We Can’t Forget The Narrative

I sat down last Sunday night around 8:00. It had been a typical Sunday. I got the weekly food shopping done. My daughter had some studying to do, so we took care of that. I even managed to get to the gym in the afternoon. I took a bit of the day to map out my week in the classroom as well. We’re at the point in the year where the newness has worn off and the routine is finally starting to take hold. More importantly, the connections between teacher and student are really taking shape. So, planning is becoming more real as the personality and needs of each class are impacting my approach. 

I was done with everything and ready to crash on the couch and maybe finish off season two of Ozark on Netflix. It probably would’ve turned into any other night with me watching one new episode of Ozark, thinking that I want to turn in early and figuring I would watch one quick episode of The Office, which usually turns into a three hour marathon. 

Unlike most Sunday nights, I actually had it all together and ready to go for Monday. There was nothing that needed to get done. It was an unfamiliar feeling, but I was ready to sit and do nothing. Then, the ding of my work email sounded. My first thought was that one of the members of my department was sick and needed me to get plans ready. Then, a second ding. Then, a third. I was almost afraid to look. Emails after 8:00 PM on a Sunday can never be good. 

Yet, they were. The three emails were from students who were working on their writing. It wasn’t homework, but they were choosing to work on it. It’s funny how that happens, isn’t it?

The first email asked me about whether or not a flashback worked in her narrative. The second asked if a particular scene in his narrative needed dialogue. And, a third asked me to read over the end to see if it all came together. 

So, I went to my laptop, hopped into our Google Classroom, and went to their narratives. A few more emails came from other students and suddenly I found myself working with six students, exchanging comments, “talking writing”, and, most importantly, reading some great stories. Next thing I knew, it was after 11 and Netflix wasn’t even turned on. 

This happened quite a bit during the week, too. Even this past Friday night, a couple of students emailed some questions and concerns about their writing. For a generation that supposedly doesn’t care, this little writing piece sure does seem to mean a lot. 

And, it has nothing to do with a grade. How do I know? Because I have a policy that allows everyone to rewrite their “final” copies until they get a 100. The pressure of a grade is removed. All that’s there is the process and, most importantly, their story. 

When Common Core was first clumsily rolled out to schools and the public, there was a certain fear that it set off. These dense standards scared districts and teachers to discard some of the personality of curriculum in the name for the newer focuses like argument. Certainly argument is quite important, especially in today’s political climate. But, as we realize that Common Core standards aren’t all that bad and it was ultimately the roll out, the execution, and the assessment that was poor, we, as an industry, are beginning to put back vital pieces of the curriculum. 

Narrative writing is one such piece. While it was never really discarded, we focused more on the mechanics of argument writing because it was something new for many educators. The jump from persuasive to argument required many educators to change everything he/she did. For a while, narrative writing was pushed aside because it was never tested anywhere. 

I can’t claim that I was any different when the Common Core standards were unveiled. My classroom practices and emphasis did shift to argument writing, leaving narrative somewhat relegated to something that was done quickly. While we still went through narrative writing experiences as well as creative writing, the majority of my writing instruction was focused on argument. In my role as the English Department Coordinator, I even oversaw the curriculum shifts towards that. 

A few years ago, that changed for me in the classroom. I was able to see what many other colleagues in the field saw; genres didn’t need to be discarded because of standards. In fact, if anything, we needed to do more writing, more of a variety of writing, and show students how each genre impacted the other. You can’t do a good argument piece without knowing your narrative techniques. And, the inverse is true, too. Narrative writing is very much another form of argument. 

More importantly, narrative writing is the genre that almost everyone can access right away. It is one that can form connections between a student and a teacher because, if done right, students reveal themselves through their writing, while the teacher helps them go from simply “telling” a story to “showing” the story. It’s the genre that gets kids willing to write because everyone has a story. Everyone has moments, both big and small, that they can share with the world and make an impact on others who are going through something similar. And, unfortunately, everyone has moments, both big and small, of pain that they need to work through. Writing allows for them to work through that in a way that nothing else can.

So, now, narrative is the backbone of my writing instruction. Of course, the benefits to writers is the first reason; if there is a way for a student to write through some of the moments in their lives and realize that they are stronger people because of those moments, that’s the only reason really needed to focus on the genre. A related benefit here is that because students are almost always writing something that is personal, we are forming a bond that will impact how we interact for the rest of the year. I see a snapshot of what they are bringing to the classroom everyday. I see their stories. It helps me understand them. It helps me see access their writing in a more meaningful way because every technique I try to pass on to them when we are conferencing is all in the effort to make their stories more impactful. But, there are so many other benefits. 

Narrative allows, more than any other genre, students to explore other writing–mentor texts–in a more meaningful way. Students can look at other narratives, even short stories they’ve read in the past, in a very specific way. How does a writer use dialogue to drive a story? How does a writer develop setting, almost as a character in the story? How does the writer “show” his/her story? What are some techniques writers use to hook their readers? Students become better readers of literature because they are looking at it with a purpose. 

