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.

iOS App Recommendations for Literacy

Many fun party conversations have started by whipping out a smartphone and sharing the latest and coolest apps.  However, in educational settings we continually need to refocus the discussion around choosing apps to meet our instructional objectives rather than the other way around.

About a year ago, I published a list of all the apps I installed on our school’s iPads.  I still like that list, however, there are a number of drill-and-kill type apps that see occasional use in  my classroom as well as those that require higher-level thinking and student creation which I use more often.  I wanted to give our teachers options so I gave them tons of apps.  However, my personal toolkit is much smaller.  Here are my recommendations based around instructional needs in the area of literacy.  The specific apps I recommend don’t matter so much as how we they are used in the classroom:


Any voice recorder from the free and simple, Audio Memos to the pricier and more advanced, Garageband, can be used to have students record themselves reading.  Data from Escondido Unified which used iPods and Voice Recorders with English Language Learners (back before iPhones and iPads existed) consistently shows that students showed growth.  The key is having students record and then listen to themselves reading so that they hear the mistakes they don’t hear when they’re focused on decoding.

I’ve used Reader’s Theater in my own classroom (find free printable reader’s theater here or see our class reader’s theater movie, The City Mouse and the Country Mouse).  However, you can also use any passages that might target certain spelling patterns or sounds students are working on.


I like simple.  StoryKit is a free iPhone app that works on the iPad and allows students to write, record their voice, add a photo, or draw on a page resembling kindergarten writing paper.  If you want to publish a whole book from the iPad, the $5 Book Creator is a great option.  Apple’s free desktop app, iBooks Author is even better but it requires both an iPad and an updated Mac desktop or laptop.  With iBooks Author you create the book on your computer and preview it on the iPad.  You can easily import Keynote and Pages files into your final product.   When you’re ready for multimedia, iMovie is a great way to engage even the most unmotivated writers in writing something that will include audio, visuals and an audience.

Apps like Toontastic and PuppetPals are also fun.  However, be careful, Toontastic teaches story crafting via a beginning, middle, and end structure.  If you’re a fan of Lucy Caulkins writer’s workshop and the notion of expanding a single moment with details to make it something bigger rather than structuring a bare bones story sequentially, you will might not be happy with an app that would set you back to an outdated way of teaching writing even if it’s more fun.

Learning Letter Sounds

Apps like the above mentioned Storykit can be used to have students make a book of letter sounds by taking pictures of things that begin with the sound /p/ for example.  Student Tommy would end up with a page with photos of pencils, pictures, paint, and paintbrushes and then record his voice making the sound /p/ on the page.   I know that you can find apps that give students the letter sounds while students passively listen but I’m much more in favor of having students create their own books with the sound in it.  I suspect the learning is more internalized.

What other areas of student early literacy need do you notice?




Down and Dirty Data Analysis

Green is good.  Red is bad.

Here’s what they taught me in “coaching college” about how to read data.

Reading vertically indicates the teacher’s problem.  Reading horizontally indicates a student’s problem.

So, Harpo needs some additional help in all language arts areas.  However, in the vocabulary category, it appears that the teacher needs to examine his/her own instruction as its not succeeding for most of the students.  There’s all kinds of reasons why the teacher could say the students aren’t succeeding and there is validity to all of them…no help at home, trouble learning the language, poorly designed tests, a bad day in class.  This class in particular I hear is a bunch of class clowns.  However, the fact remains that the teacher’s vocabulary instruction with this group of students is not working and if he/she wants better results he/she must try something different.

The Case for Blogging in the Classroom

My blogging output has certainly suffered as I’ve been finishing up my last semester of graduate school. I’ll be all done December 5th when I take the comprehensive exam to receive a masters degree in Education Policy and a California Administrative Credential.

I thought I might combine my blogging and my graduate work by sharing one of my final research papers, an article on blogging’s role in the school community. I make the case for blogging on three fronts:

  • Home-school communication

Schools are increasingly aware that they need to have a web site to have a public presence on the web. However, the majority of school web sites in a district like Los Angeles Unified are static pages set up by volunteers, experts, and other school outsiders. Often these sites sit without updates for years when teachers and administrators find themselves too busy or too intimidated to update the pages that they did not create themselves. Posting to a blog, however, is as simple as sending an e-mail.

Even in low income schools where many students do not have computers at home, many parents do have access to e-mail via cell phones. If parents subscribe to a blog by e-mail they can easily receive reliable updates and teachers can easily send valuable information as they find it.

