September 23, 2006

My Narrative About Teaching Narrative

Californiateacherguy challenged me to actually share my supposed stupid idea that flopped the other night. Would I be too embarrassed to share? Truthfully it is embarrassing because I can do better, but in retrospect, it wasn't that terrible of an idea. I have done a lot of thinking about my teaching writing woes in the last week, though. Geez, how dull I must be. I'm going to spend my time thinking--daydreaming--about white sand beaches instead. It might help on so many levels! ;-)

Narrative is the mode of writing this quarter for both my middle school students and my high school students. The middle schoolers' state writing exam will be a narrative essay; however, the high school students have to write two essays, where one is a narrative, on their high stakes state writing exam.

So, this mode of writing is important, but it's not that difficult. Of course, my focus is to get them to use details--show not just tell--and to use strong words. These are skills we can use with other modes, of course. I've also been trying to encourage all of them to do more than the basic 5-paragraph essay for this type of writing. You know, it's great that they all know how to do that so well because it's a good foundation, and it will likely help them pass the exam. (Basic will pass, even if it is with the lowest score.) Oh, and that's about as much space as you have to write on the exam, too. But exams aside, how about running free with the stories inside your head? Write until finish your story. Pour your heart into it, make your reader feel something.

So, we need some topics that fire up the passion, right?

Oh, but sometimes I do give the topics that stifle the passion on purpose to practice for the exam, which has a lot of those kinds of topics. (Some of the topics seem good for journals, but longer essays? Eh.)

What I meant to do the other night was not to stifle the passions. We lit it the week before with some help from Sandra Cisneros, so I wanted to keep it going. Unfortunately, we also did not have a lot of time, so I chose a topic students could address fairly easily.

Write about your favorite family____________. You fill in the blank.

The night before, we did a quick class brainstorm about favorites. This is actually an idea I had after seeing one of those interests surveys which had students list a bunch of their favorites. I specifically attached "family" to it because students do like to talk about themselves, and in my experiences about the students at this school, they are fierce about their families.

So, some of the ideas we came up with to fill in the blank included: meal, food, member, vacation, adventure, home, holiday, event, and memory.

The night we did the brainstorming, students didn't balk at all. It was the last few minutes of the class where we'd done a bunch of mechanics work, so they were quite happy to talk about themselves and be allowed to blurt out ideas.

But the next night when they actually had to choose a topic and begin writing? That's when about a third of them began with the balking business. I tried to help them come up with topics, and many of the students struggled with the wording, as they really wanted to make the topic a thesis statement. I encouraged them to use synonyms for "favorite" if it fit better and reminded them it was a topic and not necessarily a sentence they must include in their writing. For those who adamantly proclaimed they didn't have family, I told them they could write about "friend" related things. It's irritating when I am bending and helping, and the students insist they have nothing to write about.

It was during those frustrating moments when I realized that the topic wasn't all that inspiring anyway. Furthermore, by the time students get to high school, they've probably pretty much tapped out many of the no-brainer narrative topics, including those about their families. If they aren't tired of the basic topics, I certainly am. Family, dreams, best moments, worst moments, learning lessons, coming of age, places you've been, people you've known, and blah, blah, blah.

Maybe I'm the one that's bored, but my students are difficult. Anyway, Houston, we have a problem. Bleah.

Okay, so a few things on the upside of narrative writing: I did have some students who were really inspired. One student was excited to write about a home he'd lived in another city. My ELL student wanted to write about his sister who has always been there for him and plodded away the night trying to find just the right words. Another student struggled with the idea that she wanted to write about her grandfather, but a lot of it was really also about his ranch in Mexico, so we discussed how perhaps the two could be connected.

My middle schoolers are experiencing narrative writing in a much different way. I see them every day, as opposed to two nights a week, and we have a literature text. They have been reading different types of narratives, and they have been writing in their writer's notebooks on related topics. Next week they will write a narrative on the topic of their choice. It will be a struggle for many, but they do have several brainstorms or beginnings to choose from. Or they should. I took a peek at their notebooks last week, and there are many who have NOTHING to work with for next week. One of my students told me that my class was so much fun. He's obviously not your typical English-hating kid because we've just been doing a lot of reading and writing--nothing fancy. But it pumped me up a little. They have been given many opportunities to think and play with words this week. For a few, that is fun.

Although I am more pleased with my technique with my middle schoolers, I will probably be feeling the same frustrations trying to pull some narratives of family, dreams, best moments, worst moments, learning, coming of age, places you've been, people you've known, and blah-blah-blah from them, too.
I think my plan for my high school students is better this week. We're going to write about rituals. Check back later this week if it sounds interesting.

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