Mar 17

Staying Strong in School: A Playbook for Parents

Posted by Jane Nixon Willis in The Alumni Blog on Mar 17, 2014

Writing to Reflect Real Life: Why the Personal Narrative is so Important to Students: Pre-K – 12th Grade

As you grow up in this world you realize people really don't give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think.
—David Coleman at NY State Department of Education presentation, April 2011

As one of the architects of the Common Core, which now places emphasis on evidence-based writing and the synthesis of other peoples' ideas (CC Shift 5), Mr. Coleman dismisses personal writing as frivolous. His comment above is prefaced by his criticism of the teaching of “the presentation of a personal matter” in schools. On the contrary, the personal narrative is a critical and relevant teaching tool for students ranging from Preschool to 12th grade. To leave massive populations of kids behind in devaluing the written expression of their personal experiences, and to try to divorce public schools from a genre of expression that our culture emulates- -doesn’t make sense.

The Common Core claims to aim students toward college and employment readiness. So, what’s additionally peculiar here is that this also architect of the college application process would “forget” that an applying student’s personal narrative is the primary audition piece that Admissions Boards scrutinize.

Devaluing or eliminating the personal narrative from an English class in any grade runs counter to how students develop as writers and thinkers, and, how our culture learns and instructs through the personal narrative form. Let’s remember, Socrates urged all to “Know Thyself.”

For decades, the educational psyche has always encouraged students to use their own lives for writing and communicating. How many of us remember Show and Tellas a social time to tell something about ourselves which helped us to figure out who we were among those other kids in our first schooling days? This is the tomato I grew in our garden… This is my grandfather’s Yankee cap…

Through her Writing Project, educator and writer Lucy Caulkins embraces the personal narrative as a genre to help teachers help students with the writing process. Caulkins’ program, developed over decades with Columbia’s Teachers College, mandated by the Old Standards and implemented in schools across the country, now appears to be stranded with the onslaught of the New Standards. Experienced teachers who know the value of working with the personal narrative have been trying to calibrate it among the new demands of more synthetic and evaluative writing. But it is in danger of being choked out of lesson plans.

There are abundant reasons why the personal narrative resonates with students of all ages and abilities across the socio-economic school scape.

In working with urban middle school students living in poverty or learning English, as well as with more affluent students, this type of writing is developmentally appropriate because it solicits the grist of a young student’s life as writing material.

Children at this age are appropriately egocentric: They organize the world according where they are in relationship to it. A child who is just learning English, or a child with learning differences can first orally tell about an event in his life. A partner transcribes the story. Once on paper, the writer can further develop language and organize the story, as per Caulkins’ drafting process. Other students can more directly deliver their story straight to the page. The most enduring message that teachers of writing can deliver to students: A writer’s thought process is as individual as s/he is. As a writing template, the personal narrative provides differentiation and invites diversity.

Next: As they gather the facts around their own story, students are engaged with concrete thinking. These, they categorize, as ideas are organized and developed around this chosen life event. A student’s process is also scaffolded to more formal thinking as students move from ‘this or that happened to me’ – to – ‘what this means to me today’, for reflective and contemplative writing.

Another way that the personal narrative form works is that students without previous opportunities to obtain knowledge of novels, or a strong background in reading, are first invited to look at their organically grown story, which is a solid way to establish experiential knowledge of narrative structure before being asked to analyze other narratives in novels or informational texts. More privileged students who have been exposed to books are perhaps able to run more speedily with this kind of writing assignment, and can be directed to aim for greater scope and depth. Yet, ask any professional writer: The process is ongoing.

Moving to high school: Again, we have young individuals developing on the spectrum of egocentricity. Some of them are still concrete thinkers; others have developed into more formal thinkers. All of them have even more stories to tell. With critical life choices looming closer, this narrative form becomes even more relevant to teach: College-bound high school juniors attack it with clear intent: This is their audition piece for college applications. For students moving directly into employment, it is a narrative that reflects and promotes their experience and values. Sharing personal narratives creates inclusion and builds community: We listen to the student who reads his story about when, as a camp counselor, he ferried a boatload of children across a lake when the motor suddenly died… The BOCES student on a vocational path relates how he scaled a 60-foot tree… Another student shares how she learned to navigate Celiac disease, and how it has piqued her interest in studying nutrition.

Students who have been encouraged to explore the landscape of their own lives have a stronger foundation in thinking and writing from which to approach, when it is developmentally appropriate in higher grades, more synthetic writing with its quest for, and, examination of, evidence in informational or fictional narratives. Pushing students prematurely via the demands of the Common Core toward this kind of writing with an “agenda” will make writing seem even more difficult and inaccessible to kids. It’s an oddly Victorian approach to treat children as miniature adults, and to ignore all of the research and studies that reveal all of the complexity with which children actually learn.

As teachers, we continuously ask ourselves: What are we teaching that will actually prepare our kids for the adult world?

Let’s look at the bigger picture: Our culture is saturated with what Coleman refers to as personal matters. The personal narrative is everywhere, in long and short forms. It’s on the last page of every New York Times Magazine section, and in medicine, it is becoming more widely used as a way to give doctors greater holistic knowledge of their patients. It is a treatment tool in the Recovery field. It won this year’s Academy Award: 12 Years a Slave. The shelves in physical and virtual bookstores are filled with memoirs. People with a story can now self-publish. The scientific story slam, where scientists relate their own stories of setbacks and discoveries is breaking new ground as an entertainment and instructional venue. (See TED Talks.)Think of the impact if schools more fully embrace the personal in the narrative for aspiring STEM students.

Personal narratives enlighten, instruct and reflect. They invite identification with pain, joy, hope, absurdity, determination and uncertainty. They offer escape into someone else’s world. It’s a form that began with every ancient community and still creates bridges over perceived differences. It mirrors the health of a culture that values memory, reflection, diversity, and individuality.

To eliminate this humane writing genre as a primary teaching tool would be an attempt to sever schools from the real world, and make them scarily Orwellian; narrow, colorless, and all pent up.

A graduate of Bank Street College of Education, Ms. Nixon Willis holds a MS.ed with a focus on Early Adolescence. A Certified New York State English Language Arts Teacher, she has taught grades 7 – 12 in both urban and suburban schools. Prior to public school teaching, as a produced and published playwright, she taught playwriting as an Adjunct Professor at Sarah Lawrence College, where she solicited her students to harvest their own life’s experiences in writing their plays. A mother of three, she lives in Brooklyn, and is working on a book: Staying Strong in School: 10 Ways to Advocate for Your Child: A Guidebook for Parents.

tagged bscaa, personal narrative, writing
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