How Narrative Writing Helped my Heritage Kids Find Their Voice

Hello, dear friends! I can hardly believe the school year is flying by! Third quarter always seems like kind of a long haul, so I wanted to take some time and share a unit I just finished up with my heritage classes (mostly 10th graders) that turned out to be such a great unit, for both me and them.

Why Narrative Writing? And Why First?

Long story short, we recently adopted a curriculum that includes three writing units that take most of the year: Narrative Writing, Information Writing, and Argument Writing. Last year was my first year using the new curriculum (which is amazing!!) but last year I made the silly mistake of skipping the narrative writing unit. I thought, “How hard is it to write stories?” and “How much practice do they really need to tell a story?” I also thought that narrative writing is the type of writing we see the least in academic writing, and so of the three types of writing, it was the one that would serve them the least in their other classes and possibly in college if they choose to pursue that. And let me tell you…I couldn’t have been more wrong!!

I went to a district training about the new curriculum, and one of our fabulous coaches reminded me of these great reasons not to skip narrative writing:

  • Narrative writing is about showing kids the power of their voice. It’s about showing them that their writing has power, and that they can use writing to share THEIR STORY.” The biggest difference between last year and this year is that kids have more buy-in this year. They are realizing that their writing has POWER.
  • When narrative writing gets better, other types of writing get better. I thought back to all the holes I was trying to fill last year during the other units when I wished I’d taught narrative writing first. For example, in the information unit, students were studying youth activists and were using Malala as some of their examples. I was trying to teach them that there are different ways to incorporate evidence: you can quote, you can summarize, or you can story-tell (ie, NARRATE) what was happening in her life. They had no idea what the difference between summarize and narrate meant. Or I think about when I was trying to teach them to write a powerful hook for their essay about a specific activist…I wanted them to narrate a powerful moment in the youth activist’s life…and they couldn’t. It’s not a waste of time to do narrative writing…it’s an investment of time.
  • Better writers make better readers. If students can start to write narratives with purpose, then their ability to READ narratives, with the author’s purpose in mind, vastly improves.
  • Narrative writing is unique in that it requires vulnerability. I had to write, in front of my students, about deeply personal memories and moments. They got to know me on a deeper level than students have ever gotten to know me; the same is true for how well I got to to know them.

Needless to say, this year, I was determined to give narrative writing a chance. I was determined to just TRY the curriculum as it was meant to be done…and trust the process. And I’m sooo glad I did! When we finished our final narrative pieces and published them, we had a little celebration (a publication party), and it was AMAZING! Students were literally running up to adults in our building (who speak Spanish) who came to our publication party and asking them to read their stories. It was one of the coolest units I’ve ever had the privilege of teaching. And I feel like it’s the best I’ve ever gotten to know a class of heritage kids on such a deep level (especially by November). I wanted to write this post to share our process and successes (and challenges) with you.

The Process

At the beginning of the year, along with all the get-to-know-you activities and housekeeping, I had students do a pretest. The prompt is always the same: tell me about an important moment or event in your life. They had to write two pages (for completion points) and that gave me a great idea of where to start. With the rubrics and benchmarks I was using, the big things that students should do by the end of the unit are 1) have some sort of bigger idea or bigger meaning to the moment, not just the actual events of the story and 2) tell about the INTERNAL story instead of just the external story. After reading the pretests, I realized I was on the right track…almost no one was doing those two things. I just did a quick reading, and put them into piles: the high pile was kids kind of doing those two things, my mid pile was kids writing a decent narrative but lacking those two things, and the “low” pile would be kiddos that either told about a whole summer or something, not a moment or event, or wrote little to nothing, or wrote something incoherent or unrelated. If you have more than 3-4 kids in that low pile, you might think about re-adjusting your target (ie, backing down a grade level of materials).

Next we set up their writing notebooks. We made a Table of Contents at the front, and the first things we glued in were their pretests and the rubric I would eventually use to give them a grade for the process (we added those to the Table of Contents…I just had them number their pages as we went). I let them decorate their writing notebooks, and knowing that printed pictures aren’t really a thing these days I let them turn in a few pictures to Google classroom, and I downloaded them and got them printed for them (super cheap from Walmart.com). I showed them my own notebook, covered with family photos, to get them thinking. This helped up their ownership. We also started a section in the back of goals, and students wrote their first goal based on their pretests and what they wanted to work on. For most of them, their goal was to easily write two pages in an hour.

For my “launch” unit for this unit, I wanted to light a fire under them. I wanted to point out the fact that there are not enough Latinx voices out there…and that we need as many as possible. I used this google form to get their feedback on how many books they’d read with characters that look like them, in their own Language Arts classes, and if they wanted to read more. I asked why it was important to read books with characters that look like them. Then, I used this slideshow to share the results (and some bigger picture data) with them. I wanted them to understand that they had stories to tell…and if they don’t tell them, they won’t get told.

Before we actually started doing Writer’s Workshop I tried to prepare them for exactly what it would look like and what it would feel and sound like, and I tried to explain that we would be working on both developing our “writing muscles” and our growth mindsets. I used the anchor charts below to show them how we would be dividing our time during class, and to outline my expectations for each part of the workshop. This was especially important because the rubric I planned to use to give them for the process included being on task during each part of the workshop. The basic workshop model is a quick mini lesson (12 minutes max), then work time during which I would meet with students individually or in small groups, and share out at the end. That’s it. For the mini-lesson, students actually got out of their desks and pulled up chairs to the board for a little “huddle.” I used a timer on my phone to make sure not to go over 12 minutes (although that didn’t always happen).

