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Friday, February 8, 2013

Narrative Writing that Makes a Point

Perhaps your experience differs from mine, but a lot of personal narrative I've witnessed students write has been either too formulaic or too pointless in its wanderings. How can we help students write personal narratives that are detailed yet focused in purpose?

A terrific scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles depicts Steve Martin at wit's end. Martin has lost all patience with John Candy, who plays an eternally optimistic and kind-hearted teddy bear of a guy who will strike up a conversation with anyone. That simply rubs the more pragmatic Martin the wrong way. While hilarious, Martin's rant reflects my own feeling about too much student writing.

So I was pretty excited to find Rope Burn, a compact middle-grade novel that immediately struck me as the perfect mentor text for showing students how to write narratives with purpose. Author Jan Siebold writes smooth yet eloquent passages that I think students could easily see themselves writing. Her paragraph and chapter structures are perfect models of the way in which exposition, narrative, and dialogue should combine to create storytelling.

The premise of Rope Burn is that  Mr. Best, Richard's English teacher, has assigned his students the task of writing a composition about a proverb that illustrates something that happened in their lives. While some of Richard's friends choose easier proverbs, applying them to family members rather than themselves, Richard feels challenged to make a real effort at it, especially when his teacher insists that Richard find his "writing voice."

The book begins:

I hate writing.

At least, I hate the kind of writing that most teachers expect. Where do they come up with these ideas for assignments, anyway?

I swear, all teachers must have been required to take a college course called "Student Torture 101." Mr. Best, my English teacher, must have gotten an "A."

Wow. That beginning just won over some of my more reluctant kids! They're thinking, "All right! I totally agree with this kid!" And they keep reading.

In addition to noticing that fabulous hook, I made note that Siebold models some wonderful elaboration, building from one idea to the next, slowly drawing the reader in. The fact is, she artfully pulls off quite a few technical writing feats. Throughout the novel, I marked several passages which I felt would either make excellent mini-lessons, or provide students with how-to models for getting past bits of sticky composition.

In case you're wondering, Richard writes nine pieces, finding both his "writing voice" and his real voice, as the exercise allows him to commit his emotions to the page, and finally wrestle with some pretty heavy issues. Oh, yeah. Writing can do that as well. 

And I dig how Richard links the proverb to his experience through the use of a subtitle; Proverb Five, for example, is titled "Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder, or The First Time I Saw a Dead Body." While the proverb chapters can somewhat stand alone, the reader discovers wonderful narrative threads which flow through and unite them all.

In case you're wondering about the title, it acts as a type of frame story (think Canterbury Tales). Mr. Reynolds, the gym teacher, announces that the basic physical education test includes rope-climbing. Most students, Richard included, don't succeed on the first try. For our protagonist, it's not even close. But a new friend, recognizing Richard's struggles, explains that the secret is to "just keep going, no matter what." With some practice and his friend's encouragement, Richard is able to make progress.

  • Remember how the book started? Have students write a narrative on something they hate. They can start as simply as Robert did, with "I hate ________." Rather than elaborated descriptions of this  hatred, however, students will need to relate at least one anecdote which supports their abhorrence of the chosen topic.
  • Provide students with a list of proverbs ala Mr. Best's assignment. You can find a great starter list at American English Proverbs or Idiom Site (which includes literal interpretations). Quotations Page and Creative Proverbs both feature proverbs from other countries. Students can either scour these sites for phrases which inspire them, or you could ask that students choose from a limited pool of proverbs. Students might be interested to see how one proverb might receive different treatments and interpretations.
  • features some interactive practice with proverbs, should you wish to focus on that aspect of language before the above writing activities.
  • And finally, check out the discussion questions and activities provided at the book's end. Some good ideas for shorter assignments and responses.


Mrs. Dovey said...

This sounds like a terrific book! I love to find ways to "teach from" good writing so I appreciate your taking the time to post. One thing I struggle with as a teacher (from the million) is finding ways to note and remember the good ideas I come across from others as well as my own. My files are jammed, but that's not enough. Other have suggested binders for everything they do, but I find I cross-over too much. Any suggestions? Memory training? Ha!

Mrs. Kirr said...

I'm excited to read this book over the summer and apply it to our narrative writing in September! I'm always looking for quality text when we do our narrative unit. We have used some of Maya Angelou and Julia Alvarez, but it'd be nice to have a high school boy character writing for an example! Thank you for this detailed and informative post. I'm passing it along...
~Joy Kirr (@JoyKirr)

Keith Schoch said...

Mrs. Dovey: Wish I had a solution for you! I know I have a file for everything, try to work chronologically, and I share as much as I can (that way others remind me of my own good ideas, and share back with me when I can't locate what I need). Happy teaching!

Keith Schoch said...

Mrs. Kirr: Hope this book suits your purposes! Tough keeping kids reading as they get older, especially the guys.

William Satter said...

Good thing that you wrote something like that. It is really helpful for those people to have some ideas on how to write well on their narrative essays. Thanks for sharing this article.

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