Category Archives: Narrative

Writer’s Notebooks and other Little Big Things

I have a collection of writer’s notebooks I’ve filled since 2009 when I attended the a National Writing Project summer institute, and my life changed. It’s been a long while since I explored the thinking I penned there. I don’t know why. There’s some real gems.

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In the front cover of a purple notebook I starting in the fall 2013, a couple months before my mother died, I found four quotes I’d written in different colored pens.

“If I waited until I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.”

Anne Tyler

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

Louis L’Amour

“Write to the one or two people who would git it, not to “readers” or “the market.”

Avery Chenoweth

“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”

William Butler Yeats

You’d think I was planning on (and hesitating) writing a book or something. Guess I still am.

The first mentor text idea I noted as an idea to use with students is “Little Things are Big.” I couldn’t remember why I liked it but had written a question to the side: Why is this event important to the author? I looked up the title, and found this fantastic personal narrative by Jesus Colon. Watch the story here.

Then, I flipped a little further and found my own Little Things are Big. It’s ragged and pretty raw, but you’ll get the idea.

“Quick as a bunny.” It was written on a scrap of paper, tucked in the antique secretary my mother got from her grandmother. We found it the last evening I ever laughed with my mother.

My father slept in intensive care with a machine keeping him breathing, and every day I’d drive my mother to the hospital, so she could stay with him throughout the day. This was harder than it sounds.

My dad had covered my mother’s illness in platitudes. She was not doing “fine.” Her dementia had advanced to the point that she was often angry and unreasonable — so unlike my mother.

Alzheimer’s is a wrecking ball, leaving chaos and confusion, not just on the person who suffers from this illness but on entire families. So many days, trying to drive to the hospital, as she tried to open the door “to get there faster.” So many days, trying to coax a meal, a bath, or even sleep. My dad was the calming balm, the light in Mother’s darkness. And I became the enemy.

Then, one evening I wasn’t. For a hopeful moment, I saw my mother happy. Without prelude she walked to that old secretary, and then walked the sore hearts of my sisters and me through a journey of loving memories. She pulled out pictures and trinkets and old church magazines — all things that represented little parts of my mother’s huge and loving life. And we laughed as she laughed deep girlish giggles.

The funny thing? This silly, rambunctious, talkative woman — she wasn’t like my mother either. No, my mother was mostly demure — a lady in every sense of the word. Sure, she’d pitch in the occasional pithy line. She’d toy with her grandchildren, even tossing one or two in jest into the backyard pool, but she was never like this brash, loud, gregarious woman who laughed with us for a few precious hours.

When Mother passed away several months later, that disease had corrupted everything. Her language. Her love for those who loved her.

And I still grieve.

But I have this tiny note tucked away in the jewelry box my mother gave me, written in my mother’s hand, and that evening sealed in memory.

She held that scrap of paper in her soft papery hand and said, “My mother used to say that to Jody and me when it was our turn to do dishes:  ‘Get them done. Quick as a bunny.’ And we did. Mostly.”

 

What little big things do you have to write about? How will you invite students to write their little big things?

Note:  I think I will be revisiting my notebooks for awhile. More to come…

Amy Rasmussen just finished refinishing the perfect desk, and now she thinks she may have solved the problem of her writer’s block. She is the daughter of incredible parents and the mother of six incredible children. She loves sharing ideas that help move readers and writers, and she’s grateful to you for reading this blog. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass 

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Moving from Assigner to Teaching Along Side My Students

Hi, my name is Kristin and I’m a recovering assigner.

I can easily blame the system that taught me. Numerous years of forced writing assignments, inauthentic essay prompts, and unfair expectations with little to no chance to confer.

What I am describing is not just my own experience of high school in the mid to late 90’s but even my own classroom (I’m a work in progress). It wasn’t until this group of wonderful educators and the amazing work of Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher did I even begin to understand there was more to writing than the pattern of assigning, “teaching”,  and correcting. It started slowly last year through personalized writer’s notebooks, engaging quick writes, and dabbling in mentor texts to help us grow readers and writers.  But I still didn’t feel “there”– I didn’t feel ready for the complete jump into writer’s workshop.

Fast forward to March– State testing is winding down and I have Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s new book, 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents in my hands.

