Education researchers Michael Nakkula and Eric Toshalis say the “primary task of adolescence” is identity development, and personal storytelling plays an important role in this development. The way we shape the story of our experiences—the narrative arc of our lives—influences our perceptions of ourselves and the world.
Mining the content and texture of our lives is necessarily complicated, but personal narrative writing makes this practice a powerful tool for scaffolding both curricular knowledge and self-knowledge in students.
Teachers, writing coaches, and mentors can support students’ efforts through different strategies for responding to adolescents’ personal narratives.
Establish the Prompt
Consider the following writing prompt:
Tell me about a time when you demonstrated courage. Carry me into that moment: What did you hear, see, and feel? What did you say? What did you think? Was anyone present to observe your actions, or was your moment of courage more private, more internal?
This prompt is one example of a way to spur personal narrative writing when working with middle or high schoolers. It is specific—inviting descriptive language, concrete nouns, dialogue, etc.—and it allows room for further constraints depending on learning goals, such as “Include in your piece two moments of dialogue” or “Recreate this moment in the form of a 10-line vignette.”
It is also vague enough to allow each writer the freedom to choose what area of their life most needs telling—that story on the tip of their tongue. As an added bonus, it is asset-based, encouraging writers to think metacognitively about a time when they rose to a challenge, cultivating positive meaning-making in students by inviting them to revisit memories that exemplify their resilience and fortitude.
Placing narrative emphasis on courage rather than adversity provokes a story arc that frames the writer as rebounding—an important component of a growth mindset.
Acknowledge the Personal and the Academic
It’s crucial to consider the ways in which students are opening their minds and hearts in personal narratives and to honor that vulnerability on the page. Because vulnerability can feel uncomfortable, and because writing assignments are most often rooted in curricular learning objectives, some teachers might feel inclined to respond only to the technical elements of a piece—correcting grammar, honing narrative flow, or tackling structural organization.
However, to catalyze the potential for social-emotional development inherent in personal writing, it is crucial to include in feedback an acknowledgement of students’ stories—the content of their work—whether that content is funny, exciting, or heartbreaking.
Because self-disclosure can feel risky for students—even if their work does not seem explicitly or objectively vulnerable to teachers—acknowledging their sharing before delving into the realm of technical critique will empower their writing process.
In the first sentences of your response, thank the student for their story. Relate to their words by using statements like “This experience must have been very meaningful,” or “I appreciate how honest your writing is about this topic.” Restate the heart of their work in an original way.
Edit Through a Story-Driven Lens
Tending the tactical elements of writing through a story-driven lens, in which student and teacher have the overarching purpose of the story in mind, catalyzes the natural attachment students have to their narratives.
In each of the following examples, the teacher’s suggestions are tied to the student’s larger message:
- Because this personal narrative is celebrating the life and legacy of your grandmother, it would be wonderful for readers to “hear” her voice on the page. Could you include two additional moments of dialogue in your narrative, so that readers can get an even deeper sense of her character?
- Your personal narrative about losing in this sports tournament highlights important themes: challenge, resilience, and resolve. Rather than address the lessons you learned from this loss in one body paragraph, try organizing your piece into three shorter supporting paragraphs, each dedicated to one of the three takeaway lessons that you learned. This will differentiate your ideas for readers and allow them to learn alongside you.
Teaching and editing with a story-driven lens taps into writers’ intrinsic motivation.
Quote Student Work
At nearly every level, language arts teachers ask students to use direct quotations from texts to support their claims and arguments. The same strategy holds true for teachers’ responses to personal writing.
Author Marc Jaffe says of his favorite teacher’s class, “You weren’t just writing poetry. You were a poet.” When teachers weave salient quotes from student work into feedback, writers see their words anew, through the lens of their teacher-reader.
Responding to personal narratives using analytical strategies that one might bring to a piece of great literature encourages writers to see themselves as personal essayists. Feeling their work is valued, students will then be more motivated to revise and refine their words. And teachers will learn more about their students’ life experiences as they work with those students to make real the power of personal storytelling.