  • Student achievement

Blogs in the classroom can replace paper and pencil journal writing, showcase student work, collect student research on a particular topic, or be the format for creative writing. Aside from the novelty of working on a computer, the main advantage of blogging as a writing activity is that online writing has an audience whereas most classroom assignments normally begin and end with the classroom walls and the teacher as the only reader.

  • Professional Development

Professional development often consists of one hour scattershot presentations with little follow-through and even less teacher input. By providing time for teachers to participate in blog reading or writing as professional development, administrators can support self-reflective practice and differentiated instruction tailored to teacher’s needs.

I also address practical concerns like pedagogy, lack of equipment and financing, and student safety.
You can download the entire paper here which includes my references.

An Ideal Language Arts Curriculum

Kevin Hodgson lays out what he considers to be an ideal language arts curriculum.  Please read the entire post.  However, the tenets he puts forth are:

Writing to Learn

Including listening and speaking (as well as reading and writing)

A “Stakes Approach” (Moving from low-stakes like journal writing to high stakes like publishing and performance)

Writing Across the Curriculum

And including technology and multi-media

Teaching Persuasive Writing

When teaching writing it’s important to show students how to do it and show them good examples of that genre of writing.

Our fifth graders recently had to write a multi-paragraph essay on whether or not to support the Revolutionary War from the point of view of the colonists.

To write this prompt well one needs:

  • content knowlege of the American Revolution
  • knowledge of the genre of persuasion
  • writing vocabulary (e.g. drafting, revising, and conventions)

As this writing comes at the culmination of a unit on the revolution, the content knowledge can be built through the story selections.  However, even if students learn everything you want them to about the War and its causes, they will not learn how to write persuasively by osmosis.

Rather than focus on everything at once, we chose to focus on teaching students to write persuasively.

Here’s a list of examples of persuasive writing to examine with students (found via Twitter):

  • Ahlberg, Janet, and Allan Ahlberg. 1999. The Jolly Pocket Postman
  • Caseley, Judith. Dear Annie
  • Cronin, Doreen. Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type
  • James, Simon. Dear Mr. Blueberry
  • Orloff, Karen Kaufman. I Wanna Iguana
  • Pak, Soyung. Dear Juno
  • Rylant, Cynthia. Gooseberry Park
  • Stewart, Sarah. The Gardener

Update:  Here are a few others…I Wanna Iguana, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, The Great Kapok Tree, My Brother Dave Is Delicious.

L.A. Youth (Teen Newspaper) Needs Help


L.A. Youth is a teen newspaper that goes out for free to all the high schools and middle schools in the Los Angeles area.  It was founded to counteract censorship in high school newspapers and includes articles from teens all across L.A. including students in foster care and others who find a positive outlet for their creativity by writing for the paper.  With a circulation of approximately 500,000, it is the largest newspaper by and for teens.

It’s Personal

When I was in the ninth grade (17 years ago) I went to a free three day workshop at L.A. Youth to train you to write for their newspaper.  I got to visit the L.A. Times and experience what it was like to be a reporter.

I remember scoring an interview with a retired teacher who had been involved in the creation of an innovative high school newspaper that had been censored by the administration at the school and become the subject of lawsuits.  It was quite a coup when I called the school and they just gave me the retired guy’s home phone number.  It was a rare rainy night in L.A. when I my mom dropped me off to meet this old hippie at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax and record his thoughts on what had happened many years prior.  If you remember Hal Holbrook standing in shadows as Deep Throat in All the President’s Men, this guy looked just like that.  I remember that he bought me my hot chocolate, that I was really nervous and soaking wet.

Even though that was just a practice article that never got published, I remember that experience vividly, fondly, and with a sense of adventure.

I went on to write two articles for the newspaper…one about how I was annoying my family by turning off lights and shutting off the water while they were washing their hands in the name of being an environmentalist called “I Was A Teenage Mutant Earth Nut” (long before An Inconvenient Truth) and another about how to apply for financial aid.  The first article got picked up for their ten year retrospective and was reprinted in a book that L.A. Youth published of some of their interesting articles from the first ten years of the paper.

My article was mildly amusing (at least I think so) but other articles dealt with serious issues like teen sexuality, violence, coming to grips with your own culture, and the general malaise that goes along with being a teenager.  From the letters written to the paper you can tell that it’s made a difference in the lives of both readers and newspaper writers.

My time with the teen newspaper was brief but important in my personal and professional development.  I went on to become the editor of my high school yearbook and then revived our high school newspaper from the dead.  I wouldn’t have had the courage without L.A. Youth.  But my favorite moment of involvement with L.A. Youth came over a decade after I had left when a current student at my former high school was told to contact me to ask for my advice on how I had made our high school paper more relevant.  The girl had heard about me from one of the adult editors at L.A. Youth.

