Personal Narrative: Peering into Past, Foreseeing the Future, and Reflecting on the Present



For years I have had a love/hate relationship with the personal narrative. Personally, I find it to be quite cathartic, but for my students I have found it to be process that leaves me wanting. I blame that on my approach to the personal narrative rather than the genre of writing itself. I actually found joy in the narrative process while in one of my teaching writing courses with Dr. Kirby during my undergrad years. The class is one I remember as one of my fondest–both for what was taught and accomplished, but also because Dr. Kirby was instrumental in my recovery after my brother passed away that same fall.

In my classroom, however, I’ve often avoided personal narrative. Almost acting like it was beneath me and my class’s structure or curriculum goals. I saw it as a middle school task. I was wrong of course, but my waywardness has only recently been revised. Starting this school year I’ve taken up the personal narrative as a challenge to both myself and my students. I’m using it as an avenue to genuinely get to know and understand my students early in the year as well as an opportunity to teach some grammar, formatting, revision, and voice. In fact, I’ve literally spent this entire week with my class drafting and drafting and drafting every day. My ninth graders are probably a bit sick of the monotony of each day, but the time was necessary. It was necessary both to them having time to brainstorm and write and for me to talk one on one with most of them and advise that writing.

While my teaching writing course gave me great and practical ways to instruct students on personal narrative, it is a new approach I decided on that reengaged me with using narrative as starting point for writing this year. The idea was inspired by a colleagues use of a similar activity that has pretty strict guidelines. I took several of the guidelines out of the equation. There is a time to limit a student’s focus and a time to unshackle them from the normal writing routine. The personal narrative should be a low-stakes writing assignment, so my focus was on helping students reevaluate what writing is or isn’t. Here is a break down to my approach this year:

First I really started with my ‘boardtalk’ activity I wrote about here. From that opener I had students start brainstorming about their past. Particularly, I wanted them to keep in mind me as the audience. Why so important? Well besides audience always being important to writing, it’s important because I’m still a stranger in their lives. We don’t know each other, and there is only so much you typically reveal to a stranger.

Most of the brainstorming for the past was done in a bulletted list ranging from big experiences to small instances about school or home life. All of it, however, is insightful and helps me get to know them better. Following the past, I had them generate another list about their future. It’s important they start looking forward before looking at the now, which I’ll explain. This list could include goals, aspirations, dreams, uncertainties, or possibilities. From here, we look at our present. Being honest and understanding of our present is extraordinarily difficult for anyone let alone a fourteen year old. To help students look a bit more critically at their present I asked them to look toward their future. On paper they created two columns. One that said ‘DO” and the another that says ‘DON’T’. The DO column is a list of actions their taking to reach the future they brainstormed about, while the DON’T list reflected what are not acting on yet or what they could be doing. For many, this was still hard, but any critical view of almost anything is difficult.

Finally, in order to start breaking them of the habit of thinking about writing as all essays with formulaic paragraphs of a certain number, each student drafted a mini-paper on each brainstormed list. I made sure not to mention we’d eventually try to tie each of them together. Some wrote a paragraph while others wrote pages about their past, future, or present. Each mini-paper has been a different length.

I didn’t reveal until last Thursday that during our revision process is when we’d be looking to tie all three papers together to tell one story about ourselves. I love this simply because it allows me the opportunity teach revision strategies in a low-stakes writing. We talked about revision literally meaning ‘to see again’ and that revision is a process of ‘moving stuff’ and rethinking transitions. I also made a point to talk about revision being a dialog–an opportunity to have others help revise your communication and provide advice. This was taken up differently be each student, but whether they took the ideas right away or not, it began the conversations and actions I want to see going forward in my classroom.

This week, we finish revising and editing where I’ll get the opportunity to teach a bit about formatting. I may let you know how it all comes together. If anything, this process I’ve had students work through has reignited my resolve to use personal narrative as a viable way to teach writing from many angles. I’d encourage any of my literacy teacher friends to consider rethinking their own use of narrative in the classroom this year.

So far, so good.

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