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Narrative Writing: Giving Voice to the Stories that Matter Most

I’m a fan of literary mic drops. It’s often those last lines of text that make me smile, sigh, or chuck a book across the room. In conjunction with my unending impatience, I often find myself paging ahead to the conclusion of a text to see how the author and I will part ways. What profound bit of wisdom will end the conversation we’ve been having? How will we part? Do I get to hug this book tighter as I read because I know the beautiful place we’re heading together? Have I glimpsed a future I can’t stomach? Do I need to consider ending the relationship early?

Often, I am rewarded:

“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
“Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.” 
“He loved Big Brother.” 
“In a place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment.”
“All was well.”
“Are there any questions?”
“I wish I felt confident that I have the best words, but I’m glad I wonder whether they’re worth saying” 
“And he was feeling not-unique in the very best possible way.” 

“I don’t know where there is, but I know it’s somewhere, and hope it’s beautiful.” 

haunted

So it goes with my journey alongside Tom Newkirk in his Minds Made for Stories. Spoiler alert, I paged ahead. Spoiler alert, Mr. Newkirk did not disappoint.

In a text deliciously layered with reminders that narrative is the very foundation of our understanding of the world and our place in it, not merely a cute exercise for the early grades, Newkirk ends with:

“But as humans, as time-bound mortals, we must tell stories” (146).

Yes. Humans must tell stories. We must tell stories to explain how we got here, why we need one another, what we’ve suffered and celebrated here. We must tell stories to share who we are, what we need, and where we should never go again.

Creation stories. Quest stories. Comedic stories. Sob your eyes out stories. Monster stories. Our stories. And if our classrooms aren’t the place where these stories are born, or shared, or honored, or revered, where will they gain footing? Where will they take flight? So often, students already feel their ideas aren’t worth much. If we don’t support their experiences, wonderings, and desires to connect to their own humanity (or encourage them to have such desires), who will?

If we are in the business of promoting the beautiful stories of creative thinkers , how can we look at our students and say that their beautiful stories must fit within the constructs of our unit-based curriculum? The stories of our students, their questions, their pain, their searching, must find a home in our classrooms before these same students are convinced that their stories don’t matter. Likewise, if our students are convinced that they must fit their stories into the structural mold that we give them or that the grammatical difficulties therein supersede the story’s worth, our students will continue to be finishers rather than learners, with passions dulled and attention diverted to less complicated or messy endeavors.

In a world of Everything is an Argument a mantra I readily subscribed to when I took over the AP Language and Composition classes at our school almost a decade ago, I needed to read Minds Made for Stories. I needed to remember, as Newkirk says, that narrative is a “property of mind, an innate and indispensable form of understanding, as instinctive as our fear of falling, as our need for human company.” It is “a foundational mode of understanding” (34) that demands so much more attention than it’s afforded as a unit of study or structured paper our students pump out once a year.

In fact, narrative is at the very core of every significant argument and every engaging expository text I’ve ever taught, read, witnessed, or created. Without the drama of human experience, argument falls short and exposition falls flat.

Not long ago, I was listening to a podcast recommended to me by my husband. We were driving home from Lambeau Field, in the pouring rain, after the Packers had lost their first game of the season without Aaron Rodgers, whose broken collarbone will haunt the state of Wisconsin for at least the next nine weeks (See? Narrative).

Anyway, the podcast, Under the Skin, is produced by Russell Brand (stick with me here, I promise we’ll get through this together), who will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but whose brilliance (it was a surprise to me too) extends far beyond raunchy comedy. In this episode, Brand is interviewing Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History Of sapiensHumankind. Throughout this conversation, Harari and Brand explore the idea that life is built on fictional stories that create our nonfiction existence, and if deeply examined provide the cooperative construction for all of civilization as we know it.

Harari hypothesizes that fiction, or in our case narrative, helps determine what the shared goals and values are of a specific group, and thereby their role in or purpose as it relates to society. All of our shared fictions (corporations, money, countries), in other words, are the bedrock of large scale human cooperation.

So if story, whether it be fiction or nonfiction,  is at the very core of who we are, how we interact, what we seek, and what unites or divides us, how can we limit it to a six week unit, the focus of which is a hook to capture the audience, transitions to move seamlessly between chronological points of interest, and the use of narrative techniques as scored on a rubric?

We can’t. It’s unconscionable.

However…we need grades. I get it. I live that too. Gah.

