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  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

Voice to Text: The Keys to Great Storytelling

What makes a great personal narrative? In the beginning of every year, I ask my students to write a story that communicates something about who they are. They must find an experience that represents their personality and identity.

First, we talked about personal symbols and I received great responses: the family fire pit, a key chain, a grandmother’s ring, an old stack of books, sea shells collected over the years, a bunch of snow globes. The things of our life that we sometimes take for granted are often the key elements of our own stories. We think our lives aren’t amazing or special until we tell someone else our story and see their reaction.

I once had a student tell me he had no story for this assignment. I asked why and he told me how his parents were divorced, and his father had a long commute to New York. He didn’t participate in any activities at school because he had to help his younger brother with his homework and feed him dinner. He thought that was too boring of a story to tell. Little did he realize how much he revealed, in a few short sentences, about his willingness to sacrifice for his family.

To help my students find a story in their memory, I run a game where students sit in groups and pick a card with a topic like “Thanksgiving”, “rain”, or “driving” that triggers the brain to search for an experience. Hopefully, hearing these stories will help other buried memories surface and they will find one that says something about who they are.

Here’s another challenge: when our students write, they sometimes take on this super academic voice devoid of personality and style. They are so used to analytical and persuasive writing that they forget to be themselves. When we tell stories out loud, we use expressions and phrases unique to our family, and our local geography and culture. We invite our listeners into the natural world of language that surrounds us on a daily basis and forget the formal voice that we reserve for the more serious work of answering urgent questions and solving difficult problems.

Fortunately, we don’t have to ask students to imagine their storytelling voice when they write because of technology. In a Google document, by clicking on “Tools” then “Voice Typing”, students can be in both worlds, the world of speaking and the world of writing, at the same time. After they record their story, a kind of verbal first draft, they can then decide what to include in their final written narrative.

During this small unit, I also like to cover the writer’s toolkit of devices and techniques that they can use to indirectly express their emotion, convey an idea, or depict reality. Layering the story with metaphors, symbols, and similes help students clearly show their perspective: not just what happened to them, but how they processed what happened to them, and how it shaped them into the person they are now.

If you’re interested, I have an online, self-paced course, How to Write a Personal Narrative or College Essay for Students and Teachers.

Scott Cameron

English language arts teacher

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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