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.
OK - time to “make it small”. Once a piece has been chosen, our focus turns to narrowing. It is easy - even as adults - to want to tell every detail about an experience. And not just the important details in that moment, but every detail of the entire day or weekend in which it happened. I’ve been guilty of this myself as a writer. Sometimes, especially when writing a personal narrative, less is more. For some students, this can be incredibly difficult. It’s asking them to be truly reflective about a moment in time and decide what really matters.
This year I had one student who did an amazing job with this. So much so, I’m not even going to tell you the lame examples I used from my own experience! I’ll use his instead. His parents were divorced and he chose to write about that. Of course, this is a huge topic and could easily go in many difference directions. When asked to focus on what was at the center of this experience, he said he was upset that he had to move. This was it! This would work perfectly as it gave him a focus and one that wasn’t so personal and broad, that he didn’t want to share every last detail with others. Fortunately for me, though, he was willing to share his thinking with the whole class.
Another student, who is a fabulous writer, wrote about her first time going to Zoombezi Bay, which is a local water park. In her draft, she wrote about her entire day from the time she got up to when she came home including the specific conversations she had while there. This again was a huge topic. She chose to narrow her piece to focus on just the activities she did while at the park. This too could be fairly broad, but it showed great editing from her first piece. I had her share her ideas with the class and she did a wonderful job explaining how she narrowed her topic. I’ve included a video with her that is close to what she said with the class (she got a little camera shy once the camera was on!). Again, sometimes the best examples come from within your class!
I have students decide what’s really important about their narrative. What is it exactly that they want to focus on? I try to get them to whittle their choice down until all that’s left is the very heart of the moment. Once they do that, we can spend days writing about that moment and adding wonderful details. But for today, we want to simply find the heart.
To close, I have students spend time reading their work and discussing it with their partners. If they were able to “find the heart” of their piece, I have them specifically state that. Then begin to think about how they will choose the details to describe that moment. If they weren’t successful, then I have them rely on their partners for advice, suggestions, and inspiration.