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Their recent book takes a look at the question “How do you fit it all in?” but does it with such thoughtfulness, insight, and in a way that makes their readers stop and think about their own practice. For me, it really made me think about how I needed to move from assigning narrative writing to immersing my students in the art of narrative writing.

After reading 180 Days the first time (I’m planning on rereading with my PLC as a book study), I was struck by how Penny and Kelly take different laps during their writing units, with each lap building off the last until students have shown a deeper level of development of their writing than our traditional 4×4 setup (read a book, take a test, write a paper, and repeat each term) allows us to do.

So, how has my life changed?

What my narrative unit was before:

  • I would diligently create a beautiful assignment, even including criteria for success so the students knew exactly what was needed in their narrative.
  • Students were given some choice in what they wrote (but it was choice in disguise–it still had to connect to the novel we recently read)
  • I gave students time in class to work and would start each day with a mini-lesson but it was based on what I thought needed to be taught, not in a responsive way through conferring or using a baseline assessment.
  • Usually five days later, the narrative was due. Some students used their 43 minutes each day to stare at a blank screen and eventually passed in an attempt at a story. Some loved this type of activity but passed in a narrative that was underdeveloped or without any organization. Some didn’t pass in anything at all–they would rather take the zero than take the risk.
  • While they were writing, I spent my time catching up with my grading and walking the room, begging my reluctant writers to get something on the page.

What my narrative unit is now/moving towards:

  • We started last week with multiple low-stake narrative activities in their writer’s notebooks using engaging mentor texts like “Hands” by Sarah Kay, 36-word stories using Visa commercials (Amy R. wrote about a very similar activity here), and writing alongside excerpts from some great young adult books from our classroom library.
  • This week, students will choose which pieces they want to work with and during our work time to expand them based on the day’s mini-lesson and practice revision skills (especially since my students think their first draft in their only draft–still trying to break this habit). We’ll also continue using mentor texts but use them for imitation work– “borrowing” great lines or ideas from actual writers!
  • After a well-deserved spring break, we will take a final lap with narratives the last week of April. I’m still deciding this piece– I want to see how the beginning of this week goes and see where we need to go next as we move towards the break.  I’m trying to be more responsive as a teacher, which is hard as a Type A planner. At the same time, I think this will benefit both myself and my students because I’m teaching the kids and skills in front of me versus just assigning the same narrative prompt year after year.

Although it’s only been a week in, these are some of the things I know so far:

  • My students have never been this engaged (in terms of their writing lives). How do I know this? Their notebooks are out and ready to go each class. They are passing their notebooks around the room, asking their peers to read what they worked on in class. We end our classes with “beautiful words” and they fight over who gets to share this time.
  • My closeted writers are finally finding their space in my classroom. They are sharing their work with others, giving advice to their peers, and even sharing their personal work with me (I had tears in my eyes when one of my painfully shy students handed me her poetry journal she brought from home–she thought I would like to read them this weekend. Be still, my teacher heart!).
  • Where my students are! Skimming through their notebooks has helped me see where they are starting and where we need to go. In the past, I wasn’t seeing their work until the end, which Kelly Gallagher calls gotcha grading. Now, I know where I want to and need to go to help my students with this type of writing.
  • And the best part- I’m writing. Whatever the students are writing, I’m writing alongside them and using my document camera to show my students my typos, my revisions, and myself. Narrative writing can be so personal. To see my struggle but also share parts of myself and my life has helped us connect in ways only stories can.

Although I still have a long way to go to shed the title of assigner, I feel so much hope that I am finally moving in the direction I’ve watched so many other teachers move towards. I’m reminded of what a wise educator has said about teaching– it’s making your practice 5% better each year. In this little way, I feel that my practice is becoming better because of the resources I have at my fingertips (like this group) and finally making the jump into the deep end of the workshop pool. 

What are some of your favorite things to engage and move your narrative writers? What advice do you have for those who are moving from assigners towards writer’s workshop?

 

Kristin Seed has been teaching for ten years at both the middle school and high school level in Massachusetts. Her passion is reading and leaving piles of books in every room of her house. You can find her chasing after her five-year-old son and now a 13 week old Golden Retriever, Abby. Follow her adventures on Twitter @Eatbooks4brkfst.