That is a skill that transfers to the other genres of writing, especially argument writing. When we look at how writers formulate arguments, students realize that many arguments begin with an appeal to the emotions (pathos). Most arguments go there to evoke those emotions, as it is usually the way to get people to agree with them whether it is out of fear, empathy, or outrage. Those emotional appeals are usually done through telling a story. In other words, it is done through a narrative. Because we spend so much time with the narrative, students are able to identify this in news articles and other works. It allows them to cut through the emotion and really see if the writer is making a valid argument that is backed with sound logic and, most importantly, clear, unbiased facts. It makes them better, more informed readers in an age where stories of the same political events are portrayed quite differently depending on which news outlet is “reporting”. 

And, of course, that helps students in their own writing. They realize that they can make their arguments stronger by employing narrative techniques before, during, and after the facts of their argument.

All of that is a pretty long winded way of saying that the narrative is really important. It touches on every important aspect of writing and writing instruction. It allows for teachers to connect with kids through their stories. It gives kids a rich writing playground as their content is something they know, they are going through, or they are creating. This allows them to explore more techniques of story telling. Most importantly, it allows them to explore themselves as people, talk about events that have helped form who they are and realize that they are powerful because of those events. It could not only help them in their own lives, but it can show them that their words, their stories can help others. How awesome is that? 

My Narrative Process

I am often asked what I do, so I did want to give a quick rundown of what I do. The first thing I want to make clear is that I am an excellent thief. There are so many talented, creative, and caring colleagues. In our conversations, they will share what they do. I take those conversations and make their ideas my own. I’ll go to their classes and watch them in action. I’ll make those activities my own. I have been fortunate enough to attend professional develop sessions with some great teachers of writing. I take their stuff and make it my own. So, my narrative process is continually evolving. And, it will continue to evolve as I am always searching for more. Here’s what I am currently doing.

Topic Choice

If you want to stifle student writing, especially in the narrative genre, assign them a topic to write. By placing a limit on a topic, you are blocking the number one reason for writing: to tell a story. It shifts a student mindset from “What story am I passionate about writing?” to “How can I fulfill the requirements of this assignment?” 

I allow students to pick their own topics. But, I will help them generate topics. My current “go to” strategy is to simply overwhelm them with questions about moments in their lives. I will spend a class period reading off different questions about their lives: moments where they’ve experienced loss, moments where they’ve experienced success, annoying moments, moments of anger, moments of sadness, goofiness, etc. Students will write as many answers as possible. Those answers become potential topics to write about. I used to have them write them in their writer’s journals. Now, I have them write individual topics on Post It notes. By the end of the barrage of questions, students should have a few different topic choices. Some end up with quite a bit, but the activity is a success if each student has more than one topic to choose from. Usually, students have quite a few. And, of course, if a student has another idea that didn’t quite fit into one of topic generation questions, they should write it down as well. 

The idea is simple; if we want authentic student writing, we must allow them to choose what they want to write. The minute we give a topic, it becomes artificial. 

Going Beyond You

The next step in the process is something I’ve always told my students. Their writing can impact the world. For a long time, this part was really just me trying to show students other narratives and getting them to see how stories can change lives. But, then I attended an Angela Stockman professional development session (and, since, many others as we are fortunate enough to work with her in our district). This one particular session about narratives had an activity that gave writers feedback about their potential topics in a non-threatening, quick manner.

I’ll have students take a sheet of paper and divide it into four spaces. The top, left box is labeled “Topics I like and that I think others will like”. The top, right box is labeled “Topics I like, but that I don’t think others will like.” The bottom, left box is labeled, “Topics I don’t like, but others will probably like.” The final box is labeled, “Topics I don’t like and that I don’t think others will like.” Writers will then take their Post It’s from our topic generation and put them into those four categories. Already, they are thinking about an audience beyond their own paper. It’s shifting the mindset from essay assignment to telling their story. 

Then, students will get up and circulate the room, reading everyone’s potential topics. If a student sees a topic that is interesting to them, they place a check mark on the post it. They are welcome to check mark as many as they wish. Once students return to their seats, they now have a visual of what others are interested in reading. If the topics in their top, left section have many check marks, those seem like great topic ideas to write about. If there are many checks in the others sections, writers now have to choose: should they write about something because others were interested? 

When young writers start to consider audience, they begin to see the potential their stories can have. Others are actually interested. Their words, their thoughts, their reflections, and their lessons learn matter.

Writing and Mentor Texts

Once a topic is picked, it is important to give time for students to write in class. So, students are given the first couple of sessions as writing time. Some will take off right away. Others will contemplate for a while before getting something down. But, this time is important. It is important to emphasize that this isn’t the time to focus on grammar or structure. We can’t do anything without words on a page. 

Developing writers will start to write stories that simply tell things. “First this happened, then that, followed by that.” That’s alright and shouldn’t be discouraged. We need something written in order to teach. 

The first day, I’ll circulate a little and do read behinds as they are typing/writing (give them a choice there, too). But, for the most part, I want to leave them alone so the pressure of having the teacher “judging” is removed. On day two, I will read behind everyone and offer something positive. Always positive. They are still in the beginning stages of writing this piece. Encouragement is needed. 

