personal narrative · writing workshop

Putting Feelings First with Personal Narratives


FullSizeRender (5)

This was one of the mantras I wrote about before the year began.  I wanted my students to understand that we all have stories to tell and all of our stories matter. While I do firmly believe this, reading Beth Moore’s post this week about Why Narrative Writing Matters made me stop and question beliefs I’ve had. Have I been guilty of thinking some students do not have rich stories to share? Have I been frustrated by students who just want to talk about playing video games? While I believe “everyone’s story matters”, have I valued some stories above others?  Beth described how not every child goes apple picking or to Disney World but that doesn’t mean the child doesn’t have stories in his/her life that need to be shared.

In the past, many of my students’ personal narratives seem to be about an event- a family trip, party or holiday. Other children report they never go anywhere or do anything and just watch television or play video games.  Inwardly, I would feel frustrated about this and find it hard to coach students to add craft elements such as dialogue and a great lead to a piece about  watching television or playing video games.  I’ve also felt that many pieces of writing lacked a “so what.”  It seemed students were writing just because I asked them to and the piece of writing didn’t necessarily have a purpose or clear audience.  A typical personal narrative could be about going to an amusement park, the piece starting with waking up in the morning and ending with going to bed.  As we launch personal narratives in my class,  how could I find ways to value every story? How can I help students have a purpose for their writing, envisioning who their readers might be?

I decided to introduce the unit by thinking of our feelings first, instead of people we love and places we go. Beth’s piece reminded me that all of us have feelings and emotions as we go through our daily lives, no matter if we go apple picking with our family or play video games on the couch.  I read aloud the book In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek.  After reading the book, we brainstormed a list of different feelings we could possibly feel.  Then, I shared with the students that they could think of a feeling, a time they felt that feeling, and who might want to hear that story.

For example, I shared that one feeling I’ve felt was ashamed.  A time I felt that way was when I was working at the mall at a jewelry counter in college.  I was unpacking new earrings and found a pair that I thought was hideous.  I brought it over to the lady who worked across the counter from me and started saying how ugly the earrings were and who would ever want to wear them.  Of course, to my complete horror, I realized mid-sentence that my friend across the counter was wearing the exact pair.  I felt terrible for having hurt her feelings. It was a powerful reminder to me to watch my words and keep unkind thoughts to myself.  I told my class that I thought students would like to hear this story, and I also could imagine sharing it with the Character Education committee that I am on at school.  My own children could also be an audience for this piece, as it is an important lesson I want them to learn, too.

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 6.37.48 PM

After sharing a couple of other examples, I asked students to work in their writer’s notebooks, identifying a feeling, a time they felt that way, and who might want to hear that story.  I wanted the piece to start with a powerful feeling and for students to envision who might read this piece.  It was surprisingly difficult for many children to identify a time they felt a certain feeling.  I invited them to look at the chart we brainstormed and go through their writer’s notebook photographs to try to connect a feeling and a time they felt that way.

As always, this is a work in progress.  But reading Beth’s post this week inspired me to rethink my approach and to start with feelings rather than events.  As we read mentor texts, I am going to challenge students to think of the feeling that the author started with.  How did the narrators feel in Come on, Rain? Or  Owl Moon or Fireflies? I am hoping that students will see that there are strong feelings in all the books we read as mentors texts. By thinking of possible audiences and who would want to hear the story they will tell, I hope my students might find more purpose and put more heart into their stories, whether they be apple-picking stories or video game stories.  All their stories matter and I am eager to help them tell them.

11 thoughts on “Putting Feelings First with Personal Narratives

  1. Kathleen, This is such a thoughtful post. Isn’t it interesting how difficult it can be for children to name their feelings? I see it as a kind of vocabulary work; to differentiate between angry, frustrated, confused, irritated, hurt, etc. And I really resonated with everyone’s frustration with the video game stories, but I too want to honor these writers’ choices and voice. I’m going to give this a try with my kindergartners. Thanks!


  2. We are also almost at the end of the narrative unit, however asking “so what” is important to their purpose. I will use this lesson to help them bring out the feelings they want to show their readers. Thanks!


  3. An additional comment that I just thought of: My son and his girlfriend started a practice of “Feelings Friday”; a day to share the feelings they need to share and which have accumulated over the week in their busy lives. It might be fun to have something similar take place in a classroom once a week. It would encourage discussion, which might encourage deeper insight, which might encourage better writing! We can dream, can’t we….


  4. Another thoughtful, heartfelt post from a teacher who clearly spends a good deal of time reflecting on her own practices. I think the decision to make “feelings” the focus for a starting point is wonderful because a) we all have them b) it’s a simple idea brilliantly applied. In fact, I am thinking of revising the opening of a book I am attempting to write with my daughter…and start it with our feelings about what has happened in our lives. Sometimes we overlook the most obvious thing. Thank you for your clarity and perspective…and a great suggestion!


  5. Thank you for scaffolding my work as a teacher of writing! I teach kindergarten and many stories are video game or going to the park stories. I think adding feelings make them more interesting and personal. Thank you for this article!


  6. It’s a wonderful way to approach writing on any level. I always asked my high school seniors, “How do you feel about that?” Because they were all boys, sometimes they were hesitant to say, but eventually they told me and the others, and it stimulated a talk about openly expressing feelings and led to richer essays.


  7. As always, this post is JUST what I needed to read today! Know that I’ll be teaching this very lesson next week and because of you, my 3rd graders in VA will be growing as writers. Thank you for teaching me and them!


  8. It makes a LOT of sense to have a discussion about feelings before you begin to write a new piece. I’m also thinking, no matter where you are in the writing process, it’s not TOO LATE to infuse this lesson as a teaching point.

    We are almost at the end of our first narrative piece, but I’m making a commitment to give this a go !

    Thank you!


Comments are closed.