Shaking Up Personal Narrative

Ever since I read this post by Katie Kraushaar, I’ve been thinking about personal narrative and wondering why it is that students, particularly in middle elementary grades and beyond, are sometimes less than enthusiastic about this genre. Like Katie, I have felt the mood change in a classroom the moment the teacher mentions the words “personal narrative.”

Why is this? I’ve been wondering. And, what can we do?

When my children were small, and the days occasionally (okay, often) felt long, I was sometimes uninspired to cook by suppertime. So I’d offer them sliced deli turkey and cheese cubes and carrots (and anything else that required little to no cooking or prep) for dinner. At some point my children began to roll their eyes, maybe because I’d suggested that meal too many times. Then one day I said to them, “Girls, let’s fix cold plates tonight.” Their eyes lit up and suddenly they got excited to peel carrots, roll slices of turkey and cut cheese slices into fancy shapes. My children began requesting “cold plates” for supper. I know you are wondering what this has to do with personal narrative. Stay with me here.

We teachers know how important it is for writers to learn to write narratives, and we know that fiction (at least good fiction) is far more challenging to craft than true stories. Through personal narrative study and writing, we expose students to a plethora of craft moves, structural elements and fundamental skills. That is why we include personal narrative units at most grade levels. Maybe young writers, like my own children at suppertime, are wishing for something that feels new and different. Perhaps we can create that by shaking up our personal narrative units.

  • We can use other words or phrases to describe this kind of writing.  True tales, funny moments, slice of life, to name a few.
  • We can set challenges for writers. Upper elementary and middle school students love a good challenge. Say to them “Write a story that is going to bring us to our emotional knees or make us all laugh until our bellies hurt.”
  • We can infuse the unit with added energy. Encourage writers to act out, sketch or record their stories before they write them in narrative form. Ask partners to interview and video one another sharing the details of their stories.
  • We can share personal narratives written by authors they know and enjoy. Jon Scieszka’s Knucklehead and Ralph Fletcher’s Marshfield Dreams are sure to amuse and inspire middle grade writers.
  • We can make sure not to launch a narrative unit too soon after the start of the school year. It is essential that we not rush into a genre study immediately as we set up our workshops at the beginning of the year. Building community, taking time to explore the possibilities and play in notebooks, sharing inspiring read alouds, free writing, choice writing, energizing fluency exercises, modeling writer behaviors, sharing our own experiences as writers, surveys and conversations- all of these should happen over time at the beginning of the year before we introduce a specific genre study.

There are many ways we shake things up so narrative writing feels just new enough so that young writers may respond with glee when we announce that we are going to write true stories from our lives. Let’s put our heads together and do this.