A Book for Women, Young and Old and In-between

I am always on the look out for books that will hook my readers and mentor texts that will inspire my writers.

But when I saw the title The Radical Element, 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other

My Radical Granddaughters

It’s never too early to give girls hope.

Dauntless Girls, I thought of my own three daughters, my daughter-in-law, and my two granddaughters. (Well, not so much the debutantes, but definitely the daredevils and the dauntless.)

We need books where our girls see themselves –where they feel empowered to take on the world. In a brochure I got from @Candlewick, it states:

To respect yourself, to love yourself, should not have to be a radical decision. And yet it remains as challenging for an American girl to make today today as it was in 1927 on the steps of the Supreme Court. It’s a decision that must be faced when you’re balancing on the tightrope of neurodivergence, finding your way as a second-generation immigrant, or facing down American racism even while loving America. And it’s the only decision when you’ve weighed society’s expectations and found them wanting.

So today, I write to celebrate the book birthday of The Radical Element edited by Jessica Spotswood.

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Jessica writes:

. . . Merriam-Webster’s definitions of radical include “very different from the usual or traditional” and “excellent, cool.” I like to think our heroines in these twelve short stories are both. Our radical girls are first- and second- generation immigrants. They are Mormon and Jewish, queer and questioning, wheelchair users and neurodivergent, Iranian- American and Latina and Black and biracial. They are funny and awkward and jealous and brave. They are spies and scholars and sitcom writers, printers’ apprentices and poker players, rockers and high-wire walkers. They are mundane and they are magical.

. . .

It has been my privilege to work with these eleven tremendously talented authors, some of whom are exploring pieces of their identities in fiction for the first time. I hope that in some small way The Radical Element can help forge greater empathy and a spirit of curiosity and inclusiveness. That, in reading about our radical girls, readers might begin to question why voices like these are so often missing from traditional history. They have always existed. Why have they been erased? How can we help boost these voices today?

I have only read a few of these stories so far, but they are a wonderful blend of adventure and courage.

Here’s what three of the 12 authors have to say about their stories:

From Dhonielle Clayton, “When the Moonlight Isn’t Enough”:

1943: Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

 I wanted to write the untold stories of hidden black communities like the one in Martha’s Vineyard. I’m very fascinated with black communities that, against all odds and in the face of white terrorism, succeeded and built their own prosperous havens. Also, World War II America is glamorized in popular white American culture, however, we learn little about what non-white people were doing during this time period. 

 In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

I didn’t find as much as I wanted because historians focused on white communities and the war effort, leaving communities of color nearly erased. I had to rely on living family members that experienced this time period and a few primary sources detailing what life was like for black nurses in the 1940s. 

 How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

The one thing I trust is that black communities have been and will always be resourceful. Accustomed to being under siege, we have developed a system of support. I think I would’ve fared just fine. 

From Sara Farizan, “Take Me with U”:

1984: Boston, Massachusetts

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

I’ve always been fascinated with the 1980’s. Even with all its faults, it is the period in time that stands out for me most in the 20th century. The music, the entertainment, the politics, the fear and suffering from the AIDS virus, the clothes, and the international events that people forget about like the Iran/Iraq war.

In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

It was hard to look back on footage from news broadcasts about the Iran/Iraq war. I felt embarrassed that it seemed this abstract thing for me when really my grandparents came to live with my family in the States during the year of 1987 to be on the safe side. I was very young, and didn’t think about why they had a year-long visit, but looking back, I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for them. Fun not so heavy fact: Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Purple Rain came out in the summer of ’84. And so did I!

How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

I think I would know all the pop culture references and my hair is already big and beautiful so that would work out great. My Pac-Man and Tetris game is strong, so I’d impress everyone at the arcade. However, I’m not down with shoulder pads and I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to come out of the closet back then.

From Mackenzi Lee, “You’re a Stranger Here”

1844: Nauvoo, Illinois

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

My story is set in the 1840s in Illinois and is about the Mormon exodus to Utah. I was raised Mormon, and these stories of the early days of the Church and the persecution they suffered were very common place. It took me a while to realize that, outside of my community, no one else knew these stories that were such a part of my cultural identity. I wanted to write about Mormons because its such a part of my history, and my identity, but also because, when I was a kid, there were no stories about Mormons. There are still no stories about Mormons–it’s a religious minority that has been largely left out in our current conversations about diversifying our narratives.

