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Seen, Valued, Heard: The Riskiness and Power of Teaching Personal Narrative Writing at the Start of the Year

When I was about seven or eight years old, my teacher called my mom at home to tell her about something I had written at school. My mother, shouting, told me to never, ever, to write about our family at school again — and for a very long time, I did not. I even started writing in a secret code in my journals at home to be sure my true thoughts would never see the light of day.

I don’t remember the exact story that prompted my teacher to call home. But I know for sure that I had written:

“I feel like crying every day.”

“I am invisible.”

“My parents fight all the time.”

After the phone call, the true stories I dared to write at school weren’t really true anymore. Instead, I created versions of real-life that were much nicer. I cleaned up everything to appear the way I thought it was supposed to appear. 

I wrote a story about a game of kick-ball, detailing all the points scored, but leaving out the part where a classmate transformed her team into a club where the main purpose was that all the kids in the club hated me.

I also wrote about a story about trick-or-treating at Halloween, completely leaving out the part where we had to go home after the first house because my sister was having a meltdown. 

And I wrote about a perfect birthday party, with presents and cake, completely leaving out the fact that not a single other kid came to that party.  

Those are just a few stories I remember turning in. Who knows how many countless other stories I fabricated or twisted, trying to avoid trouble. Even in the process of writing this blog post, I ultimately took out examples from my own life that hit too close to home.

Based on my own negative experiences with writing the truth, I am astounded when some kids are actually willing to write true stories at school. I’m so proud of their ability to write the truth without worry of the potential consequences. I’m proud of their teachers for creating the kind of classroom where they are safe enough to do that.

But I’m also highly aware that only some kids are comfortable writing true stories. Lots of kids are highly aware of the risks that come with writing the truth — and it’s not just family members that are influential in this. Peers, teachers, and culture at large all contribute to a child’s sense of what is “okay” to write about, and what is “not okay” or “weird” or worrisome, or just not cool. Even with my own childhood trauma, I can’t ignore that I enjoy a lot of privileges that many do not. Some stories are even more dangerous than mine to share, with very real consequences for the child and their family.

There are students in EVERY classroom who deal with this, who fix up their stories, or leave out key details to make them more palatable or safer. In some classrooms the entire class is coping with how to get through school without revealing too much truth. Sometimes this results in kids refusing to write entirely, choosing to live safely, rather than risk too much. Can you blame them? I don’t.

Teaching personal narrative at the start of the year can be a powerful way to invite students to get to know each other, to create their own identity and life story via the narratives they choose to tell, and to set the stage for a year of meaningful, creative, powerful writing. It sends the message to kids, Lucy Calkins taught me, that their stories are worth telling, that they matter.

But launching the year with personal narrative also carries the risk of blocking out some students who might not be ready to trust you or the other kids in class with their stories. Some stories, some life circumstances, are just too precarious to put on display first thing in the school year.

So what can you do to earn their trust? How do you build a community of writers at the start of the year who can trust each other? And how can you do that in a hybrid or distance learning model?

SETTING UP CLASSROOM AGREEMENTS OR CONTRACTS AND STICKING BY THEM

When I was a new teacher, many years ago, it was common practice to create “Class Rules” during the first week of school. If you were a bit more progressive, you invited kids to help come up with the rules, and maybe you called it a class “Constitution” or “Bill of Rights,” but the concept back then was pretty simple, and mostly teacher-directed. 

Now there are more resources than ever to help you think about establishing a classroom community through an equity lens. Teaching Tolerance and Facing History both have high quality lessons and resources to help you and your students establish a safe classroom community in a more reflective and thoughtful way. 

