Teaching Personal Narrative Writing

It's hard to believe that our writing day at Mantua was three weeks ago -- oy. Let me share some photos and thoughts with you.

I was hired to spend the day working with fourth graders on their personal narrative writing, something I have done quite a bit in the last umpteen years and something I've learned so much from as I've taught. I've tweaked and changed and modified and morphed the way I work as I have learned more, as I've had such rich, diverse, challenging, joyful classroom experiences, and as I've internalized the life-affirming importance of sharing ourselves, through our stories, with one another on this planet.

"We've done some work with notebooks and Lucy Calkins' work; are you familiar with that?" Yes, I am. "Are you familiar with Six Traits?" Yes, I am. Have you read Ralph Fletcher, Nancie Atwell, Stephanie Harvey, Shelley Harwayne, Donald Graves, Georgia Heard, Katie Wood Ray, and more? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and more. I've worked with some of these folks, have admired, read, and learned from them all, and continue to feel their influence in how I teach. Their books adorn my bookshelves; they are comfort reading. I slip into them and breathe a sigh of recognition -- I am in-country.

And while I enjoy talking about methods and theories and approaches until the cows come home, really, so much of teaching writing involves common sense and experience and matching student needs to student abilities within a framework of realistic (and, yes, I know mine are high) expectations, and marrying that to ways of knowing, seeing, telling, showing.... without attachment to a strict or prescribed method (but taking what you can use, and leaving the rest, perhaps), as teaching writing is not a cookie cutter experience, as we all know.

But story is universal. I think story is what we're here for. To dance it, sing it, write it, paint it, draw it, act it... to decipher our experiences in some meaningful way and share them with others. Our stories help us understand what it means to be human. I'm convinced that we treasure, protect, and develop the sense of wonder we are born with, if we are heard and respected when we are young, and if we learn to hear and respect others.

But how do we do that? Again... stories. Personal narratives.

We all have them: "Guess what happened to me today?" moments. Those "let me tell you about the time that" moments, and those "I'm finally brave enough to tell you this story" moments. And those moments are worthy of capturing on the page (or canvas, or stage, in song, in the laboratory, the field, the... you get the point).

In a very real way, there is nothing magic about this process of discovering and accessing story. It is organic and intuitive -- we all want to be heard, we all want to belong, to be safe in the world, to love the world and to be loved, and we define our days by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and the stories we share with one another. The magic is held in the moment we understand that, just as the authors of books have told their stories, our stories are just as important, crucial, valuable.

The craft of writing can be taught. The art -- the passion and courage to tell your story -- the art (if that's the right word) -- that's the part that can't be taught. Or perhaps, that's the part we teach ourselves by giving ourselves permission to be true to who we are. The passion and courage requires a thorough connection to all other stories in the world, and a solid understanding that your story belongs right up there with all the others. When you really and truly discover that, your heart breaks along with the pain and the gladness of the world. That's the heart of the story -- the voice, too. When you want passionately to show "guess what happened to me today!", the smallest moment becomes an intimate, moving, hilarious, powerful, heartfelt story... and it is connected to the entire web of stories.

Of course, if I stood in front of ten year olds and said this (and I do say this, in a different language), they would scrunch their noses and say what? WHAT? So I don't say this... I read to them instead.

I read WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN THE MOUNTAINS by Cynthia Rylant, SO MUCH! by Trish Cooke, HONEY, I LOVE by Eloise Greenfield, THE PAPERBOY by Dav Pilkey and more. And as I read I point out what I love and I ask questions. "Don't you love that turn of phrase?" and "Listen to that transition!" and "Oh, I love this part, I love the rhythm of this sentence" and "What a voice!"

And I tell my students that every writer has a voice. They have voices that are waiting to be found. And stories that are waiting to be shared. And an opportunity, in the time we have together, to find one of those stories to share.

How do we do that?

We keep notebooks.
We brainstorm.
We list.
We order.
We choose.
We focus.
We find that "what happened first" killer opening.
We partner up and we tell our stories to one another.
We listen to each other's stories.
We write SHORT. One clear moment in time contains a universe.
We write in a circle.
We use the senses.
We find the just-right ending -- it usually involves a little surprise.

And we do all these things supported by the literature that shows us how. Nancy Johnson and Cyndi Giorgis have written a beautiful, meaningful book that showcases this concept beautifully. It's called THE WONDER OF IT ALL: When Literature and Literacy Intersect. I want to say more about this fabulous book and will, soon.

We revise, again using the literature.

We have fun while we work hard.

And, maybe most importantly, we give ourselves the gift of process. So much of our time on this planet (especially in school) is regimented. To have the time to think about story -- to ruminate and plan and go forward and back up and make a mess and rethink and create... it's a gift our stories require, in order to be their best.

I'm waiting for the stories from Mantua to arrive at my doorstep. I can't wait to read the finished stories, to get to know these writers -- these human beings -- better. It will enrich my world. And yours. The world becomes more known -- and more peaceful -- through the sharing of our stories.