Putting Feelings First with Personal Narratives

 

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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.

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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.