrative.’ Instead, the next day, I invited them to read a true story written by an 8th grader, one with well-drawn characters, tension and emotion. I asked them, “What makes this a story worth reading?” As they read, they jotted down their thoughts in their thinkbooks.

When we came back together and shared. As I jotted down what they had noticed on the board, I smiled, because I knew that they were touching on the skills we had just used in our realistic fiction stories.

When we finished, I pointed to the anchor charts lining the bulletin board on the side of the room.

“You know what makes a story good. And every single one of you is a storyteller.” Here, I gestured to the stack of their published stories. “You’ve already shown me. And now, I’m asking you to show off all of those skills you’ve developed over these past six weeks, this time with a true story from your life.”

We discussed how the words “personal narrative” sometimes equate to summarizing an event, resulting in a stagnant plot arc. Much like a flat-lining heart rate monitor, these pieces of writing don’t have “life.” I reminded them of what they know as writers, which is that good stories have plot arcs that go up and down, just like a heart rate monitor attached to someone who was alive.

With this fresh, new perspective, I sent my writers off to plan by asking, “How will you tell the best true story that you can tell?” Just based on the conversation in the room, I could tell that they were now thinking in terms of story.

Because at the end of the day, story is paramount to what I want my writers to take away from my class. I want my writers to see the universality of the skills they are cultivating as writers of stories, not as writers of boring, “for school” personal narratives. I want them to see that story is everywhere they look, from retelling moments from their lives to the music that they love.

So, on Friday, we wrote stories. True ones from our lives. I hope that my students didn’t feel like they were writing “just another personal narrative for school” but instead saw that they were writing a story.

Because that’s how I want my writers to take away from this experience: stories are powerful. Stories shape our lives. Stories are everywhere. And they, too, have the skills to be the storyteller of their own life.

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