It’s helpful to keep in mind that some common “norms” and class rules can actually serve to protect privileged voices instead of creating space for everyone. Consider an agreement like “Assume good intentions.” On the surface, this agreement seems like a positive message for kids. However, “assume good intentions,” means that if somebody says something racist, or sexist, or ableist, or homophobic, or classist, everyone is supposed to handle it delicately, assuming that the person didn’t mean to hurt anyone–but they did hurt someone. Assuming good intentions prioritizes the offending person’s intent, instead of addressing the harmful impact the person’s words had on their classmates. Discuss this with your students, and suggest an alternative. “Consider the impact of your words, not just the intention,” might be an improved (though certainly not perfect) classroom agreement if you’re working to create a safe classroom environment for students that don’t always feel that they have a voice at school. 

In a lesson published by Facing History, students begin by reflecting back on past years in a number of ways. Here are a few examples:

  • “Identify a time when you have felt comfortable sharing your ideas and questions in class. What happened (or could have happened) in those moments to help you feel comfortable?”
  • “l Identify a time when you have had ideas or questions but have not shared them. Why not? What was happening at those moments?”

From there students and the teacher generate a contract for the year through a series of thoughtful steps. You can access the lesson here.

This is especially relevant in the current moment because students have been away from school for so long during the pandemic. Taking time to really teach into this is so important. It’s always important… but it’s ESPECIALLY important now. Taking time with this will send the message to your students that they matter, and that you are not willing to gloss over anything that makes them unsafe in your classroom – in person or online.

COMMUNICATION AND TRANSPARENCY

Setting clear expectations around the audience and purpose of the writing your students do for school can go a long way toward establishing trust. Students need to know ahead of time who will be reading their work, and why. 

When I teach writing courses for adults, their very first concern is always, “Who will be reading this?” Having a clear expectation regarding the audience allows your students to choose their topics accordingly. You’re giving them the information they need to make an informed decision — that is student power. Then they won’t feel like you tricked them when you are suddenly calling their family at home to talk about something they wrote at school — that would be the opposite of student power. 

This might vary from grade level to grade level, and from school to school. Personally, I usually tell students in grades kindergarten through 8th grade that whatever they write during writing workshop will be read by lots of people – other kids, teachers, even their families. This way they know that what they choose to write is public. When students write about topics that are concerning, I can confer with them about the audience, asking “Is this something you are comfortable with sharing?” or “How do you think your family (or other students) might feel when they read this?”

In graduate courses I teach, our audience might be limited to others taking the course, or we might be taking our writing public by publishing on blogs. The difference is huge, and in order to establish trust, my students need to know from the start where their writing will end up. 

MODELING

If you, yourself, are not comfortable sharing meaningful, age-appropriate, true stories from your own life with your students, it may be time to reflect on why that is. Are you unsure of how students will handle your story? Are you concerned about what students might report to their own families at home? Do you feel unprepared to handle their questions about your personal life? If you have these concerns, then your students likely have the same concerns. 

In this article, educator David Rockower shares how his classroom transformed once he modeled a story that was genuinely meaningful and allowed himself to be vulnerable in the classroom. He writes about his decision to share a difficult story from his own life, and how at first he worried that it was too serious of a topic, but ultimately decided to take the leap. He writes, “But I realized that I had to show my students I was willing to do what I was asking of them. I decided to dive in.”

Diving in can be scary, but you learn so much about how to teach writing by doing it.

CHOICE

Ultimately, one of the most powerful things you can do for your students is giving them choice over if and how they share their work. By setting up expectations before, during, and after writing you set the stage for students to decide for themselves what stories they’ll share, and who to share with. 

The workshop model is full of opportunities for students to have control over their writing, to make choices themselves. Sometimes we (teachers) get caught up in the unit we are teaching, the plans we made, the checklists we created, and we can become rigid in our expectations. This can have the impact of creating an environment where some students do not feel ready to share true stories in your classroom.