But what Newkirk has awakened within me, with his reminder that narrative is “not simply a structure or plan or outline,” but rather a “deeply embodied invitation to movement” (50), is that narrative needs to be a part of my daily practice and needs to be freed from our check-listed systems of construction. If I am to stroll about my classroom and pontificate on the value of our lives as writers, then I need to provide more opportunity for and reminder of the importance of story within that work. Narrative as a part of all writing, not just a stand alone.

In other words, I can’t on the one hand see the inescapable connection between human experience and our desire to share it, and then tell my students that their narrative writing needs to live neatly in the confines of an MLA formatted page that shall not exceed x number of pages.

Narrative writing needs to weave it’s way into everything we create.

Our students need to be given opportunity to tell stories, their stories and the stories of fellow humans, in a way that connects us to our past, highlights the questions that matter to us in the present, and hopefully provide answers to the issues that will impact our futures.

It can all start with a quick write. In the low stakes freedom that is a blank page in one’s writers notebook. Let students give voice to their stories without the pressure of our expectations and rules. If we value these stories (fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, political opinion, context for expository poetry, and the like), and give them a place to grow, our students will value them too.

-Three Teachers Talk (1)

We as “time-bound humans” must allow narrative to run boundless through our classrooms. If it defines our lives; it must not be relegated to a neatly packaged composition assignment dictated by the Common Core. Rather, it must be woven into our talk, our choice, our writing.

Narrative gives voice to the parts of us that make us human. Let’s give it a more powerful, empathetic, educated, diplomatic, and beautifully crafted voice.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She can’t wait to meet Tom Newkirk in St. Louis at NCTE and have a truly embarrassing fangirl moment. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

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9 thoughts on “Narrative Writing: Giving Voice to the Stories that Matter Most

  1. […] are so looking forward to talking more about the role of narrative in informational reading and writing at NCTE this year. This topic has been a long time in the […]

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  2. […] If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ve certainly noticed we’ve focused on narrative, specifically Newkirk’s books, lately. I wrote about how teaching itself embraces the drama of story and later shared some of the quotes that resonated enough to change the way I talk about writing with my students — and the way I teach it. Lisa shared her beautiful argument Narrative Writing: Giving Voice to the Stories that Matter Most. […]

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  3. Amy Rasmussen October 29, 2017 at 7:13 pm Reply

    Lisa, you capture many of my own thoughts while I read Tom’s book. Last week I asked my students the same question I often ask teachers when I facilitate pd: What do students today need? Most said they needed to be validated and have their voices heard. I don’t know of any better way to do both than inviting students to write their lives and share their stories. Thanks for another inspiring post!

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  4. Lisa Dennis October 28, 2017 at 4:50 am Reply

    Do, Mrs. Turner. It is well worth it. I think for me, it’s going to be as simple (or hard!) as remembering to encourage kids to use narrative. When we quick write, I sometimes suggest options for responding (try putting your reaction into a poem, writing a letter, etc.). Responding with personal anecdote, reflection, or fiction story to convey insight works too! Adding a personal connection literary analysis (like the link here to the piece in the Atlantic) lens seems is appealing to me too. Even now, my sophomores are working on argument writing, but we’re using an op-ed format with research, instead of a traditional research paper. And I want to steal from a blog post I saw somewhere where students write an expository piece on someone from history, but use the ‘once upon a time’ format of the book Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls. Have you seen that text? I just finished reading it to my daughter. Lots of informative writing with the high drama that Newkirk talks about. Good luck! Thank you for being such an involved reader, Mrs. Turner. We love your inquiry and feedback. 💕

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    • mrsturnerblog October 28, 2017 at 7:48 am Reply

      I love all of those ideas. I’m writing a proposal to go to the Boothbay Literacy conference this summer because I think that will help me work this out. I have already gotten so many great ideas from y’all and from so many of today’s top education folks. My kids deserve the best–and the best preparation for the thinking they’ll need to do when they’re older, so I’m always trying to figure out what that path is. 😊 Thanks for being awesome, as usual. I love you guys!
      ~Sinead

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  5. Pat Delzell@aol.com October 27, 2017 at 11:15 pm Reply

    I have the opposite habit. When I come to the final page, I quickly cover the last section so I won’t glance down for a spoiler.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lisa Dennis October 28, 2017 at 4:41 am Reply

      Reading can be a team sport, but the players are as unique as the texts themselves. 😄 Thanks for commenting, Pat!

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  6. mrsturnerblog October 27, 2017 at 9:26 am Reply

    I love the ideas here. The how is where I struggle. How do we serve all of our masters but stay true to our mission? I guess I need to read Newkirk’s book!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lisa Dennis October 28, 2017 at 4:51 am Reply

      Reply below, Mrs. Turner! I put it in the wrong spot. Lol. Thanks for commenting!

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