Framing Our Personal Narrative Unit
Every year, we begin our fifth grade writing year by writing personal narratives. For years, I walked my students through this unit without much purpose. Because I did not understand the purpose of writing narratives, I was not able to help my students to see much purpose in our writing beyond that we were learning to be better writers. I had a vague sense that writing narratives would help my students to write with more detail and description that could later be transferred to other types of writing, but beyond that, there wasn’t much.
And then, several years ago, I began to crave more authenticity in the work that I was doing with students. I knew that my students craved this authenticity as well. And, as is always the case, I knew that before I helped my students to see purpose, I needed to look inward and find the purpose for myself. I needed to work on myself, before I began to work on my students. So, I looked for mentor texts. What were the stories I wanted to read? What did I gain from these stories? What were the stories I wanted to write? What did I gain from telling these stories?
So I began to read. And I began to write. I realized that the stories I wanted to read were the stories that made me feel connected to the experiences of others. I wanted to connect to people whose stories were similar to my own and I wanted to learn from the stories of other people whose lived experiences were vastly different from my own. I wanted to learn about this world through the stories that other people were willing to share. And I realized that the stories I needed to tell were the stories that allowed me to show others who I really was. The stories I wanted to share were the stories that would grow people’s understanding of who I am, what my lived experiences were, what those experiences had taught me and what I wanted other people to know. And it was this that finally helped me to see how stories could help us to explore identity. They could help us to explore the identities of others and how those identities shaped the lived experiences of the writers. And I began to see how writing our stories allowed us to explore our own identities and allowed us to share who we are with the world.
Once I gained this understanding for myself. Then I was able to begin to reshape my unit as an exploration of identity, so that we could tell our stories in order to shape how the world saw us and to share the lessons we have learned through our lived experiences with others. That is the concept that now guides my work with my fifth grade writers.
So how do we do that?
The first thing that I share with my students is the framing of our first integrated reading and writing unit, which is our Inquiry Into Story. Here is the chart I use to guide that introduction:
Then, I ask my students to think about and share all the ways that people share their stories with others. Here were both of my classes’ responses from this year:
And then, we start to look to our mentor texts. These mentor texts guide our inquiry work as we work together to think about the stories writers tell, what these stories reveal about the writers and lessons/realizations from their own lives are writers trying to share with us as readers. We begin every year, by using mentor texts from the The Humans of New York website. This is a wonderful place to begin because the stories are short and varied and engaging and speak to so many beautiful humans that we share this world with. Each year, I provide my students with a list of stories that are accessible and manageable for my fifth graders. This year, this is THE LIST OF STORIES that they had to choose from. And THESE ARE THE QUESTIONS that we work through in order to think deeply about those stories. I model one example for the students in the first few days of the school year and then the students have time to explore other stories and answer the same set of questions as I walk around to confer. After having time to read and think and write and discuss, I ask students to answer THESE REFLECTION QUESTIONS which then guide our discussion centered around why people choose to tell the stories that they tell. I chart the ideas that we come to and this begins to set the purpose for our writing unit.
This work all takes place at the same time as we are beginning to explore the concept of identity through our reading work. That work can be found in THIS BLOG POST.
At this point, we really dig into the idea that the stories we tell can shape how the world sees us. That there are a lot of people who will try to tell stories ABOUT us, but these stories do not always show the world the parts of us that we want the world to see and understand. By reclaiming our own stories, by choosing the stories we want to tell, we can choose to shape how the world sees us and understands our lives. And that is a powerful reason to write.
