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  • Writer's pictureTeacher's Workshop

Storytelling and the Personal Narrative

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Because I teach seniors, I start the year with a short unit on the personal narrative and college essay. It helps me get to know my students by reading their story about an experience that represents who they are. Instead of a typical icebreaker, this allows students to say something meaningful about their family, friends, activities, travels, and hobbies. Reading these essays provides the same feeling as seeing a student perform in a school play or competing on the field. It’s easy to forget that they have other talents and experiences outside the classroom.

Before they tell their story, we have a conversation about the value of literature and fiction. I distribute a list of around twenty quotes about language, symbolism, imagination, creativity, being, and consciousness. We try to answer the questions: What’s the point if it’s fiction and not real? What makes fiction different than nonfiction?

We ask students to think about literature all the time. Instead, if we ask them to tell a story using the same literary techniques as all the great writers, they should grasp the idea of perspective and tone, the two key elements of storytelling. It’s not exciting to know that a happened then b happened then c happened. It’s how the writer expresses those events with metaphors, similes, and symbolism that makes a story interesting and entertaining. Instead of constantly asking students to interpret the use of these techniques, why not ask them to create metaphors themselves? They have to know the techniques first, but then they have the full ability to tell a story using more than action and dialogue. The power of literature is when reality gets transformed into figurative language. The writer takes the reader away from reality in order to express reality more clearly.

Elizabeth Bishop in “The Fish” could have said, I saw a fish. But what do you see when you imagine a fish? Instead, she wrote: “Here and there/his brown skin hung in strips/like ancient wallpaper”. In “My Craft or Sullen Art”, Dylan Thomas could have said, I like to write, but instead he wrote: “From the raging moon I write/On these spindrift pages”. The reality of sitting and writing words becomes much more extraordinary with these metaphors.

The other important element of storytelling has to do with authenticity. When students write, they often (appropriately, depending on the task) lose the voice they use in everyday conversation. They take the expressions they might use in life out of the language to sound academic, professional, and scholarly. And that’s good because one day they might be journalists, doctors, scientists, or businesspeople with a lot on the line. But in today’s visual world, everyone values an honest, sincere expression of an opinion or an experience. We want everyone to be real and compassionate. We want people to be themselves and not a robot. Personal narratives are a perfect way to put students on that path.

Often, students don’t believe in the value of their own story. They are embarrassed to talk about their favorite video game, their family, or what they like to eat because they think it’s boring. They struggle to find a memory that symbolizes their personality and what they’ve learned from living. In my online course (on Teachable or TPT) about how to teach the personal narrative or college essay, I play a game with my students where they get into groups and pick an index card from a pile with a simple topic like cooking, rain, movie, shoes, or song. They have to tell a quick story related to that topic. It’s a fun brainstorming activity that gets them to think about how they tell stories in real life. Ultimately, students will be wise and intelligent by reading many stories, but also by telling their own.

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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