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Why Narrative Writing Matters

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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.

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*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’.

BethMooreSchool View All

Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.

18 thoughts on “Why Narrative Writing Matters Leave a comment

  1. This is such an important post. I start every year with personal narrative and it is often the hardest unit for kids. The personal narrative space is uncomfortable for them. I love how you mentioned it is a way of thinking. I find after blogging for about two years, I’m noticing that my writing brain is going to the personal narrative. It wasn’t a comfortable place for me. Interesting. Thank you, Anna. I love your thinking. Always.


  2. I was so happy to read your articulation of valuing the experiences of all human beings. It takes courage to stand up and reply to the voices sometimes in our schools who don’t believe certain kids have life experiences. Thank you. Thank you.


  3. Thanks. This was beautiful. We will finish our personal narrative unit Monday with our celebration. They have worked so hard and I think they learned some things about themselves that they hadn’t realized before we started the work.


  4. Awesome and heart felt! I use the I Am poem to elicit ideas for narratives. All those I am statements generate feelings, that are good, bad and sometimes even the ugly! The poem first allows me to get to know my students and then the poem creates lots of narratives.


  5. My Kindergarten class just celebrated their first narrative pieces last week. It is so interesting to hear the different stories that each one of them has to tell… even the subtle differences in the “walking to school” kinds of stories. They are a great way to get to know a little bit about them.


    • Kids do have lots to say! I agree that modeling and creating an open, collaborative environment can help students to craft stories that share unique small moments. What I struggle with is the fact that stories about walking to school and minecraft get failing scores on state tests. They expect kids to want to go to the Amazon, fly a rocket, or save the butterflies. Balancing these expectations with what is real is like walking a tightrope.


  6. Beth, this is such an important post. I have a feeling it will be shared time and time again. Yes, kids have stories. My own children are spilling with stories… but only when I take the time to listen. 🙂


  7. My students write a slice of life story every week on our blog. They have gotten very good at finding the slices in their lives. Many of them write a blow by blow of the weekend, but as they write more and more they are finding the little gemstone moments. They are discovering who they are and who their classmates are. I am a strong believer in writing your own story.


  8. Beth,
    I love the story you have told here today! Narrative is still not my favorite writing and one reason is that my stories were not deemed “worthy enough”. I’m not sure if that was just my perception or if it was my fear of being “different”. I couldn’t write about toys . . . I didn’t get a Barbie doll until I was 10. I couldn’t write about TV shows . . . we only watched on weekends and Ed Sullivan and Lawrence Welk are some I remember.

    Both your quote and your inclusion of Hattie were killer reminders of WHY narratives are so important!!!


  9. Today is our 3rd grade Personal Narrative Publishing Party! Thank for putting into words so well WHY I’m as excited as my students for today! We all get to share OUR story today, one that only we can tell!!


  10. Love it! I have to admit, I have been guilty of saying the same thing. Your blog helped me realize that I need to honor all experiences. I grew up on a farm in Cusseta, Georgia. My family never went on a vacation but I had many wonderful experiences! I love reading this blog every day! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights with us.


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