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Where Have All the Narratives Gone?

In summer I enjoy a number of activities that don’t fit easily into my school year schedule, and one of those is movie-going. The other evening, my 17 year old daughter and I went to see Me Before You. While I had read the book and knew it was unlikely I’d make it through the movie without crying, I was looking forward to seeing the screen adaptation of a story with which I had connected as a reader. We settled into our seats just as the previews began, and I can assure you that writing workshop was the furthest thing from my mind as I sipped my soda and adjusted my eyes to the big screen.

The previews began, and without exception every one showcased a fantasy film. There were talking animals, enormous creatures with super powers, flying humans, trucks that magically flipped in the air and safely leapt over canyons, and galactic wars. Not a single preview was for a film with characters like you and me, living earthly lives with strengths and struggles to which I could relate. Don’t get me wrong, the movies all look highly entertaining, and I am sure they will do well at the box office. But before the movie I’d come to see began, I tucked that observation in the back of my teacher of writers brain.

(Spoiler alert! Skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie yet.)

Fast forward to the following day. Yes the movie was good, and yes I cried. Although I don’t personally know anyone who has suffered a catastrophic injury and chosen death over life, I found the events and characters in the book plausible. The storyline is realistic even though the situation isn’t one most people will ever face. The film is full of ordinary moments woven into an extraordinary story.

As much as I liked the film, I found myself thinking about the previews that all showcased fantasy stories. I wondered why none of them fell into the more familiar genre of realistic fiction. I wondered about the connection between popular films and writing workshop.

One of the things that has surprised me in writing workshops is how challenging personal narrative and realistic fiction writing are for some young writers. They often struggle with generating ideas and learning how to unfold their stories  bit by bit on the page. “I have nothing to write about,” is not an uncommon response when I introduce personal narrative writing in classrooms, even after weeks of story sharing and modeling. Small, everyday moments don’t cut it in young writers’ minds. And when they embark on a realistic fiction unit, I’ve noticed that their stories often veer into action-packed fantasies and their characters inevitably gain superpowers. I’ve heard more than one complain that writing realistic fiction feels limiting.

As I reflected back on the previews at the movie theater, I had an ah-ha moment. Perhaps writing about the small  moments of their lives, and creating realistic story lines with relatable characters in fiction pieces is challenging for our students because so much of what they see and read is not like that. When I think about the “hot” books my students read and share, they are mostly fantasy series. And when I see what is in the theaters, well, it is pretty similar. I think students today are unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortable with the structure, rhythm and feel of stories of ordinary moments brought to life beautifully on the page.

So what does this mean for writing workshop teachers who encourage students to experiment with a variety of genres, including personal narrative and realistic fiction? For starters I think it means that we need to be aware that when our students are stuck, it may well be because they are unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable with these kinds of stories. Recognizing and naming that unfamiliarity is a great place to start.

What else can we do?

  • Make story sharing a part of our classroom culture and routines from the very first day of school.
  • Model, model, model.
  • If your school uses the Responsive Classroom approach, find and incorporate into morning meeting games and activities that highlight the everyday moments of students’ lives.
  • If your students are reading mostly fantasy, choose realistic fiction for read alouds.
  • Connect with authors of realistic fiction and try to schedule Skype sessions with your writers. Inevitably, published writers talk about the seeds for their stories coming from their own experiences.
  • Share pages from your writer’s notebook that show entries inspired from everyday moments in your own life.
  • For those of us who are parents with children still under roof, try to find time during summer to linger over family meals and share stories from the day or way back.

Seeing  Me Before You with my daughter was summer fun. It was also time spent with a story with believable characters facing hard choices. It was a narrative that included ordinary everyday scenes, like an awkward conversation at the dinner table and the opening of a birthday gift that is all wrong and another that is just right. I walked away thinking not just about the film, but about similar small moments in my own life. As teachers of writers we need to fuel and build those sorts of connections with students, now more than ever.

18 thoughts on “Where Have All the Narratives Gone? Leave a comment

  1. This is so true. Students struggle in personal narrative. In their world of story the every day isn’t interesting. We don’t do it justice. Creating a storytelling culture in our classrooms and finding books and films that celebrate those awkward moments we all have will help. Thank you for this inciteful piece.

