When I first left the classroom to become a staff developer in New York City, I had to learn quickly to adjust to new schools, and new groups of teachers. I worked hard to have open conversations with the teachers I worked with, inviting teachers to ask anything. “No such thing as a bad question!” I’d say. But there was one phrase that I dreaded. Four words that left me with no idea how to respond:
“They have no experiences.”
Hearing another teacher speak this phrase always made me feel like my heart was being dunked in a bucket of ice water. These words were almost always spoken as though I would instantly agree, and I knew that these teachers were surprised when a long awkward silence would follow.
When I was new to the job of literacy coaching I would stammer, “Well… actually they do. They do have experiences.” Then I would rattle off all the things that I was absolutely certain kids experienced every day: getting up in the morning, getting dressed, coming to school. After all, if you’re breathing, you are experiencing. LIFE is experience.
But listing off these generic ideas didn’t quite capture why I had such a strong emotional reaction to hearing this phrase.
As years passed and I continued to hear those four words, I slowly started to realize why that sentence bothered me so much. It dawned me that those were words a few of my own teachers had almost certainly said about me and my friends growing up. I grew up in rural Vermont, where drop-out rates at the time were quite high, and schools faced a long list of challenges related to rural poverty. Expectations were not exactly sky-high for us kids. It has occurred to me that a handful of my own teachers likely thought we had “no experiences.” We were just country kids with nothing to do. All we did was go home, watch TV, and do nothing all day, right?
I’m telling you, nothing could be farther from the truth about ANY kid. Kids are human beings who live in the world and have friendships and family, fights, troubles, drama, worries, and moments of beauty — just like anybody. It seems so obvious to me, yet I continue to hear those four little words year after year.
When I was a kid, there was no way I would have ever written a true story from my own life for school. We didn’t do that kind of writing, and even if we had, I would have written about boring stuff like watching TV so that I could blend in with all the other kids — if I wrote at all. Perhaps if I had a teacher who modeled writing her own stories, and maybe if there were other kids like me who shared their stories, and maybe if the teacher seemed genuinely interested in hearing about my true life — then maybe I would have given it a try.
“They don’t do anything. They just watch TV. Nobody plays with them. They are literally just sitting around.”
Not every kid has stories about going apple picking with family, or about playing soccer after school. Not every kid has pleasant memories of sleep-overs or birthday parties to record during writing workshop. But EVERY kid has a story–many stories, in fact. And that is what a personal narrative unit is all about. It’s about honoring the experiences that kids bring with them to your classroom every day (the good, the bad, and the ugly experiences too). It’s about saying “YES! Minecraft IS exciting to hear about!” “YES! I do want to hear another story about walking to school in the morning!” “YES! Please write about the big fight, the mistake you made, the trouble you got into.” “YES! YES! YES! You do have stories to tell. Yes, your real true life, your lived experience is worthy. Write it.”
Narrative is how human beings organize and make sense out of experiences. It’s not only a genre, it’s a way of thinking. It’s a tool that applies not only to writing, but to business, history, art, and nearly every aspect of social life. Not only do kids need narrative writing as a tool for the future, many kids need personal narrative now as a tool for organizing their experiences, and making sense out of the ups and downs of life as a kid.
If you launched your year with personal narrative writing, you are so fortunate. What better way to start the year than inviting kids to share stories from their own lives? What better way to get to know your students, and for your students to learn that what they have to say is important? Starting with personal narrative–because it is so personal–sets the stage for all the rest of the writing your students will do this year. Whether it’s good, bad, or ugly, you should feel honored that your students *trust you enough to share their real true lives with you and their classmates.
*Footnote: You will also be happy to know that student relationships with teachers is one of the factors that Hattie et al have found to have a significant impact on student achievement (effect size of .72), right up there with feedback and teacher clarity. Just sayin’.
Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.