Finding Our Stories
So this is where we begin. Before I ever ask my students to brainstorm story ideas, I begin by asking them the following question, “What do you want the world to know about you?” At this point, my students have already done work (inspired by the brilliant Sara Ahmed and her powerful book Be The Change) around identity and creating identity webs and the identity bags that I wrote about in THIS BLOG POST. So we begin by tying this question to that work and then I model some of the things that I would want others to know about me if they were to really understand who I am and understand my life. It is important to me that I model for my students some of the tougher things that I want people to know about me. I want kids to feel safe sharing all parts of who they are in our classroom and I know that in order to do that, I need to make myself vulnerable first. So, as I list things that I want them to know, I make sure to think out loud about how some things are harder to share than others and that we might not all be ready to share the tougher parts of ourselves, but if and when we are, writing is a way that we can do that.
And we start to chart the kinds of things that we might want people to know about us and we begin lists in our notebooks of the specific things that we want the world to know about who we are:
And then we start to think about how we all have stories from our lives that we could tell in order to help people to see what we want them to know about us. And then, again, we go to our mentor texts. For each of the mentor texts we read, we think about what the story is about and what this story shows us about the reader. This year, we began with My Papi Has a Motorcycle and Dreamers. Both of these stories share moments from the writers’ lives and both of them have powerful author’s notes that give us further insight into why the writers chose to tell these stories. So they both make excellent mentor texts that carry us through our unit.
Once we have looked at a few mentor texts together, then my students are ready to begin thinking about the stories they could tell that reveal what they want their readers to know about them. And as soon as they have a few ideas, I get them writing. I used to wait weeks before I had the kids get on the computers and begin drafting. But, I realized that by the time they finally started writing, they had often lost all momentum for their stories. So now, I start them drafting WAY before they are really ready to write great stories. And that is okay. I just want them writing. And when they finish one story (which for some kids is after ten minutes of writing) they just start writing the next. And at first, they are not great. But that is okay. They are writing. And they can ALWAYS come back to their drafts as we move through the unit and learn more about what memoir writers do. But getting them writing early allows them to build up a volume of work and it allows them to always have a story going in which they can put our new writing lessons into use right away. It also eliminates the awful situation that used to occur in my room when the kids finished writing a story and waited in a long, long, long line next to wherever I was trying to confer with writers so that I could “check” their story for them. Which often really meant they thought they needed to wait for me to “fix stuff” before they could move on.
Now, my kids are writing and when they finish, they know that they can either go back and add in the new writing strategies they have learned or simply begin their next piece. And I am able to really confer with writers as they are in the process of writing and deliver individualized instruction when they are still in the midst of their stories. At the very end of our unit, the kids select the ONE story that they feel provides the best evidence of what they have learned how to do as a writer and that is the story they take through a more formal editing and revising process (but that is a blog post for another day!).
So now they are writing. And they know that the stories that they are writing can do more than tell about what has HAPPENED in a moment, but they can also reveal the things that they want the world to understand about them. But here is the thing, if I want them to write for that purpose, then I have to really show them HOW writers do that. I can’t just tell them that the stories we tell can do more than tell what happens in a moment, I have to give them specific strategies that allow them to tell stories in that way. So that is where our learning heads next. If anyone is still reading this, I will be amazed and impressed, but I will also just keep going because that is how my brain works. But be prepared, this is going to be a REALLY long blog post.
The Writing Strategies That Allow Us To Make Our Narrative More Powerful
So we begin with our mentor texts. We go back to the writing that we read and start to look at how the writers reveal the truths about who they are to us. And we start to notice that there are two types of details that are being shared by our writers. The writers use some details to describe what is happening in the moment, but they use other types of details to reveal their thoughts and emotions as they go through these moments. Each of these types of details helps us, the readers, to understand something different.
And so we notice and name these types of details so that my students will be more likely to use them in their own writing. And for this, I go back to lessons that come straight from Barry Lane’s brilliant book After The End. He calls these types of details SNAPSHOTS and THOUGHTSHOTS. Here is the chart that I use with my students to explain these types of details and the purposes they serve:
We look closely at our mentor texts. This year, I typed out sections from My Papi Has a Motorcycle and we used two different colored markers in order to see the difference between the SNAPSHOTS and THOUGHTSHOTS that the writer used and how she wove these details together. HERE ARE THE SHEETS we used to do that.
