Fact that Feels Like Fiction: Personal Narrative Journey

Writing, the process, purpose and place in my classroom, has dominated my thinking the past few weeks. My fifth grade students did not want to write. I knew  (hoped) they knew what to do from previous years of teaching, but they didn’t want to, and that broke my heart. So many balked at the idea of the telling a true story.  I needed to change up my approach.  They needed to see this kind of writing as something they could do and dare I say, have fun doing.

FINDING THE FUN FACTOR: Last Tuesday, I pledged to my students/challenged myself to tell a true story a day for the month of September.  I’ve done this in part to show that story exists all around us, but most of all to see it as a fun thing to do. While it is early in the month, I already feel this challenge is pushing me to think and pay close attention to my surroundings. Feels like Common Core work, a la Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts new book, Falling in Love With Close Reading, Lessons for Analyzing Texts and Life.

The first three stories I told were about my cat, raccoons getting into my house and a fear-factor diving board experience from my deep dark past. Now my storytelling starts out our Writing Workshop much as  read aloud starts our Reading Workshop. And just like read aloud, they love it. It’s fun. It’s story. In fact a student asked if she could be the storyteller on Monday. Yes, yes, and yes!

FINDING SUCCESS: Now it was their turn to story tell in the air and on the page. I wanted them to be successful, but not with morphed  cat/raccoon/diving board stories.  So I launched them into a lesson where I gave them five plot points with an “every kid” story line that could be developed in many ways. The plot points stayed the same but it was their job to story tell “their” details,  in between the plot points. They told and listened to stories with two different partners and then they wrote. We did this with two story lines over two days. By the end of the second round, their pens were flying across the page. Paragraph after paragraph. It was one of those amazing teacher moments.  Students actually groaned nooo when I asked them to stop after 35 minutes of writing. This was a class that two weeks earlier were groaning, “do we have to write?”

I spoke to one student after, and asked her what made the difference for her with this strategy. She said, “It was easy because I was making it up. When I tell about what happens to me it just happens that’s all.”  Interestingly all of the things she wrote to develop the plot points were really about her, her personal experience, it just felt like fiction, or maybe storytelling felt like fiction.

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MAKING IT OUR OWN: In the next lesson I wanted students to create their own plot points as well as story. I was worried. Would I hear the moan, I don’t know what to write or does it have to be true, or would they lapse back into their bed-to-bed theme park stories.

POWER OF POST ITS AND PARTNERS: This time I set them up with little post its for their notebook’s story arc (bright small post its always increase the fun factor). First they were invited to choose a partner to work out the post it points with.  This partnership was followed up with a second partnership of their choice.  After about 10 minutes of talk, students moved to their desks, notebooks open, post its displayed, pens poised. I pretty much held my breath. Could they do it?  A handful needed support, but the majority had worked through much of their thinking with another student.

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WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT WRITING AND OURSELVES AS WRITERS: The most powerful part of the day was the share at the end.  Students named what they learned:

1) Talking about my story helps

2) Having a structure helps

3) Planning helps

4) Knowing a lot about the story helps

5) Using elaboration tools really helps me write more

Out of the the mouths of babes!

3 thoughts on “Fact that Feels Like Fiction: Personal Narrative Journey

  1. Julieanne. Thank you for sharing this window into your writing classroom. I’ve also noticed that the children often don’t like to write a story about themselves as much as they do that has more “made up” details. I think they feel constrained by the truth despite my pleas for them to “lie!” 🙂 This is a very nice entry into a kind of blended story that gives the students license to make up some likely details. I can even imagine a game of which-parts-are-the-truth. I’m going to have to try this idea out with the kids. Also, I love the one-story-a-day idea.

    Finally, I first saw your writing via Vicki Vinton’s blog. I am very happy to have found your blog. I learn a lot from our posts and comments — insightful, clear and fun to read! Thank you for sharing your thinking and writing.

  2. Steve,
    Thanks so much for your comment. I glad to know I’m not alone in my beliefs. Kids don’t really want to write about themselves. The story a day challenge has made me face the cold reality: personal narrative is hard! It is uncomfortable. Maybe that’s partially why they resist It. I learn so much when I actually put myself in my student’s shoes and do the work. I “get it” on a deep level and hopefully my learning transfers to them. I’ve re learned that narrative is a really important part of a child’s life. I story told to my own children when they were young — I have to remember my 5th grade students need that same kind of narrative surrounding them. The storytelling spurs imagination and language necessary for writing. FIrst we hear, then tell, then write. Writing is hard stuff, but the payback is the the feedback! Some lessons for me and my kids.

    Vicki’s blog had been a wonderful place to meet thoughtful teachers who share the passion for learning and teaching. Thanks again for you encouraging feedback. Makes me want to write!

    • Yes to the importance of story in the family — the one we tell and the one we hear — and the central place it plays in how we create ourselves. I wonder, sometimes, whether the children I teach have as much of an opportunity to hear and tell stories as I had.

      And an oops. My finger missed the “y” key in one line in my first response, which changed the meaning rather dramatically. I learn from “(y)our comments and posts!” 🙂

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