Using Narrative to Frame Discussion

Confession: I don’t always make space for narrative in my classroom.

I was inspired by Lisa and Amy’s posts about their NCTE presentation, specifically using narrative as an approach to interpreting data.  In AP Language especially, we discuss the use of appeals to develop and support an argument, but I have never used narrative methods as a way to enter the conversation.

We have been working on the synthesis question lately, holding what I call “synthesized discussions” (Socratic Seminars with multiple texts, centered around a topic) where students enter the conversation, using the sources to launch their original argument, just as they are asked to do on the AP exam.  Students took a short Google forms poll about topics they were most interested in covering and the top 3 were relationships in the digital age, artificial intelligence, and gun violence, specifically in Chicago.  With such a timely, complex, and sensitive issue, I was inspired to think about the people behind the statistics and data–who are the community members of Chicago most impacted?

Before our synthesized discussion, we used the poem Weekend Calculus, from Chicago’s NPR affiliate WBEZ called “Every Other Hour,” a series in which gun violence and all of its ripple effects documented.  We used the poem as a mentor text, examining how the narrative was crafted, then had time to journal–quiet time to decompress from the weighty topic.  After, we examined the moves made by Angie Thomas in The Hate U Give when Starr witnesses her childhood friend become a victim of gun violence.

I told students:  All of these statistics are people.  Individuals like you, like your friends and neighbors–what are their stories?  Who are these people we typically only interpret as numbers?

I challenged students to write a brief flash fiction piece in preparation for discussion, in addition to reading the assigned articles.

I ask that students post their narrative in a discussion thread, versus a closed assignment, so they could read each other’s narratives before class. When I arrived at school at 6:30 am, I had a message from a student waiting for me:



What is more beautiful than a student recognizing the great work of their peers AND being interested in a timely topic?  I quickly retooled my plans for the rest of the week to extend this conversation and create space for sharing student stories in small and large groups, not for the sake of revising, but to show these numbers as people, as individuals with stories not just news figures.

I was amazed.  I noted examples of moves we had been working on in our creative and academic writing. 

From engaging opening lines:  A flash of light. A loud bang.  All before my world fell apart.

To understanding of AP terms like asyndeton:  Anxiety consumes me.  I can’t stop at a red light without my heart beating out of my best, I can’t look at a black car without convulsing and panicking, I can’t hear loud noises without rushing for cover, I can stop shifting my eyes around and around my surroundings, I can’t I can’t stop worrying at night. I can’t stop my brain from thinking the worst.

There were moving examples of intentional syntax choices, sensory details, fast-paced dialogue, and craft that could have been taken from any young adult book.

Most importantly, I noticed evidence of compassion in my students. We took time to share narratives before our discussion.  Students put themselves in the shoes of the narrative characters their peers created, helping them to see the data we are bombarded with as a collective of unique individuals.  Concern for the human lives that make up the data was portrayed through their responses in discussion the following day, which they prepared for by reading a range of articles . 

There was less judgment and more concern for Chicagoans in nearby neighborhoods.  There was more gratitude for the advantages students have been gifted, and more passion to pursue social justice.  There was accurate data interpretation, but above all else, there was compassion and concern.
The NCTE presentation by Three Teachers Talk inspired me to create space for narrative practice for my writers while also creating a space to talk about the scary stuff that happens in our community, our nation, and the world.  After all, our goal is to foster the development of caring, engaged citizens.  My students left me feeling hopeful and confident in their generation.  

I challenge you to review the presentation slides and incorporate narrative as a way to access data, create community, and address our nation’s shortcomings.  Please share the unique ways you use narrative with your students–I would love to learn from you.

Maggie Lopez is leaving Chicago for  Salt Lake City this summer.  She and her husband look forward to a change of pace and new adventures, but she is most eager to learn from new students and colleagues.  180 Days from masters Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher will be her cross country read!


One thought on “Using Narrative to Frame Discussion

  1. […] choice? Other teenage things I don’t know about? In an effort to figure out what was going on, what the story behind the data was, I asked students to write the narrative of the student behind the […]


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