If a student is having trouble getting started, you can offer help in the form of some alternative activities. One of my current favorites is to have a student block out a potential story like a movie or TV show. What’s scene one? Where does it take place? Who is in it? What’s said? If you can get them to outline it like that, often writing writing becomes easier. 

On day three, I will open class with an example of a narrative that highlights a skill they may want to incorporate. I’ll start with different beginnings to famous narratives. This leads into the discussion about hooks. After showing them ten different hooks, they’ll head back to writing their own. Many will then write their own hook. 

The next day, I’ll bring in an excerpt that has good dialogue. We’ll discuss why the writer is using this dialogue. What’s the point of it? How is it structured? What made it believable and not “cheesy”? Then, they’ll head back to writing their own.

In the following days, we’ll read some excerpts that highlight other areas such as setting, imagery, conflict, and reflection. Each day will be about 10 to 20 minutes of this before allowing them to write. By the end of the week, most students have a draft of a narrative. While they are writing, I am conferencing with each kid, whether it is sitting and going through what they have, answering questions, or simply doing read behinds and offering feedback. 

Rubric

After students have most, if not all, of their draft, I will share the rubric with them. After walking through and breaking down the rubric, students will be able to get an idea of how they performed. Sometimes, I’ll make students grade themselves on the rubric. That way, they can get an idea of what they did well and what needs more focus. This allows for revision to be more purposeful. It also makes for more focused questions as students will often ask things like my students did last Sunday night and throughout last week. 

When we finally sit for the grading conference, students will already be familiar with the rubric, but will generally have an idea of their grade. Again, this allows for more purposeful discussion.

Letting It Sit

I remember reading that once Stephen King completes a draft, he will put it in a drawer and leave it for a few months before returning to it. The theory is that time away from it will give you a fresh perspective and less attachment so that you can make more effective changes. While school doesn’t afford that sort of luxury of time, I will break the focus of the narrative writing for a few days. 

Last week, we didn’t write in class. My 10th graders worked through a seemingly unrelated presentation that asked them to look at perspectives in argument. My 9th graders formed literature circles groups and read a variety of short stories with a focus on narrative techniques. This coming week, we will return to a writing workshop format. The hope is that by exposing them to different things, they will utilize those “unrelated” lessons in their narrative writing. It was also a way for many to take a break from their stories before getting through the always difficult revision and editing stages. Like I said, some students were still emailing or asking questions about their narratives, but they were choosing to work on it because they felt compelled to. 

Conferencing With A Purpose

Now, the hard part for students comes into play. They have a story. They’ve worked through trying to incorporate some of the techniques we’ve studied through the mentor texts. They’ve been conferencing with me throughout. But, now, they have to look at their stories with a different focus. They should ask themselves, “is my story told in the most effective way?” 

In order to answer that, they’ll conference with me. We’ll discuss the point of their piece, areas where they can probably show more, develop more. We’ll look at the structure of the story. We’ll look at their diction now. And, we’ll clean up some grammar issues. All of this is done individually. That’s important as it shows that their individual stories are worthy of class time and one on one instruction. So, the classroom won’t look like the traditional setup, but there is more effective instruction going on as kids are getting valuable one on one time. 

This is also the point where I make sure to highlight sections that are truly incredible. Students need to see the power in their writing. Often, kids will give me a surprised look when I tell them how powerful a certain section was or how their word choice really made an impact on me. Once kids hear that sort of feedback, they want to do more. Of course, we have to focus on what they can further develop, but it is equally important to get them to realize that their words matter and that they are capable of impacting people with those words.

The only way I know how to do that is to show them how they impacted me. I have been fortunate enough to read some great stuff over the years and this year is no different. Whether it is during a conference or over an email, I will make sure that a writer knows how much their story impacted me. 

Grade and Revision Process

After all of those conferences, grading is pretty straightforward. Using the rubric, students will receive their grade along with suggestions about how to move up on the rubric. Then, it becomes their choice. Most times, kids continue to revise, even when we’ve moved on to another piece. And, that’s kind of the point. If we want students to get better at writing and the writing process, we must put an emphasis on the importance of that process. Writers continually revise and look for more effective ways to tell their stories. We must give students those same opportunities. A student can resubmit their pieces for a new grade whenever they wish within the confines of a quarter (unfortunately, report cards don’t allow for a more ideal, all year round approach). While conferences shift to email or out of class chats, the collaboration is still there. The process is emphasized and students are rewarded for continuing the process. 

Final Thoughts

It is easy to let the narrative sort of fall to the side of the supposedly more powerful argument genre or even the literary analysis genre. But, the narrative really is the base of all other writing. More importantly, it is the genre where almost every writer can be comfortable enough to try different techniques and strategies. It is the genre that gives the teacher a better, more personal look at the young person they are working with every day. And, most of all, it is the genre that really shows a kid just how important their words and stories are important to the world. When a kid sees that, magic happens in their writing. 


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