Personal Narrative Writing in Middle School: Digging Deeper
Updated: Oct 25, 2022
For years, I didn't do personal narrative writing in middle school. In fact, I wrote an entire blog post about why I didn't do it. Main reason...it's been done before in many years prior to when those students came to you, especially if teachers prior use writing workshop.
However, I've grown to embrace it again. The biggest reason why is because I think it helps build a classroom community. I decided to go with personal narrative instead of my usual fiction writing in response to reading during the pandemic. I felt, since the kids were remote, this was a good way to get to know each other a little better.
I did peruse Lucy Calkins' Personal Narrative unit for the digital notebook, however, as I went through the unit, I changed a lot.
I like to have the students do a quick narrative based on a person in their lives. The idea of writing about a special moment with a person has been done a lot up until this point so I feel it's an easy way to get a sense of where they are. I have them start with listing moments with an important person. They pick one of those moments to write about.
I don't necessarily need an entire story; I just want them to show me what they can do.
If you don't know already, a personal narrative focuses on a small moment, not an entire day, trip, game, etc. In the earlier grades, teachers spend a lot of time on this (think less watermelon, more seed). At this point, I feel that students just need a refresher.
I like to do this through mentor texts. I provide students with actual written student narratives from my past students. (Here are two you can use. These are by actual students, so definitely not perfect examples. Student Narrative #1 and Student Narrative #2).
Students go in to highlight specifically the small moment components of the stories. We discuss how these stories are small moments (or not) and they also start analyzing what the stories did well (or not).
I think it is super valuable to see other students' stories to give students perspective of what's expected or what can be improved.
Students begin to brainstorm by thinking of a place that is important to them. I tell them to be as specific as possible.
Their idea may be big, but then they make a map of the place. The map is more focused on the moments that happened in the place. They then pick one of those moments in the place and write long about it.
Next, I have students write about moments that mattered. For this, I like to do Show and Tell. I tell students a few days before to bring in an item that is important to them. This should symbolize something or someone that is important in their lives. This goes so well! It goes beyond just what the objects are, but also what they can represent.
They use that object to brainstorm ideas within the topics of "first times", "last times", and "moments I learned something". For example, I showed a picture of my husband and me at my brother's wedding. This was important to me because it was the first time I had left my son with another babysitter. I was dealing with post-partum anxiety. This stemmed lots of ideas: first time I left my son with a babysitter, first time I had an anxiety attack, the LAST time I had an anxiety attack, the first time I changed a diaper, the moment I learned it's important to enjoy small things, etc.
I start with students focusing on story structure. I have them look at short stories to do this. I really like "Eleven" and "Fish Cheeks". They are short and sweet and are great models for personal narrative.
They fill out the chart for those stories. We discuss, then they plan their own stories on a story structure chart.
The next day we focus on internal and external. This is something we cover in our unit prior. I do a Deep Study of Character before this and we often get into internal and external characteristics of characters. For writing, they focus on what they could be thinking (internal) in each part of their chart and what they could be doing (external) in each part.
Like everything else, we look at short stories first to see how these mentor authors do the same.
Before getting into the actual writing, I spend a day on Show Don't Tell. There are so many things you can do with this, but here's how I do it.
I usually break down each part of the story structure chart by day. So, I will do exposition one day, rising action another, etc. I will start each day with them looking at mentor expositions, etc. Each year, I've done different things. I also share MY PERSONAL NARRATIVE. This is so important; you HAVE to write what the students are expected to write.
A few things I've done:
I would share a Doc with a page or two out of a shared read aloud. I'd give them specific questions that focus on that part of the story map; for example, "how did Jason Reynolds introduce the characters in this chapter?".
I'd have them go back into whatever books they are reading and answer similar questions ("how did the author introduce setting/problem/solution?" "how did the author show feelings/thoughts/actions?").
I always share with them MY exposition, rising action, etc. Sometimes I just read it to them, other times I have them work with partners to look for similar things mentioned in the bullets before this.
It's important to look at mentors. I don't just have them go and write the whole story in a day. It's so important to break it up.
There are so many different lessons you can do. I always have to remind myself that you don't have to teach them EVERY thing. I try to keep revision pretty straightforward.
Of course, there is editing; focusing on grammar, punctuation, spelling. I like to tie in anything I do with mentor sentences or vocabulary. It's a good idea to connect it to anything you do for grammar or word study.
Four major areas of revision as per the Lucy Calkins' unit:
Looking at mentor sentences and trying it out with their own writing.
Finding the heart of the story.
Stretching out scenes (finding a moment that can use more detail and stretching it).
Slowing down the problem scene.
I don't always commit to these exactly. I do like to spend time on dialogue and elaboration. I really get into how important it is to punctuate it properly and how to tag it so it shows more description.
I also revisit their showing and not telling slides and have them apply it to their writing.
One of the very last things I do in the revision stage is have them do critique groups. This is a bit different than just them swapping Docs with each other and commenting. It's more of a dialogue.
Lastly, they finalize their draft and put it on a Padlet. This is used for lots of things. Guardians are able to see their writing. They can see each other's writing. And I have a spot with ALL of their stories.
While personal narrative has been done, there is always room to grow. I really feel it depends on the group you have. It's a nice way to start the year to get to know each other. I usually spend about a month on the entire unit.
Click below to get my digital notebook for the unit!