Teaching Personal Narrative Writing

We interrupt this program to catch up on the mail.

I'd like to offer some thoughts on teaching personal narrative writing, in an effort to gather the teaching information into one document, and then I'll go back to catching up on the mail one letter at a time. I've got an unpublished page on my website that details my teaching work, and if you want more information after reading this, shoot me an email.

I've been teaching writing for over 20 years. I've seen so many rubrics, guides, assessments, techniques and tools come and go, and I've tried my hand at teaching all genres, but I was a freelancer first and the essay is my first love -- here is an essay I wrote for Hallmark Magazine in February '08 -- it's an example of what I'm about to talk about -- writing personal narrative, writing short, writing from the three places that story comes from: the head (what you know and remember), the heart (what you feel) and the gut (what you can imagine). (Hmmm... the link at Hallmark appears to be broken -- here's my blog entry about that one clear moment.)

I teach only personal narrative writing, as it's what I know best, it's where I started (and I believe it is the springboard to creative writing), it's what schools are mandated to teach, and it's the kind of writing that -- when understood -- brings much personal satisfaction and a vital sense of accomplishment. Personal narrative gives us a storyline. It helps us see how we belong, how we are -- or aren't -- safe in the world, and how we love, how we fear, how we want to change, too... personal narrative reveals to us our hearts and gives us all we need to know to understand ourselves and one another. I always say, it's hard to make someone your enemy when you have shared your stories honestly with one another.

I often use poetic forms when teaching personal narrative, but we always end up with a narrative, a story, beginning-middle-end, short, one clear moment in time, that comes out of life experience. Kindergarteners can do this. So can you.

I teach teachers, in day-long or after-school workshops, I teach at conferences, and I teach always on-site, never through the mail or email (although I love to see finished narratives arrive in my mailbox -- what a motherlode! How amazing they are!). In schools I target grades 3 and up, and particularly grades 3-6. I have taught high school writing and I spent some time teaching "Writing Techniques For Teachers, ECED 422" at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland (Hello, my amazing students!), but, if pressed, I will declare that my teaching sweet-spot is upper elementary school. Oh, how I love those emerging writers.

When I teach, your students become my students for a day or for up to one week. I assign homework. I teach each grade, and each class, differently. I work closely with classroom teachers -- we are partners -- and school administrators to achieve your goals... we work out beforehand what those goals are, and we go from there, tweaking as we go. We work hard and we have fun. There's lots of laughter, and sometimes there are tears, especially when someone taps into a meaningful vein, and others are there to listen to that story, to support that writer, to support the writing community we are creating.

Here are some photos (and a narrative!) from a day spent at Mantua Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia last year, working with the entire fourth grade, teachers and students, in a two-day personal narrative residency. I'll be back at Mantua in January, to work with the third grade students and teachers -- I'm so looking forward to it.

Last month, I worked with the lower-school teachers at Heritage School in Newnan, Georgia, and last August at Wayne Avenue School in Dunn, North Carolina, with the fourth- and fifth-grade teachers (Hey, Karen!). A look at my calendar page on my website will give you an idea of the different residencies and workshops I've done over the years. These days, even an author visit to a school is conducted as a writing day; it's instructional time, even in an assembly program. Sometimes there are unexpected results. :>

I am well-versed in the tenets of six-traits, four blocks, umpteen other assessments, theories, rubrics I've worked with. When I teach I pull from them, as well as from some of my teaching heroes, such as Lucy Calkins, Donald Graves, Katie Wood Ray, Georgia Heard, Ralph Fletcher, Shelley Harwayne, Nancie Atwell, Nancy Johnson and Cyndi Giorgis, and many, many more whose books adorn my office bookshelves and have been lovingly and enthusiastically absorbed.

But my most important teachers have been the writers who write personal narratives so well: E.B. White, Patricia Leimbach, Anna Quindlen, Erma Bombeck (yes), Jean Shepherd, John Gould, Noel Perrin, Donald McCaig, Annie Dillard, Gladys Taber, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joan Didion, Phyllis Theroux -- I know I'm leaving out some of my favorites. There is a reason I had Jim Williams build me so many bookcases in this house. I need them! I have collected my heroes for so long, and have spent so many years, in the trenches, pulling apart their work.

For me, this learning to read like a writer has been just as valuable -- more so, dare I say -- than any how-to book on writing (although BIRD BY BIRD comes close). I think we need both, and that's how I teach; some modeling, some instruction, and always the questions: What makes writing good? -- Let's put together our own list. And look at this author -- listen to that voice! How does she do that? How can you do that, too?

This is an organic way of learning -- absorbing what is going on in a text, what it says to you as a reader, AND as a writer. "How does he DO that?" is the quest I was on as I learned to write... I am still learning, always learning, and "how does she do that" is my holy grail. And, this search for the answers and integrating them enthusiastically into my writing, then leaving the models behind and charting my own unique path... this is the way I teach.

Oh, I do keep in mind those traits and blocks and more -- I know them by heart. And they are all taught intuitively when you love the work you are doing and have torn apart text after text, have been trained to listen for voice, to notice word choice, to appreciate sentence rhythm and fluency, to analyze structure, and to pass on these skills daily, throughout the day, to your students... it becomes second nature.

