Moving Beyond the Personal Narrative

Narrative writing.  What is it?  From the perspective of an elementary school teacher, it’s the first genre of writing you teach of the school year.  And it’s always the personal narrative.  Students brainstorm and write about their trips to Disneyland, the beach, or playing video games for hours on end.  While students should write about what the know and experience, a narrative is an account of events, either real or fictitious.  The Anchor Standard for Writing expects students to “write narratives to convey real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.”  The word “imagined” does not appear in a grade level specific standard until third grade, but that does not mean that you ignore children’s imaginations in grades K-2.

I would push you to teach children the art of storytelling beyond the personal narrative.  Why?  Let’s think about advertising.  The most memorable commercials are the ones that tell a story, whether it that makes you laugh, cry, or cringe.  But it’s the advertisers job to sell a product, right?  Some commercials use gimmicks, but storytelling is an effective communication tool.

Here are some tips for thinking beyond the personal narrative:

1.  Start with a concrete object.  In her book Making Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading, Tanny McGregor has a lesson on inferencing in which students look at a shoe and answer the question, “Who wears this shoe?”  Based on physical evidence, the students can infer who wears it (e.g., a gardener wears the scuffed, faded brown boot).   I would take the lesson a step further and tell a story from the perspective of the person wearing the shoe.  Perhaps the gardener found a secret portal in the garden that took him to another world.  Let the students’ imaginations drive the storytelling.  As the teacher, you still teach the techniques of effective storytelling such as adding sequencing events, descriptive details, using quotations, etc.

2.  Use a painting or an illustration in a picture book, with the words covered up.  Have a discussion about the painting.  For example:

This is the painting “The Circus” by Georges Seurat.  Ask the students, “What is going in the painting?  How do you know?”  Chart the “characters” that they see in the picture.  Once the class has had a discussion on what is going on at this current moment, students can then select a character and talk about what happened before and after.  Students can create a Flow Map to show the sequence of events, and let the writing begin.

3.  Primary sources are a great tool for storytelling.  A primary source can be an object, photograph, diary entry, newspaper article, or anything from the time period that you are studying.  Archaeologists analyze artifacts they find and try to piece together a story with the remains.  Students can think like archaeologists and create a story about the primary source  For example, something as simple as the remains of a plate from the colonial era.  Ask students questions such as, “Who would eat from this plate?  Why was it broken or abandoned?  What could have happened to the owner of this plate?  What was going on at that time?”

Students can write a story from the perspective of the owner of the plate.  A plate is just a plate until students begin to ask questions, then it becomes a key to the unlocking the past, and the pen for their story.

What have you done to move your students beyond the personal narrative?  Please post your ideas below.

Mathew Needleman’s note:  This post was written by Susan Obuchi.  She is a Elementary Common Core Facilitator in English Language Arts and a National Board Certified Teacher.  I hesitate to call her a guest blogger.  If this goes well you may see some additional posts related to English Language Arts posted here.

6 thoughts on “Moving Beyond the Personal Narrative”

  1. Great blog and great timing! I’ve been looking for a fresh take on the tired narrative, and I love your ideas to get kids writing from other people’s shoes (so to speak!).

  2. Hey Mr. Needleman, my name is Aimee Perkins and I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I was assigned to read your blog posts and comment on them for my EDM310 class this semester. I really enjoyed this post. Although I am not a teacher, it is great advice to use whenever I am in the classroom teaching students to write. Using objects and pictures really does help to get kids to ask questions and see things from a different point of view whether or not they realize it. I cannot wait to experience this first hand! For any further advice in the future you can find my class blog here: Class Blog

  3. Mr. Needleman,
    My name is Shayla McCorvey, I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I was assigned to read your blog posts and comment on them for my EDM310 class this semester. I think this is a great blog post. I am currently going to school to be a teacher, and I think this a great start to teach students how to write. By using pictures in the classroom it is a great at to get the students to ask questions and learn different view of things. Once again, Great Post!

  4. What a great post. This is such a good idea to bring into the classroom. I never really thought of narrative writing as a beginning point because it has been taught like that for so long. Beginning with descriptive writing, and opening questions we can lead students to finding their answers in an even more exciting way. We can also allow them to open their imagination and come up with ideas and stories that can lead to even more. Thanks for this post.

    -Jennifer Flowers
    edm310 student at the University of South Alabama

  5. Hi Mathew,
    This is a very informative post! I know when I was in elementary school I wrote plenty about my childhood experiences in personal narratives but these are amazing ways to practice writing that would be new, different, and engaging ways to bring out the students’ creativity. Great post!

  6. It’s hard to come by experienced people about
    this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about!

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