I’m doing something different in writing workshop this year.
I didn’t plan it. It just happened. Or maybe I had been planning it in my head without being aware that’s what I was doing. Or maybe, I seized the perfect moment to do this with a student, and it went so well that I ended up repeating similar moves with other students.
During the month of September, we worked on personal narrative writing. I know I could always do a better job teaching this genre of writing. I make the mistake of thinking that it’s an easy genre for students to write. After all, they’re writing about themselves. But I have discovered and rediscovered that it’s not my students’ go-to genre.(You’d think I would have learned my lesson by now!) In fact, it’s the genre they never use unless it’s to write a list story or a breakfast-to-bed piece of writing.
Yet I choose to start out the year with personal narrative because it seems a perfect way for students to introduce themselves at the beginning of the year. (Note to self: teach personal narrative later in the year and consider if it makes a difference in the quality of students’ stories.) But maybe it’s OK to start off with students’ least preferred genre. And, maybe it’s OK to make that the first unit of study for the year. Since my students don’t choose to write personal narratives on their own, then it might just be a good genre to expose them to.
Nevertheless, year after year, my students and I struggle with getting to the essence of personal narrative writing even though I teach strategies and read books that serve as mentor texts for teaching small moment writing. Even though we write entries in our writers’ notebooks about small moments. Even though we talk about some of the elements of personal narrative. Even after all that, we struggle.
So, this time around I decided to sit side by side with my students as they tell me their stories and I write them down. As I write, I ask questions. My students respond. I keep writing. I am hoping that my students will envision what their personal narrative story could look like and sound like. For example, after a student read a paragraph about a trip to his grandparents’ cabin listing all of the things that he did there (tubing, finding a turtle, swimming, etc), I said, “This is a great beginning, but you know what? You have several small moment stories here. Which one stands out for you? How can you stretch it out a bit more?” As he talked with me, I wrote down what he said, asked questions, wrote some more and offered the resulting (unfinished) piece of writing as a possibility. A possibility because students always decide whether or not and how to take the feedback they are given. It is always the students’ choice.
Since that first time, I have repeated a similar process with other students. I am discovering that, for some, their storytelling is so much more powerful than whatever they write down on paper. At first, this felt invasive and as if I was taking away student choice. But now I think this way of writing makes sense: a published piece of writing is rarely written by one person. Even though there’s no one here as I write this blog post, I have the voices of other writers in my head. They help me write better than I ever could write by myself. So, I’m hopeful that students will internalize this side-by-side collaborative writing experience in order to become more confident and effective writers.
If you’ve tried something like this, I’d love to hear how it went. If you have another suggestion for pushing students to do the writing on paper that’s in their heads, please share. If you would like to pushback, bring it on!
Cross posted to Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday.