First, I heard uber-dedicated fifth grade teacher Colby Sharp (@colbysharp) discussing his class’s struggles and successes with this form of writing in a vlog he posted on September 13. (Are you watching these? They’re terrific. So full of insight and inspiration.)
The next weekend, I headed off to nErDcamp Northern New England (#nerdchampNNE) in Maine. In one session, teachers discussed the reasons elementary students are often resistant to writing personal narratives and possible ways to prevent children from shutting down, especially since personal narratives are often their first writing experience of the school year.
Elementary students are reluctant to tackle personal narratives because (1) they don’t think they have anything worth writing about and (2) they feel that it’s a risk to share personal things about their lives, and they are afraid to be vulnerable.
Last week, at the Literacy for All conference in Providence, RI, highly-regarded writer, poet, and educational consultant Georgia Heard (@GeorgiaHeard1) recommended a book called To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction by Phillip Lopate, an award-winning writer and director of the nonfiction graduate program at Columbia University. Imagine my delight when I discovered that his book a lengthy section on personal narratives.
In the second chapter, Lopate says, “I am inclined to think that what stands in the way of most personal writing is not technique but psychology.” He says that his MFA graduate students—adults paying a lot of money for the opportunity to learn the craft of writing—usually express one of the following reasons for their misgiving about personal narratives:
“I am so boring, nothing ever happens to me out of the ordinary, so who would want to read about me?”
“I am so weird that I could never tell on the page what is really secretly going on in my mind.”
Sound familiar? I guess some things never change.
What’s the solution?
First, let students know that what they’re feeling is normal and understandable. But also assure them that small moments and details from their lives really call interest readers.
Next, give your students some guidelines, such as the ones in the anchor chart above. In addition, Lopate recommends that students:
1. Think of the “I” in a personal narrative as a character. This can give writers some distance and make the process easier.
2. Think of themselves as a reporter who is curious about the character and the situation he/she is in. This can help students get over the concern that their life is boring and not worth writing about.
3. Include at least one new idea that will give readers something to think about after they finish reading.
Finally, you can inspire students by sharing some great personal narratives with them. That’s exactly what I’ll do on Friday. Stay tuned.