Every person has a story to tell. That’s as true for children as it is for established writers. Most high school teachers are familiar with the college essay crunch that starts at the end of junior year, heats up in the beginning of senior year, and then comes to a frenzied finish by the following spring. In my school library each fall, I help countless applicants craft personal narrative college essays. Often, students share anecdotes they think are worthless, but wind up using as catalysts for fascinating narratives.
Beyond the College Essay
Though many teens don’t think of the 650-word essay until they’re applying to college, students of all ages and academic levels benefit from receiving personal narrative instruction. So much class time these days is geared toward state and local tests, which emphasize the ability to cite evidence-based facts or analyze specific literary passages for meaning. Many teachers are forced to focus on rote exercises based on these tasks. Because this type of instruction often leaves students feeling drained, it’s not always an ideal way to help them internalize the skills needed to do well in any academic discipline.
It’s All About Me
Bringing the focus to their own lives can motivate teenage learners, who are inherently self centered, to pay attention. Jennifer Gonzales, Editor In Chief of Cult of Pedagogy, believes that, “the ability to tell a captivating story is one of the things that makes human beings extraordinary. It’s how we connect to each other.” She maintains that teaching students to write stories empowers them, giving them a sense of agency. “If we’re going to talk about how to teach students to write stories, we should start by thinking about why we tell stories at all. If we can pass that on to our students, then we will be going beyond a school assignment; we will be doing something transcendent” (2018).
Introducing the Personal Narrative
A few months ago, a colleague asked me to help her teach personal narrative writing to her students enrolled in Read 180, an intervention program designed to help those who are behind in reading achievement. The students, ranging from ninth to eleventh grade, came into the school library having little experience writing about themselves. I used a Google Slide presentation to introduce the topic, including one of my own personal narratives to show them first hand how stories can be turned into pieces of writing. These students, many of whom had difficulty reading grade level texts, seemed to perk up when they realized they were going to be able to use something from their own lives as material for this assignment. They were eager to work on the brainstorming maps I shared with them and began filling in words without hesitation.
It would be nice to say that because of my enthusiastic, effective teaching style these students went off and created first drafts of their narratives without any issues. But of course, that wasn’t the case. The students returned to their classroom the following day, and armed with their brainstorming bubbles they began to slowly work on their narratives. The teacher and I arranged that she would send down students individually when they needed extra help. Each day for the next two weeks, I hosted one to three students at a time, giving them individual guidance just like I do with the seniors writing college essays. We brainstormed some more, discussed their ideas, and in some cases where students had trouble typing, I transcribed their words into a Google Doc as they dictated their story to me. By the time the assignment was due, each student had a final draft they were proud of.
I was touched when I received a hand-delivered note from one of the students inviting me to the Author’s Tea event they were having to showcase their work. I was able to stop by and was thrilled to see the look of accomplishment on the students’ faces as they read their narratives.
Stories help people make sense of what they’ve been through and where they’re headed. Some students don’t have a stable home life; others struggle with their academics or are bullied in school. Personal narrative writing is a form of expression that not only helps teens develop important academic skills, but also guides them through self analysis. No matter what grade level, age, or ability, every one of our students has a worthy story that they are capable of turning into a polished narrative.
Gonzales, Jennifer. “A Step-by-Step Plan for Teaching Narrative Writing.” Cult of Pedagogy. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/narrative-writing/, 2018.
Author: Karin Greenberg
Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.