This year, our first big writing unit was on personal narratives. I always look forward to this unit and for so many reasons. First, it seems like kids have an easier time writing about themselves or their lives than just about any other topic. You can typically get any student to write about himself or an experience he’s had - even those who claim to hate writing. Second, personal narratives are a great way for me to learn about my students. Narratives reveal everything from affinities, to life experiences, to information about the relationships they have with others. I think it’s a perfect way to start them off as writers!
There are a total of nine lessons in this unit and each has been written to last a day. However, when I completed this unit in my classroom, we spent a month working through the writing process. The point of each of these lessons is to identify big ideas or major steps in the process. But, you decide how the timing schedule will work for you and your group of students. You can easily extend one of these lessons to last several days.
When I was in school, writing was incredibly difficult for me. It wasn’t that I could write or struggled to spell, etc. Instead, it seemed as if I had a roadblock in my head every time I was told to write. I just felt stuck and nothing I did ever helped that. I became incredibly frustrated and started to hate writing. I tell students that I never want them to have the same experience when it comes to writing. And part of my job is to equip them with tools to help the process of writing a little easier. The first tool is having lists. This was incredibly helpful for me and my hope is that it will be just as helpful for them.
I’ve divided the packet of writing prompts into two parts and will spend just two days quickly completing the lists in each. Although students won’t have exhaustive lists at the end of the these two days, they will have a start to each and can add ideas as the year goes on. I pass out a set of lists to students and have them glue each list to its own page inside their writer’s notebooks. This way, they have the lists all year long whenever they are in need of a topic.
Then, we started with the first list: “People I Know.” Before students begin listing names, talk through the activity with them and complete your own list as you go. I explain that sometimes, writing about our friends and family is the easiest thing to do after writing about ourselves. So, take a few minutes and think about the people in your life that you know well. Who brings a great story to mind? Who have you had a great experience with? Begin talking about a few of your own - tell about the time growing up when you met your best friend - or the time your brother got stuck in between your family’s fence and the neighbors and your mom had to call the fire department who had to use the jaws of life to get him out (yes, this one actually happened in my family). After you think aloud about a few great stories, start listing the people who were there with you. Then, have students do the same.
Next up: “10 Facts About Me!” This is one of my favorites! You get to know a lot about your students in a very short time. Rather than writing details about their physical appearance, I want students to write interesting tidbits that perhaps aren’t well known. I model the process by giving a few facts of my own: I once earned top score in a solo and ensemble contest, my husband and I like to take short trips to Cincinnati, and about halfway through my junior year French class, I was asked if I were mute (of course everyone then asks what “mute” means - and yes, this too is true). Allow time for students to reflect and list. Of course, if your facts start a small buzz in the room as mine did (and I hope they do!) - then go with it! Let students talk to their neighbors for a minute rather than sit quietly reflecting. Whatever works best! Also, remind students that they don't have much room for writing so their answers don't have to be quite as long as my examples.
Repeat the process for lists three, “My Favorite Memories,” and four, “10 Exciting Things.”
I usually have a few students share one item from each list that we complete. Not only do I get to see if they’re getting it, but this also helps the whole class think of other topics they might want to add to their own lists.