When I announced the annual personal narrative assignment, my students groaned. Every year I get the same response. Most of my students would rather write fantasy or even research papers than compose a story about something real, but the state standard in Oregon requires the narrative.
This time, I tried a new approach. Instead of just writing about a vivid past experience, I asked students to write about a truly meaningful event from the past, something that really shaped who they are now. I knew this would lead to better stories. It would also be a way for us to get to know each other better and grow closer as a group.
We began by reading sample personal narratives from the online and print magazine Teen Ink, which publishes essays written by teens from around the country. We read about teens struggling with everything from racism to self-image and depression. We also read descriptions of cultural celebrations, dance performances and romance. Through this process, my students began to recognize how good a “real” story can be when the author is brave enough to reveal his or her authentic self.
Next, we brainstormed topics and gave each other feedback. I coached students on personal narrative constructs: ideas for openings, the importance of sensory details and the power of dialogue.
During the revision stage, students shared drafts for peer feedback. Emma, who wrote about her diagnosis of dyslexia, volunteered her essay. She included details about the day she was tested. She recounted how a tutor helped her improve her reading skills. The only thing missing was the emotional component. I advised her to sit with the paper that night and, if she thought she could, try to recreate the feelings from that time in her life. How did it feel to not be able to read as well as other kids in her class? What was her emotional response to the testing? To improve her story, she needed to reconnect emotionally with the past, even if it was painful.
The next morning Emma came in beaming. She had worked on her paper. She had done it. Her paper was full of emotional details that expressed how difficult it had been for her to be “different.” When she shared her final draft with the class, the students hung on her every word. They knew they were witnessing something sincere and powerful. This allowed another girl to share her story about being bullied. It left many students in tears.
At the end of the class period, students hugged and congratulated each other. We had been through something significant together and come out on the other end stronger, closer and more compassionate. And it was thanks to the courage of my students.
Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.