Narrative Writing in Response to Reading: Ditching the Personal Narrative
I've taught 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th grades over the course of 12 years of teaching. In every single one of those grades, the personal narrative was taught and in all of those grades, it was essentially taught the exact. same. way. Choose a small moment, a seed, not a watermelon. Write about that small moment. I even did it for years (and have a unit for it in my store!).
There is a lot of value in that type of writing. It forces students to think deeply about their lives and who else do they love talking about most...themselves. However, I felt that, by 6th grade, the personal narrative has been overdone and overcooked. It was time to change things up. So, instead of writing personal narratives, I decided to have my students write narratives in response to reading. (I also have them write fantasy stories at the end of the school year. Read about that here.)
Besides what I just mentioned, the initial reason I decided to do this was because of the dreaded state assessment. The PARCC called for students to write either continuation stories or stories from the point-of-view of another character. At first, I taught this in isolation as "test prep". Then I determined to make this a unit in writing workshop and to make it interesting!
Another reason why I like this unit is that it's reading AND writing. All of my writing units connect to their reading in some way...isn't that the way it should be? Not only does it help build their narrative skills, but it also forces them to think more critically about texts.
Lastly, writing stories from perspectives of characters in stories read require students to empathize. They have to put themselves in the shoes of the characters. They have to think and talk like these characters. Since empathy, to me, is the most important skill that needs to be taught to middle schoolers, this was a no-brainer for me.
For their first reading unit, students study character. This unit is an excellent precursor to this writing unit. They spend a month analyzing characters and I use a few mentor texts to guide them along the way.
We start with a continuation story. Students have to choose one of the mentor texts to continue (I also call their written continuation stories sequels). Now, I know writing workshop encourages more choice and freedom, so you could have the students use their own texts for this. I opted not to just because I feel it would take a lot more planning, preparing, and organizing on my part. I knew the mentor texts well and the kids did, too. If I taught a higher grade level, I'd probably go in the other direction.
They begin with opening the original stories in Google Docs. They highlight with a focus...highlighting in different colors. They zero in on character's thoughts, feelings, and actions as well as the main problem. Students then analyze these and what they say about the character because this is a character-driven story. They come up with possible "what-ifs" about what could happen next in a sequel. We also discuss different types of conflicts and they choose one to focus on.
A story structure chart is then introduced. This is more of a reading lesson and we discuss the standard story mountain (how do these apply to the original story)? They take what they learn from that and use a story mountain to plan their continuations. They are encouraged to create a NEW problem for the character after the ORIGINAL.
I have them spend some time listing aspects from the original story that they want to reference in their sequels. These connections are super important to showing their understanding of the original. I discuss how television shows and movies do this all the time...it's always a nice surprise when shows connect back to older episodes!
Lastly, they draft based on the 5 components of the story mountain. Before writing each part of this draft, I have them do some more mentor analysis. They look at the original stories' expositions, rising actions, etc. and analyze how those authors wrote those sections. Students must focus on the writing aspect....what did the authors do to show that that part was the climax, for example? They do this portion with a partner before drafting their stories.
I do some basic revising lessons with them (tagging dialogue, adding thoughts and action), then they final draft.
After they write their continuation stories, we spend about a week on POV stories. They use the same mentor texts from the continuation story. (Again, I feel it's much easier to work with short stories for this). I like to kick it off with a read-aloud. I discovered the book A Tale of Two Beasts by Fiona Roberton on YouTube. This is an absolutely perfect read-aloud for this. The first half of the book tells the story from a girl's POV who discovers a "creature" in the forest. The second half is the SAME STORY told from the "beast's" perspective.
My ultimate goal is for them to write the original story from ANOTHER CHARACTER'S perspective. Not only that, I want them to develop a background for this character.
First, they go back into the original via a Google Doc. I have them highlight moments that feature the secondary character in one color and moments the character is NOT in the story in another color. They comment on those sections. What could the character be doing in the scenes that he is NOT in the original? What could he be feeling and thinking in the scenes that he IS in the story?
The way I set this story up is Before, During, and After. Just rewriting the original from the POV is boring, in my opinion. So, I have them plan one or two scenes that could be happening BEFORE the original story even starts. They talk about the secondary character's life and build background and history. This causes them to build up this character more. It helps the reader develop empathy for this character.
The DURING focuses on the character's thoughts DURING the original story. The students cannot change the original story, but must include what's going on in the secondary character's head.
The AFTER section is also made up. The students create what could happen to this character after the main events go down. I encourage them to write this in scenes...write a scene or two with this character after the original story.
We don't spend a ton of time revising for this one due to time constraints.
Do your students do personal narrative over and over again? Consider changing it up. Writing stories in response to reading really gets them to think critically and build empathy. You may also want to try fantasy story writing!
Interested in this unit? Click below!