What I Learned from Students’ Narrative Writing

Monday, November 28, 20166:27 PM

In my English classes, I try to stress the importance of creation and creativity in all of our learning. Too much of our work and writing, though, is standards and test-driven, which makes real creative writing difficult. I’ve long grappled on my trouble making creative writing matter in my classes, so I was thrilled to offer students a creative narrative writing project to conclude our study of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time by Sherman Alexie.

In English 9, we examined Alexie’s coming of age text through the lens of identity and belonging. The protagonist, Junior, struggles to find himself and his community as he is torn between his home on the Indian Reservation and the white school he wants to attend. After a few weeks of close reading, literary analysis, and discussion, we switched gears to narrative writing.

Students were asked to write a multigenre narrative capturing a story of their part-time identities. Junior writes and draws his story in a journal, filled with cartoons and self-deprecating humor. We asked our students to tell their story through words and media--images or video--and to write or film a part-time narrative (here is the assignment if you’re interested).

And the results were so much fun. I learn a lot about my students every time they write, but these narrative pieces helped reaffirm the importance of putting student relationships first and encouraging students to write (and publish) for authentic audiences.

Relationships First

This has been a common mantra for me this year (see Starting the New School Year by Putting Relationships First). I’ve made an effort to really focus on building relationships with my students: to teach people, not content; to learn about their interests; to talk to them all every day. But this project is where I learned about the part-time lifeguards, gymnasts, and lacrosse players in my classroom. It reminded me that my students are artists, and dreamers, and siblings, too.

It was so rewarding to ask students to develop their voice and share their passions through the lens of this model text. The project was fun and revealing--I hope my students felt the same.

The Push to Publish

But I was the only one who saw it. And that made me terribly sad.

With my sophomores, I expect all of their work to be shared with public audiences early on in the year. We are constantly collaborating, sharing, and revising. We will soon push that work out on social media and blogs--I want us to share with the world. But with freshman, for better or worse, I took it slower this year. I want to build the basic skills of English and writing before the social media skills (and I now question that choice). So while we collaborate, present, and share, the audience is inherently limited.

Quickly, I thought of the quote below from my friend Ross Cooper in his article, Why Write for Your Teacher When You Can Publish for the World?

Immediately, I knew that I missed an opportunity here. I knew that I had renew my efforts to explore authentic audiences, publishing, and connecting to the world in my classroom. So, now we will.

Student Work

Social media, blogs, and portfolios are all spinning around in my head. I’m working on my plans to share student voices and work with real audiences, and look forward to those opportunities. For now, though, I want to share a few of the samples from this project that inspired this thinking.

Read Pujita’s The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Dreamer, Zack’s My Life as a Part-Time Cripple, or Nolan’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Arsenal Fan. Then, watch Jackie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Artist in the video below.

What are your tips, strategies, or questions about sharing student work with real audiences? What advice do you have about our journey to publish? Share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter @MrSchoenbart.

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