I forwarded the teen copies of the school paper I had created which included articles on the most reliable condoms to use and marijuana use (subjects I knew nothing about but figured were of interest to the rest of the student body) and pictures of Beavis and Butthead debating our school mascot.  I had become the Canter’s Deli hippie.

And now I write this blog.

My friend who drew the picture of me as an earth nut for the newspaper went on to design movie posters.  Working at the paper was a memorable and important part of my growth and development.  I can’t say it changed my life but I can say that my involvement was one of those experiences that played an important part in shaping who I am today.

Now the bad news

Surprise!  Newspapers are in trouble.  L.A. Youth which has been heavily subsidized by the L.A. Times for the past twenty years is being cut off by the larger paper and needs help to continue.  This part of the story has been written about more thoroughly in the LA Observed blog.

While all newspapers are figuring out how to keep themselves relevant and stay alive, L.A. Youth in particular needs support.  I was thinking that the paper could perhaps transition from a print copy to a blog but that would put the many disadvantage teenagers who read the paper and the majority of Americans who still don’t know what a blog is at a disadvantage.  That day isn’t here yet and it’s important that the print copy stays alive. L.A. Youth reaches out to those teens who need help and it gets teens those teens in the habit of reading the newspaper.

I’m going to make a small donation.  If you are able, please do the same and feel free to pass this along on your own blog.

10 Myths of Writer’s Workshop: Part 3 of 4

Myth #7: Where’s the beef?

I’ve written about this before as well. Focusing on structure before starting to write can lead to bland, generic paragraphs and reduce writing to formula instead of communication. Instead, I recommend just writing and then molding that writing into a structure through revising. By frontloading too much information in the beginning, some students will be overwhelmed and shut down. Let them get their ideas out first.

Myth #8: Revising and Proofreading are the same thing…and students can’t do either.

Many teachers are students are still confused about this. Revising is about ideas and not about mistakes. If there’s an error that impedes meaning then by all means take care of it in the revising but proofreading is the stage that is about conventions and making the writing correct. Students can do both independently with your guidance as long as you are modeling how to do it and not just lecturing about it (see Myth #1).

Myth #9: Students can’t follow prompts.

Students don’t need prompts but sometimes they will have to write to them. They can learn to follow directions if you teach them how to read them and figure out what’s being asked. However, following a prompt is almost a separate skill from writing. The good news is that if you teach students how to write well then learning to write to a prompt is easy. If you do too much at one time then it’s harder for students to learn anything.

Myth #10 We write because the teacher tells us to.

We sometimes do a good job of teaching students that we read for pleasure but we rarely teach students that writing is about authentic communication and that it is sometimes done because someone wants to do it. This is why some students (some of whom eventually become teachers) hate writing. Students need real reasons to write. Let them write a presentation, a letter, a blog and write something that they care to write about.

10 Myths of Writer’s Workshop: Part 2 of 4

Myth #4: Drawing is for babies.

I wrote about this already. Drawing is a valid form of prewriting and writing (see cave paintings). By allowing students to transition from drawings to labels and then sentences, you make writing relevant. Bringing visuals into the writing process also sparks imagination and allows non-writers and English Language Learners to participate in the process

Myth #5 Good writers don’t change their minds.

I have several blog entries that have never seen the light of day. I have a box of unfinished scripts. And most of my finished pieces have gone through tons of different iterations before being published. However, in many classrooms, whatever students start writing on Monday, they must take through the entire writing process. By having a publishing deadlines and not requiring students to move at the same pace within that structure, changing your mind is part of the process. Students can go back to their brainstorming list at any time and choose another idea (again, as long as they publish by the deadline).

Myth #6 Stories need a (traditional) beginning, middle, and end.

We were all taught that stories need a beginning, middle, and end but teaching that students often leads to a laundry list type of writing. Take for example, a story about visiting Raging Waters.

I went to Raging Waters with my mom. We parked the car. We bought tickets. We ate a hot dog. We rode many rides. We had fun. We were tired. We went home. I played video games with my cousin. He slept over. The next day he went home.

What is this story about? There are several possible stories in this piece of writing and few details. How about focusing on a small moment instead. How about focusing on just one ride and really noticing sensory details of the experience.

I could smell sunscreen all around me and heard the sound of ladies screaming as they rode down the slide. There were butterflies in my stomach as I climbed the steps of The Terror waiting my turn to slide down the one thousand foot drop…

Sometimes you have to just start writing and find the structure within what you’re writing. As per Lucy Calkins, it’s easier to revise a smaller, focused piece of writing then a long string of ideas.