In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

Ack I wish I had a good answer here! But honestly not really–I already knew so much of what I wrote about because I’d gone to a Mormon church throughout my youth.

How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

Badly! The Mormons went through so much for their faith, and as someone who has had a lot of grief as a result of the religion of her youth, I don’t know if I could have handled having a faith crisis AND being forced from my home multiple times because of that faith. Also cholera and heat stroke and all that handcart pulling nonsense is just. too. much. I didn’t survive the Oregon Trail computer game–no way I’d survive an actual trek.

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Amy Rasmussen teaches readers and writers at a large suburban high school in North TX. She loves to read and share all things books with her students. In regards to this post, Amy says, “It’s Spring Break for me, and I’ve been idle. Kinda. Three of my grandkids arrived at the spur of the moment, so I’ll use that as an excuse for posting late today.” Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.

 

#NCTE17 – A Story I’m Thankful For

Like Amy, my NCTE experience this year was a blur of the most magnificent proportions. I was able to share the experience with an amazing group of colleagues, survived flying on standby in a peculiar route from Milwaukee to Detroit to St. Louis, and wrapped up my planning about 72 minutes before 3TT spoke to a wonderfully supportive and inquisitive audience on Friday.

I have 7 pages of notes, in 5 colors, saw so many English Gods and Goddesses speak I lost count, sat down three inches from Cornelius Minor to plan a forthcoming 3TT Twitter chat (Ekkkk! Fangirl moment), got to room for three nights with my bestie like college roommates watching Hallmark Christmas movies, secured over two dozen books for students in the exhibit hall, spent time with my amazing co-bloggers from Three Teachers Talk, and deliciously foreshadowed Thanksgiving with a calzone of turkey, cranberries, pecans, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy dipping sauce.

thanks1So, when we flew home on Sunday night, I got to bed at about 11:30 pm. Up at 5:00 am, Franklin had school through a half day on Wednesday. I then hosted Thanksgiving for 11 people on Thursday, managed a Black Friday marathon shop with my daughter Ellie (She’s four and up at 6 am anyway – might as well take advantage), cut down a Christmas tree on Saturday, and tried to be a teacher again on Sunday in order to tackle 70ish AP Language responses and plan for the coming week. Next week (I am so excited), we fly to Arizona to visit family for a long weekend.

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Spoiler Alert: I ended up at the chiropractor this past Tuesday. She said she was surprised I could turn my neck at all. “Do you encounter a lot of stress on a daily basis?” she asked. I almost choked and laughed in her face.

Needless to say, my notes from NCTE have waited patiently for me.

NCTE last year was such an incredible experience, I came back to my district and raved about the opportunities our department could reap if a group was able to go and fan out across the convention to sample the wealth of presentations that take place. I am so lucky to teach with such amazing English teachers and even luckier to get to travel with them to this event.

We plan to debrief with administration and our department in a few weeks. I promise to share some of the information and inspiration they gathered. We attended sessions from Writing MultiGenre Papers, to Having a Life as an English Teacher, to Arab Voices in the Classroom, to Using Self Assessment with Students, to “let’s listen to Linda Rief, Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers, and Robert Probst all from the same stage and try not to faint with the fatigue of trying to write down all of their brilliance.”

So, until I find a few minutes to sift through those notes and take in the depth of learning we all did, I humbly share with you the slides from my portion of the Three Teachers Talk presentation on reclaiming our voices as teachers and students through narrative writing.

In it, you will find:

  • Some embarrassing personal photos I used to open our presentation with an illustration of  my own story and how it illustrates the power of narrative to define me: who I am, what I do, and why that might be.
  • Supporting information on how narrative defines the human experience. 
  • Explanation of the Visual Biography assignment I used to have students tell their own stories to start the year.
  • A quick write to get students thinking and telling their stories “outside the box” with a reading from Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke. 
  • A final plea to see the value of student story in narrative writing as a way to know students, value their humanity, and give narrative a proper place next to argument and expository writing in our classrooms.

