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Professional Learning

Common Core in Action: Narrative Writing

October 21, 2013
Photo credit: Poughkeepsie Day via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There is a panic amongst writing teachers that is based on the myth that our baby, narrative writing, is shunned by the Common Core standards. I'm here to encourage everyone to take a deep breath and repeat after me: "Nobody puts baby in a corner."

True, there has been a redistribution of priorities towards more fact-based writing. However, I don't see that as a roadblock for teaching story. In fact, blending your genres, incorporating them all, makes students stronger overall writers. In today's post, I'm here to encourage you: teach narrative by folding in informational fact while still encouraging beautiful writing.

Why We Need to Teach Narrative

The chart below outlines the new percentages of genres, according to the Common Core, with which students should be interacting during their time in school:

Sure, the numbers might make you cringe as you see a decrease in percentages devoted to storytelling, but narratives are important because they form the intrapersonal and interpersonal glue that holds our whole world together. Storytelling helps us understand empathy because it teaches about relationships. It helps us understand the sagas that connect history. It helps us wrap our heads around the stories behind the math that make up the need for scientific discovery. Narratives help us understand the world around us and the world within us. Sacrifice it and we sacrifice other elements dictated by the Common Core: creativity, critical-thinking, and character.

To address this shift, we need to focus more on creative non-fiction or fact-based narratives. After all, there's no reason why our narratives can't be based in fact.

According to the Common Core, while other subject areas are now expected to utilize writing, language arts is now expected to utilize other content areas. So I got to work with my mental wrench, tweaking and revising my narrative unit.

As a result, the unit ended up being a rigorous and integrated unit that was far richer than the narrative lessons of old. And it is aligned to CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.

Fact-Based Evidence

My narrative unit now focuses on reading and writing historical fiction and/or science fiction writing. The books from which the students could choose to base their stories on can be either historical fiction or science fiction. Therefore, we can study the facts embedded into the fiction and seed researched information into the stories we write ourselves.

I still hit on plot and sequencing, figurative language and sensory details, theme, and hooks. After all, any of those can be used in other genres as well, and that's the key here: making sure that you are blending genres. That the elements you teach for one can be used for others. In this case, different hooks are used for a variety of genres. Identifying the overall message, the theme, is a vital skill that helps put both history and science in perspective, and learning sensory details also helps the strength of writing required for other subjects.

After all, a student must describe one's observations while determining a hypothesis, just as one must be able to relate to the scene of a historical massacre if we are to learn from history.

Once I decided that the students would move away from fantasy or personal narrative into a more fact-based fiction, the challenge was to find ways students could prove their informational research. I began teaching guiding them through the following:

  1. Producing bibliographies of their resources using APA or MLA format. They use these as a resource to help them with format. And yes, I permit the use of Easybib.
  2. Creating follow-up presentations called "What if...." projects. Inspired by a resource from Larry Ferlazzo, these five- to 10-slide Powerpoints or Prezis ask students to take a key moment in the time period in which their historical fiction piece is set or a key invention they studied while writing their science fiction story, and delete it from our own history. Their projects focus on the ripple effect of what if that moment or invention had never existed. They must back up their musings with evidence.
  3. Centering small group discussions around inquiry charts that expand on the differences between history vs. historical fiction and science vs. science fiction.
  4. Hyperlinking.

The Joy of Hyperlinking

The simplest, most fact-assessing skill I teach by far is how to hyperlink. As I say in my new book, Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing in the Subject Areas (due out in April), a valuable way the students show me their research is by providing at least 10 hyperlinks throughout their essays, regardless of whether they are writing short stories or argumentation essays. Linking is, in my view, a vital skill for a young writer to know how to do.

I think that all students should leave middle school knowing how to show an additional layer of information in all of their writings. These links allow a reader to confirm an author's research in a way that a simple bibliography list does not. Linking takes reading from a two-dimensional experience to a three-dimensional one. It also potentially adds a different modality to the essay by linking to images, web pages, or videos. It takes reading a student narrative from a static experience to a dynamic one.

In the following screencast, I show you how to teach hyperlinking using both a laptop and an iPad. Since I have a "Franken-class" of both Chromebooks and iPads, I've had to learn myself the best way to teach this skill using both tools.

Throughout my narrative unit, the students and I share the responsibility of being experts. They became the experts in the historic era in which their narrative was set or the scientific theory that influenced their story. And I remained their writing guide. I guided them in how to communicate and maneuver through their subjects.

The writing that I guided them towards became a vessel that delivered integrated material. In so doing, I was able to maintain teaching narrative and all the rich yummy writing elements that go along with it, and still address the informational requirements of the Common Core standards.

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