It amazes me that we place so much emphasis on testing and writing in schools, and yet, in undergraduate teacher education, we so rarely teach the art of "how to teach writing" to prospective teachers. And yet, we hold these teachers accountable for so much. They step into the classroom inheriting so much that is beyond their purview. And they must step up the plate, and teach each child how to write.

Writing is hard. Good writing is especially hard. Consistently good writing requires consistent practice, consistent attention, consistent love (sort of like learning how to love a new puppy) which brings with it a passion for stories, and we all have stories. We ARE stories, waiting to be found, and we are our own best documentarians. Ideas are everywhere. They are the air we breathe.

All the how-to books in the world cannot compensate for daily reading and writing, and daily examination of how a writer accomplishes her task of producing that finished piece from the rough first draft of her imagination. And that process is best taught using models of "what makes writing good."

In the classroom I read and read and read, and ask question after question -- and model for my students what I want them to do. I have them write short -- you can teach every convention of good writing by writing short. Revision is easier to comprehend if you write short, one clear moment in time.

Try, I say. It's hard, but it's so rewarding. Risk. Let's see how such-and-so does it. YOU have a story to tell as well, many stories... what are they? Get out your notebooks. Let's get to work.


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  2. My 8 y/o daughter and I just finished reading "each little bird that sings". I was crying at the end, I was so into character. Well, that, and the writing was amazing. Just wanted to let you know that we loved the book and can't wait to read another of yours. We really got a kick out of Comfort's writing style. And I was wondering why some of the main characters have names from "God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen"? Cute tie-in. I am going to make Mrs. Elling's chicken and potato chip casserole, even though my family does not like casseroles. But we live in Macon, GA, so I feel I must make something southern today. Thanks again for the fun. Blessings, Cathy Kaplan

  3. Hi, Cathy. Thanks for this note. So glad you loved Little Bird and Comfort's voice. I chose some names from "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" because it's one of my favorite Christmas carols and I decided Bunch would sing Christmas carols while he worked, as an antidote to the funeral hymns he heard all the time. Although that's not stated in the text, that's the story. Good luck with the casserole! It's an old family recipe. Thanks for writing --

  4. Deborah,I took your course at Towson and was spellbound by the teaching moments! My writing curriculum uses Freedom Summer and it invokes such feelings and reactions from my third graders. They are even more impressed that you were my teacher. I want to thank you for the lovely gift of literature that is priceless for our students. Thanks, you student who will always love your books, Melissa

  5. Melissa! It's wonderful to hear from you -- where are you teaching? Your students are lucky to have you. Thank you for the kind words, I so appreciate them. I loved teaching at Towson -- it was a great (and exhausting!) experience. I hope you'll keep in touch, and do please give your students a big hello from me. Thanks for using Freedom Summer in your classroom.

  6. Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

  7. Nice. My favorite book is Each little bird that sings

  8. Dear Deborah I love your book Each Little Bird That Sings! It's amazing I always end up crying in the end. Ir's just so nice and thoughtful how she could give up the thing she loved most to save what she knew had to be saved. Thank You so much for writing that book, it gives me a new way to look upon making a sacrafice for someone. I L-O-V-E it!

  9. Thanks so much for being such an attentive reader, and thanks for the kind words. I appreciate them. And you.
    Deborah Wiles

  10. Thanks for writing back, I'm anonymous from above. What gave you the idea for each Little Bird that Sings? I like to write stories and I get a lot of Ideas from little things that you see. I love how your small idea can turn into a book that everyone loves, Don't You? So what gave you an idea for this book? I'm going to read Love, Ruby Lavender now. It looks good. Thanks so much, Emily

  11. Emily, write to me here: deborahwiles@gmail.com

    I wrote Little Bird because I was so sad, and in part, because my own dear dog had died. Lots of people dear to me had recently died, and I wanted to write about that. So I got the idea from my life... just as you do. And yes, I love that a small idea can turn into a well-loved book. Deborah Wiles

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  13. Deborah,
    Are you sure you spelled your website right? My computer can't reach it, is there any other way I can contact you?

  14. My daughter was able to listen to you during an author's visit at her school in Oak Ridge, TN. She was very impressed and inspired by you and the notebooks that you had the students begin. In the last few days she has not only started reading another book that you wrote, but added quite a bit to her notebook, and started writing her own story. I can see definite influences from Each Little Bird that Sings in her story. There seems to be so little creative writing in the schools these days, it was a breath of fresh air to hear your wonderful talk and watch the kids, especially my daughter, gets excited about writing, and realizes that they do have stories to tell from what they know, feel, and imagine. Thank you.

  15. Hi there, and thanks for these kind words. I loved working with Oak Ridge students, and I love hearing about your daughter's inspiration -- that's the icing on the cake. She does have stories to tell, we all do, and I believe it's our task in the world, to find ways to tell them (and to listen to others' stories, as well). Thanks for writing, and thanks to your daughter, too!
    Deborah Wiles


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