A few things students can have choice over:

  1. The story they tell. Including whether or not to tell the whole story, or just part of the story.
  2. Kids can choose whether or not to write a true personal narrative or fictionalize it. Some kids will do this whether you give them permission or not. Perhaps this year, you’ll find ways to support students who would benefit from support in writing realistic fiction instead of personal narrative.
  3. The tone or mood of their stories. Often personal narrative is presented as deeply based in emotions, and focused on beauty (beautiful moments, beautiful writing). We can provide mentor texts and examples from our own lives with a wide variety of tones and moods: funny, adventurous, action-packed, weird, gross, angry, and even frightening.
  4. Who gets to read which stories. Even if you decide to set a baseline expectation that some stories will be read by you, classmates, and families, you can also provide options for writing stories privately.
  5. Who gets to hear the earliest versions of stories. Often the first versions are the toughest, hardest to share. Once a story has had a bit of revision and time to sink in, or it has been told a few times to a few different supportive people, it can (potentially) become easier to share with a wider audience.
  6. The final form of stories. Stories can be digital, handwritten, voice-to-text (or not), with pictures (or not), told via video, or audio. For some kids, writing by hand can be a huge deterrent, adding to the risk factor (and so can keyboarding equally). Finding a mode of communication that works well for each student can help them overcome a huge hurdle on the way to sharing their stories.

The thing about writing workshops is that we are never really just teaching writing. We’re teaching goal setting, and empathy, and decision making, and… and… and…so much more.

Yes, we are teaching students how to use various strategies to improve the quality of their writing over time, but we are also teaching them that the process of writing about your own life is powerful. Constructing your own narrative involves decisions about what details about your life are most important to share, and what not to include. In this process, you construct an identity for yourself. Regardless of the end-product, the process of narrative writing can be powerful and meaningful.

Our stories are never finished. Our classrooms are also never finished, and our teaching, our lesson plans, our work with other teachers, and our own learning. It’s never finished. May this year be one that pushes us to generate a new and improved version, a better edition than the last.

GIVEAWAY INFORMATION:

Book Cover of En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students by Carla España and Luz Yadira Herrera.
  • This giveaway is for a copy of En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students by Carla España and Luz Yadira Herrera. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. Please note: You must have a U.S.A. mailing address — Sorry, no FPOs — to win a print copy of this book.
  • For a chance to win this copy of En Comunidad, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, August 9th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, August 10th.Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – SEEN, VALUED, HEARD. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

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.

6 thoughts on “Seen, Valued, Heard: The Riskiness and Power of Teaching Personal Narrative Writing at the Start of the Year Leave a comment

  1. Beth, your opening about being chastised for writing truths in your young life reminded me of my mother’s scolding for drawing a cigarette in her hand in a family portrait I made in school, when I was in first grade: “Why’d you do that?” Well… because she always had one. I saw it all the time. It was part of my world. A truth. It never crossed my childhood mind to NOT include it. I think of stories other young children have written in school since I’ve been teaching and coaching… a little girl who saw her dog shot after it bit someone… oh yes, their stories, their experiences matter. It IS so risky honoring the writer and the writing – your points on expectations and transparency are so important. So is the modeling of vulnerability in writing and the thinking of what and how much to include when writing, knowing, as in your example from Rockower, that playing too safe strips a story of its power. Of course some wisdom comes into play… but students need to feel the power of writing if they will ever have a real relationship with the craft. Thank you so much for this post, your truths, and your invaluable insights.

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  2. Thanks so much for this post- so much to think about and process here. And thanks for sharing your story. I look forward to studying your seen, valued, and heard series with colleagues when we return to school this fall.

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  3. This was a powerful and poignant post, Beth. You have given me a lot to think about here. Our students are likely dealing with varying levels of trauma and some stories are hard to share. Some stories are painful. Some stories have consequence for telling them. These are all real factors teachers need to consider when teaching and modeling writing.

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  4. This was quite thought provoking. I’ve always thought to begin the year with personal narrative, but I’m going to reframe that as narrative with the option to be personal. I know that when I have modeled my own writing, I certainly leave out the painful bits and give it a gauzy version of the truth. Why shouldn’t my students have that same option if not just make it entirely fictional. Thanks for posting this! I’m currently reading Welcome to the Writing Workshop in preparation for using it as a textbook in a language arts methods class for elementary teacher candidates. I think they’re going to love it!

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