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  2. Thought this email from a parent was fitting—showing my first graders are always thinking narrative. 🙂 I tell them from the time they wake up until they fall asleep–at least 4 things happen that are worthy of capturing in words. Last year’s class wrote poetry on everything, this year’s class was more interested in research, as a whole, but ALL of my classes write narratives all year long.

    “My smile moment tonight happened when Michael and I jumped into the hot tub for a soak when a black bear lumbered into the yard less then 50 feet from where we were! Christian got sent to bed early in an effort to help him be more cooperative in the morning, so of course he was watching us out the window. He saw the bear too. He opened his window and I swear he said, “Now I have something to write about in my writer’s notebook tomorrow!”

    Thank you for fostering a love of words and writing in our son!”

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  3. I appreciate this post so much! At our school we have many students in poverty, who have few enriching experiences compared to students of higher socioeconomic levels. They have a difficult time generating ideas for personal narratives because they believe they have “nothing” to share, “nothing” that is happening in their lives. Much of their time is spend in front of the tv or with fantasy video games. I never made the connection as you did, and now that makes perfect sense. All of the suggestions you gave will help us hone in on ways to assist all students in telling their stories Thank you!

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  4. Thanks for this post. I had never realized it before but you are right! Stories are going away. It’s so sad. And I can only wonder if this will get worse because of the focus on opinion and nonfiction writing. Although the common core addresses narrative, some testing companies don’t and teachers feel pressured to focus on tested areas. Thanks for bringing storytelling back to the forefront!

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  5. Thank you for this very thoughtful and inspiring post. I think you are correct about everything you said about kids no longer having exposure to models of everyday life for telling their stories. And I think your suggestions for steps to take to reintroduce storytelling are on the right path. I’d like to make a suggestion. Perhaps every now and then an hour or two could be devoted to deconstructing some of these mythical blockbusters to get kids to focus on the story behind the special effects, etc. To get them to really focus on and grasp the backbone of the story and then to get them to see how often the character’s search for whatever is not so different from their own feelings of loss, or confusion, or wonder. Perhaps that would help them to make some connections and enable them to start thinking about their own narratives. Just maybe….

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  6. I am a teaching artist who specializes in helping kids and teachers VALUE life moments as stories to tell. I model “My First High Dive,” or a tell of a moment in Kindergarten called “Practicing Not Talking” about imagining an entire day of NO TALKING when the teacher says that when the dr. visits to do exams (late 1950s) she didn’t want to speak to anyone about talking that day. (“A whole day of no talking? I’d better go home and start practicing.”)

    I’ve been making lists of moments I witness, remember and hear from children’s tales. It’s amazing how even “the first time I” is a great prompt because we all have so many. Even if it isn’t your “first” – if it’s memorable, it’s a story. Thanks for this discussion. Yes, I too realize kids yearn to tell the stories they are reading – fantasy – but in the end all good fiction needs real moments that touch our emotion. It is an area neglected more because of testing, but it is ever so important to zoom in on one’s own life – there’s gold there to mine – and hearing others’ tales creates empathy within the classroom.

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  7. Thanks for this post! I feel that I’ve gone overboard on argument and explanatory writing and need to give my students more opportunities to explore their own narrative selves. I agree that students don’t appreciate the subtle, everyday moments of their lives and how those can be the ingredients of a story… or the story itself. I’m thinking about introducing them to slice-of-life writing next year. I plan to show them my slices on my blog and others to get them familiar with writing on the familiar. I think it would be fun to have them start their own blog where every Tuesday they add a slice and comment on three other students’ slices, just as we do on TWT. At the end of the year, maybe we’ll print out a collection of their favorite slices as a memento from the year.

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  8. Lisa, your astute connection and subsequent post has given me an ah-ha moment.Although I have been PAINFULLY aware for some time about the small number of slice-of-life movies,I hadn’t connected the dots between that situation and students difficulty (aka lack-of-interest) in writing personal narratives. And now? I’ll be thinking about how I (and all writers workshop teachers) can put this knowledge to use.

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  9. I think this is HUGE: “Make story sharing a part of our classroom culture and routines from the very first day of school.” I see the same value appear in how schools and districts “tell their story” to the community and beyond.

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