And then it was time for us to try this work. I began by modeling. This year, I told my students the story of the time my daughter rode a jet ski for the first time. I created a t-chart in my writer’s notebook with SNAPSHOTS on one side and THOUGHTSHOTS on the other. I thought out loud about a moment in my story where I could share snapshots to reveal what was happening and thoughtshots to reveal something about myself that I wanted the world to know (in this case, the idea that Millie teaches me how to be brave). So I did this work and then asked my students to think about their own stories. It could be the story they were currently working on, one they already finished or one that they wanted to write. I asked them to think of a moment within that story, use snapshots to write what was happening and then thoughtshots to write their thoughts and emotions.
And I will be honest. At first, it is painful. The kids don’t always trust that this practice is worthwhile. Many of them have never been forced to try a new writing strategy in this way. Many of them are unsure of how to proceed. And that is okay. That is part of the learning. What I’ve learned is that it only takes one or two. One or two kids who are bold enough to try and then one or two kids who are bold enough to share. And when kids here how this stuff works (and every, single year, it really does work) then they are willing to give it a go and almost ALL of their writing starts to improve instantly.
Because they are given something really concrete that will make their writing better. SO often we tell them to add more detail, add more description, but we don’t always show them specifically how to do it. And they want to do it, they want to make us happy, they want to grow, but they don’t always know how. Giving them these concrete writing strategies really does amazing things for their writing.
So after we do quite a bit of sharing, they go off to write. Many of them keep their writer’s notebooks out next to them and type in the work they did that day right into the stories they are writing. And as I confer that day, and in the days to come, this is what I focus on. Where could you use more snapshots? Where could you use more thoughtshots? How might these make your writing better? And the writing really starts to grow.
The next strategy that we look at also comes from Barry Lane’s book (I am telling you, just get the book! It’s all kinds of great). This next strategy is to explode important moments. Every year, I notice that my students give equal amounts of time in their writing to every event that they are describing. They know that they are supposed to write with “more detail,” but they have missed the understanding that the detail should be given to the parts that matter most. So that is what we look at next.
For this work, we share a new mentor text. We read Lois Lowry’s Crow Call and then look at what parts of the story she speeds through (as Barry Lane calls it, where does the writer “shrink a century) and where does she explode a moment. Once we identify a few parts where she explodes the moment, we take those parts and look at how exactly she has done that and why she might have chosen this moment. What does this moment reveal for the reader? Here ARE THE SHEETS we used this year to do that. The kids realize that the writer in this story chose to explode the moments that reveal something about the relationship between the girl and her father since this is a story that is really about that relationship. They notice that she explodes these moments by adding in snapshots and thoughts, by using sensory detail, by describing the setting and by breaking up large actions into smaller actions.
So again, I then model thinking out loud about what I want to reveal to my reader. In my jet ski story, I want to reveal that Millie makes me brave by doing the things that scare me. I thought about that in order to reveal this to my readers, I need to explode the moment when I am experiencing fear and the moment when Millie bravely gets on the jet ski and rides away. So then I think out loud about how I will do that using the strategies that we saw Lois Lowry using in Crow Call and write in my notebook in front of my students. And then, it is their turn.
By this time, my students are a little bit more trusting and I can notice a shift in their willingness to give these strategies a try. And so they do. And again, amazing things result. And then they go and write. Again. And again, the writing strategies are what I focus my conferring on. This allows me to not get bogged down with the “fixing” with trying to “fix” any child’s writing. Instead, I am able to just teach. I am able to refer back to the writing strategies that we have learned and help them find places within their own writing where they can use these strategies for a purpose.
At this point, their stories are really coming along. They are writing less like lists and more like stories that allow the reader to feel as if they are there. They are moving from summarizing to storytelling. But, often, they are still missing that deeper meaning. Often their stories are stuck as stories of what happened and are not going deeper than that. It is in those moments that I realize that they are simply telling stories, because they do not really know what these stories are about.
