Each day, I begin my ELA class with Reading Time. This is a time for students to access a range of texts. I use this time to conference with students, collect data on class patterns and trends with independent reading and to provide individualized support.
This unit is my favorite unit to teach and I purposely do this unit at the beginning of the year. Middle schoolers love to talk about themselves. Since I know that, I trick them into writing by focusing on their own stories. How dare I be so cunning! By doing this, they are more willing to write and if they are more willing to write, they are able to grow as writers.
However, It can challenging for teachers to get students to think about their lives objectively, when needed, in order to write about them freely, honestly, and authentically. One way to introduce personal narratives and memoirs is to use the stories of others. This helps students to see how others are able to write about their own experiences and it begins to de-stigmatize the process of writing.
As a teacher I am constantly reading, not just books but I also read the newspaper and certain news outlets. Not only do I read it for myself, but I also look for ways to incorporate what's going on in the world and what's being written about it in the classroom. This helps students to see why they are going to need what they are learning. It also gives me support when they see they are never going to need this.
I use an article from NPR called Our Storied Lives: The Quest For Something More to introduce personal narrative writing. Here is a screenshot: Our Storied Lives Screenshot. I was so happy when I came across this article. It's a great article to use to introduce narrative writing. While the article itself is not fully narrative, it gets student to think about their own lives and how past experiences have influenced who they have become. The web-site also has an audio version a transcript which can be great resources to use for this lesson. I really like this article because it tells the reader to think about their lives in deeper ways. This is crucial for when students write narratives and also analyze them, both of what this unit will cover.
To begin the lesson, I pass out copies of Our Storied Lives article. Since I want students to really focus on the big message, we don't worry about taking notes or underlining things quite yet, instead we worry just about reading. For this section of the lesson I will simply read the article out and students will follow along. Occasionally, I will stop throughout the article to ask a student to continue reading or certain questions that may come up throughout the article. These questions usually focus on the main idea. I'm hoping that students are able to think about past experiences, as mentioned in the article, affecting our future.
The rest of the lesson is devoted to students rereading the article and analyzing it. Once students understand the general idea of the article by reading it once, I want students to get further into the article to see what the purpose of a piece like this may be.
There are three questions that I put on the board that I want students to answer. Not only are they answering these questions in their notebooks, but they also need to look for evidence that supports their answers. This is a great beginning into the skills the Common Core demands of evidence based responses and using textual evidence. The questions are also directly tied to the Common Core skills, just slightly reworded. These questions slowly build up in difficulty allowing students to feel confident as they move on from one to text. These questions I have students answer on their own are as follows:
1. What is the writer trying to say and why evidence shows that?
2. How does that idea develop over the course of the article?
3. What connection can this have with your own writing? What ideas can you infuse with your own story?
As students are answering these questions, I circulate around the classroom to make sure they are on task and also to offer assistance when needed. One strategy that helps is to show students my own work of the notes I took for those questions. Those notes can be found here: Our Storied Lives Notes. When I can refer back to the article using my own notes, they can begin to see how to analyze the article and think about what it means. The Our Storied Lives Notes Explanation Video shows how I would use my notes to model my thinking about the article as I conference with students who need the assistance.
I have my students answer these questions independently and make notes in their copy of the article for the evidence. Depending on the class, this is a great time differentiate instruction. Students can work together to find the answers and you can have certain students working on a certain question, with the idea that all questions will be discussed at the end of the lesson.
To wrap-up, we have discuss the three questions as a class and also discuss any major questions students have about the article.