Personal narratives can be one of the most challenging writing units to teach because we want our writers to stretch their moments so that their story has depth and feeling. The problem is their idea of stretching is much different than ours. I have grown to absolutely LOVE this unit because I have found ways to get my students to not only stretch their moments but write stories that take my breath away. Here are some of my essential tips to follow while writing personal narratives:
- 1. MODEL, MODEL, MODEL!! I cannot stress this enough. Not only do we need to model every time we write, BUT we need to take advantage of the writers in our classroom, their peers, the same peers that they cannot wait to join on the playground. I begin AND end each writing session by sharing a student’s writing. Let me say that again. I begin AND end every session by showcasing a student writing sample. For example, if we worked on adding dialogue that day, I will recall who did a fantastic job incorporating dialogue and either I or that student will share. I might even pull the same sample at the beginning of writing the very next day because as we know, we can work on the same skill throughout an entire writing unit. What will happen is your students will begin imitating the techniques, words, and phrases that are shared. This is okay! To give students the words. They need a repertoire of strategies and an army of words and phrases that they can use to make their stories come alive. you will find that as you go, you will be using samples of ALL your students to model good writing. I love when I find a struggling writer’s work to be model-worthy and that happens more often than you think. The pride felt by these students when this happens makes my day!!
- 2. Use MENTOR TEXTS!! Read from mentor texts and as you do, write down words and phrases you like. Say things like, “I might want to use these words in my own small moments stories.” Let your students see that YOU TOO grab ideas and words from places you visit and books you read. Some of my favorite mentor texts are:
The Snowy Day is a wonderful story for modeling how to stretch out a story. Let’s add some onomatopoeia…”Crunch, crunch, crunch, his feet sank into the snow.” And let’s paint a picture and streeetch at the same time: “He walked with his toes pointing out, like this: He walked with his toes pointing in, like that.” While we’re at it, we can model how to add our thoughts and feelings: “He thought it would be fun to join the big boys in their snowball fight, but he knew he wasn’t old enough, not yet.”
If you haven’t read Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, I suggest you do. This is a fabulous story that teaches empathy and kindness through a little boy who finds that the things he already has are all that he needs. I use this story to model so many different elements of personal narratives, including showing not telling one’s feelings, “My heart is pounding hard as I take off my shoes,” and adding dialogue, “Maybe they wrote it down wrong,” I say. This book also begins in a most creative way. I will keep that a secret so you can see for yourself.
What a great way to teach showing our feelings. In When Sophie Gets Angry-Really, Really Angry…, Sophie “kicks, she screams. She wants to smash the world to smithereens.” This book has so many wonderful examples of how to use beautiful language to paint a picture for your reader.
The Relatives Came is without a doubt one of my all-time favorite read-alouds. The illustrations are simply FABULOUS and the way Cynthia Rylant tells the story is sure to bring all readers to a place in which they too enjoyed precious time with family. In addition to word choice and imagery, this story provides a wonderful way to end your story. “…they crawled into their silent, soft beds and dreamed about the next summer.”
3. Ask questions to guide your writers such as “What did you see/smell when you entered the bakery?”( see donut story above) or “What were you thinking to yourself when that happened? Write it.” Also, don’t be afraid to give your writers the right words when they are struggling. They will learn to use phrases and words you give them over and over if it makes their stories stronger. Never refrain from providing suggestions to your writers as our stories can ALWAYS become stronger. Leave your writers with your questions and suggestions. As you walk the room, carry a clipboard with sticky notes, so you can leave each writer with a sticky note for the day. Will you get to each writer each day? Probably not, but by the end of the week, each writer will have at least one helpful suggestion from you.
I hope this information has provided you with helpful ideas to get the most out of each and every writer as you launch your personal narrative writing unit. Check out my complete unit below.
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