Amy wished us a happy December in her post earlier this week and shared her slides as well. We hope that December really does come soon. Tomorrow, maybe?  May it bring a few moments to breathe and reflect. When we do, we will be sure to shower you with all the #NCTE17 insights you could ask for.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Last year her NCTE notebook pen of choice was the PaperMate Flair, this year she highly recommends the PaperMate Ink Joy pens.  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

#NCTE17 — So Much to Remember, So Much to Do

Confession:  I do not have the energy to write this post.

NCTEStLouisI had an amazing learning experience at NCTE in St. Louis. I met Twitter friends for the first time face-to-face. I got to present with my amazing and faithful blogging buddies — and Tom Newkirk! I loaded my shoulder bag with loads of new books for my classroom library complements of the book vendors in the exhibit hall. I talked with some fascinating educators and attended fantastic sessions — all tattooed my heart with meaningful messages. I saw Linda Rief talk about her heart books and Nancie Atwell, Kelly Gallagher, and Penny Kittle advocate for choice reading and more talk and more diverse books and more time to read and write with students. I attended CEL and presented with my newfound friend, Sarah Zerwin, who is writing a book on going gradeless, my newest quest. I did not sleep much. Does anyone sleep much at NCTE?

You’d think that after a week-long break I’d have caught up. Not so. Remember how I wrote about my family coming for Thanksgiving? They did. We laughed and ate and camped and ate.

And. It. Was. Awesome.

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My newly weds. Two daughters and two new son-in-laws.

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Hyrum, my soldier, and his twin, Zach

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On the 3rd day of camping, we are a motley crew but somehow still smiling.

But I am tired.

Yesterday I returned to school like I assume most every teacher in America did. The stack of papers needing grading shouted at me as I flipped on the lights. 111 emails flash danced in my inbox. One plant gave up its withered ghost, and four of my bookcases must have wrestled with the devil. Before the first bell, I sat at a table and breathed. Amazing what a few deep breaths will do.

So, yes, I have a lot to remember about NCTE. My notebook begs to be revisited, and when I get a minute or two, I will write a post that showcases the best of my learning at this inspiring convention.  In the meantime, since I did not preview my part of our presentation at NCTE like my writing partners did, I include it here. Most of my notes are in the slides, so maybe my message will make a little sense without my commentary. At least I hope so. Personally, I think our 3TT presentation was awesome! I learned so much from our journey into doing more with narrative. If you were not there, I wish you could’ve been!

Happy almost December, my friends. May your days be merry and bright right on up to the December holidays. Maybe then we will get some sleep.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English and AP Language at a large and spirit-filled high school just north of Dallas. She is the mother of six adult children and grandmother to five. She loves to read and write and share her love of reading and writing with anyone who will listen. She also loves to sleep and believes that good pillows make the best of friends. Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.

Please, Add Your Questions about Narrative– #3TTchat tonight 8ET/7CT

Last week I asked my students the same question I often ask teachers when I facilitate professional development workshops:  What do students today need?

My students talked in their table groups and then shared their ideas. Most said in one way or another:  We need to feel validated and to share our voices.

I don’t know of a better way to accomplish both then by infusing narrative into every aspect of my teaching.

Tonight is our inaugural #3TTchat with our guest Tom Newkirk, author of Minds Made for Stories and the new book Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning (among others).

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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.

We are shoulders deep into planning our session for NCTE:  Reclaiming Narrative and Amplifying our Voices:  Using Story to Invite Fearless Inquiry and Intellectual Challenge for Our Students and Ourselves. (We present Friday at 12:30. We hope you will come!)

If you haven’t had a chance to read Tom’s books, we hope you will still join us as we chat with him on Twitter. And if you have some time between now and then, or any time really, perhaps you’ll find value in this Heinemann podcast with Tom about Embarrassment and how it is the “true enemy of learning,” or a sample chapter of Minds Made for Stories. You’ll see why we at Three Teachers Talk have made such a fuss.

In preparation for our chat tonight — and for our presentation at NCTE, we’d love for you to ask some questions about infusing narrative into our teaching practices, or just share with us some of your favorite ideas or best experiences with students and narrative reading or writing. We’d love to include you in the conversation tonight and in St. Louis at #NCTE17.

While you’re thinking:  This is the quick write my students and I will write today: What’s your story?

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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