So it is time to learn about finding the heart of a story. When my students write narratives, they have a clear understanding of what will happen in their stories. But they don’t always know what that story might REALLY be about. So they need some help in identifying the deeper meaning. This year, I used the absolutely gorgeous and powerful and pretty-much-perfect book The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad. After reading this powerful story of a girl’s first day wearing hijab to school, we talked about what the story was about and what the story was REALLY about. This is the chart that captured our conversation:
After this conversation, we identified the questions that we could ask ourselves that would help us identify the heart of our own stories. And then I modeled answering these questions and then asked the students to answer them about a story that they were working to write. Here is what that work looked like:
And again, as the students shared, I could almost hear them growing as writers. They gained clarity in what they were really writing about and they were able to think about ways that they could convey that to their readers. And then they went to write. And again, as I conferred, this was where my focus was. What is your story REALLY about? How are you showing that to your readers? How could you find even more ways to show that to your readers?
At this point, so many of the kids are growing as writers in ways I don’t think they even realized. As I confer with kids at this point in the unit, I notice so much less list-like writing. And when there is that writing, we now have so many ways to help them move beyond it. It is also at this point in the writing that many students are running out of things they want to write about. So I know that it is time for a slight shift as we finish up our unit.
Writing To Teach Others What We Know
In the final weeks of our writing unit, I share with students that sometimes, we write stories to tell our readers about who we are. And sometimes, we write stories in order to share with others what we have learned or realized from our own lived experiences. In this way, we are able to take our own stories and give them meaning and use for our readers. And we can do this by weaving in reflection to our personal narratives. We can take a moment from our own lives and use it to help someone else.
For this part of the unit, I use several short stories from the collection of stories, Guys Write for Guys Read. I also use the beautiful Sandra Cisneros story, “Eleven”. For each of the stories, we look at what the story is about and then we also look at what the writer learned or realized in the moment. And then we highlight where, in each story, the writer used reflection in order to share with the readers what they learned or realized in the moment being described. Here is the chart I use to help my students understand what reflection is and how writers might use it:
And here is some of the work that we did highlighting where writers included reflection in the stories we read together:
After looking at these three stories and identifying what happened in the moment and what the writer learned or realized ON THIS CHART, I modeled thinking out loud about moments from my own life that taught me something or that changed me in some way or that helped me to realized something about myself, about someone else or about the world. I wrote about the moment on one side of a chart and wrote about what I learned or realized in that moment on the other side of the chart. And then I asked the kids to do the same work in their notebooks. I asked them to think either about a story they already wrote, that they could add reflection to or another moment from their lives that they could add reflection to. I gave them time to talk and share and soon everyone had new ideas.
And once they had some ideas, we thought a little bit about structure. We drew models of how the writers of our mentor texts structured their stories with reflection and story and then we thought about how we might structure our own. This is the chart that helped us to track that:
And then, yet again, we were off and writing. Some kids went back to old stories and found places to weave in reflection. As I conferred with writers, it was amazing to see how willing kids were to go back and revise in this way. We didn’t even call it revision, it was just the kind of revision that made sense for the kids to do. Other kids started brand new stories and worked to weave in reflection as they crafted the stories from scratch. And other kids, just had nothing left to write about. And that was something I totally understood. So I gave them time to talk and think and learn from each other and pretty soon, almost all kids had come over that hump and were able to find ways to keep writing. And those who needed more time, took the time that they needed and got advice from other writers and soon even they were working on their final pieces.
And so this is where we ended up. We started in a place where our stories taught the world who we were and we ended in a place where who we were and what we have lived through could teach the world lessons that might benefit others. Our personal narratives now have purpose. There is a reason for the stories that we write. Knowing this purpose, seeing this meaning, makes the unit so much more than just another small moment story. And for me, and for the writers I work with every day, that feels like something huge.