The curriculum we adopted outlined what to do each day during this unit, and that material is copyrighted, so my goal is only to share the big picture of the unit here. The very first session we looked at an on-grade-level example of a personal narrative, and we pulled out two big ideas: the author used the actual words people said, and he/she used small, specific actions and details. For work time that day, students rewrote their pretest narrative trying to do at least one of those strategies.

The next couple of sessions we talked about strategies to think of ideas to write personal narratives, and it went really well. One strategy we talked about was thinking about an important person in your life, and listing specific times you remember experiencing something with that person. I would explain the strategy, demonstrate it for my own life, then the students would do the strategy while in the “huddle.” Then, for the independent writing time, they would choose one of their ideas and write a 2 page personal narrative. After three sessions of this, they would have 4 different narratives.

As we learned strategies, I added them to an anchor chart called “How to Write Powerful Personal Narratives.” Each day, I taught them a new strategy to improve their narratives, and each day, they either revised one of the narratives they’d already written to reflect that strategy (and by revise I mean completely rewrite on two more pages), or wrote a new narrative (drawing on the list of ideas we generated the first few sessions) trying to focus on that strategy. I used different strategies during the mini lesson to teach these strategies: sometimes, we studied a “mentor text” novel we were reading (I used Me llamo Maria Isabel, but it’s not written in the first person, so next year I might pick a different one), sometimes we studied a student sample, and sometimes I used non-examples from student work to help them see the strategy in action.

After about 7 sessions of this work, we shifted gears to the second bend. To end the first bend of work, we took a class period to evaluate our progress. I gave them a copy of the checklist I would eventually be using to evaluate their work, and we practiced using the checklist to evaluate an anonymous student’s work. Then, they worked in pairs to evaluate their own work against the checklist; again, I had to really emphasize the growth mindset and the value of the process, not just the product. Also this was a really powerful session on teaching them to become independent writers…because good writers evaluate their progress, set their own goals, and reflect often.

In the second bend, students chose one of the narratives from the myriad they’d already written to bring to publication. I asked them to find one that had a greater meaning, beyond just the main story. It was really powerful to give them lots of choices, instead of just running with their first idea. We moved on to learning strategies for how to highlight the bigger meaning in not just the end but also hinting at it in the beginning and middle, how to draw out the internal story and not just the external story, and how to write powerful beginnings. We also took time to focus on using dialogue and exact thinking (similar to dialogue), and how to develop different characters more fully by having them use different tones of voices.

Every day while they were writing I would call students up to my desk for a conference. I was checking off and giving stamps for the work I’d assigned the past couple of days, to make sure they were on track and held accountable, and I also made sure that I read at least one draft of their final narrative in order to give them at least one thing to work on. This was super important because this is when I caught a lot of kids not writing about one specific episode, or not using paragraphs or periods, and I could jump in. For many writers, this is when I had a chance to help them brainstorm how they could add in a greater meaning to their story. I kept track of what we’d talked about so if I had a chance to have a longer conference again, I would know what he/she was working on. They also wrote the one goal I gave them in their goal section.

By the end of this second bend, students had written their “final” piece about 3-4 times, but each time it got better and better. I learned about the power of “flash drafting”; once they’ve worked on a piece a lot, it helps to just write a fresh new draft, all in one sitting, without referring to an older draft. It usually ends up being the best draft. Finally, I asked them to type their final piece. A lot of editing happened at this point (but I didn’t help with any editing). The next day, students did a peer-revision by filling out this sheet about a peer’s paper. I gave students a “justification sheet” in which they had to justify different parts of their grade by explaining where they did that part of the checklist. For example, one of the sections on the checklist was “My lead used a strategy from the list” and they had to say which strategy they used, and another part of the checklist was “My lead hinted at the bigger meaning of the story” so they had to explain how they did that (if they did). It was so helpful to have those sheets next to me as I graded! I had to give at least two days (of block schedule) to let them do these sheets, because they would realize they were missing something and they had permission to go back and add that element. It went really well and I actually saw a lot of lightbulbs go on during that process.

By the time they turned them in, I was a little nervous about grading them. I was afraid it was going to take so much time. Honestly, though, after I’d read 2-3, I was astounded. Astounded. They were amazing. Ok, not all of them were amazing, but a LOT of them were amazing. I was tearing up reading some of them; some of them shared powerful stories about how they came to the United States. Other stories were simply times they experienced enormous heartache or pain, and it broke my heart reading them. After I’d read a handful, I realized we had to do something with their stories…they simply could not exist simply for me to read them. I decided to plan a little “Publishing Party.” I checked with the kids, and I promised I would take their names off of their papers (I used numbers instead). I invited every adult in our building that speaks Spanish, plus several admins and people from the district office. I also made a giant foam frame with the words “Mi voz importa” on it to take photos of the kiddos (see pictures below). And of course, I bought some cookies and punch.

On the day of the celebration, I set everything up in a special room at school: each paper had a number, with a blank sheet next to it for readers (other students and adults) to leave positive comments on sticky notes. You guys. It was amazing! There was such a buzz as students read each other’s work and said stuff like, “You should read this one!! It’s so good!” to their friends. One of our ELD Newcomer teachers came (she doesn’t speak Spanish) and ask kids to tell her about their stories. The counselor for most of the ELD students (many in my class) had a line of students waiting for him to read their work. It was so cool! At the end I let kids vote on their favorite stories, and I have never seen the students who won walk with their heads any higher. It was so fun! At the end, we had a little chat and several of them said they learned a LOT from reading the work of other students. And I felt like it was a great way to honor their hard work and voices.

    

So in between turning in the final narrative piece and the celebration, we also took an exam. My goal was to have not only a grade for the final piece (for which I did a lot of scaffolding), but also to have a grade that reflected what they could do on the spot, without help, writing a new piece. Following our curriculum, I gave the exact same prompt I’d given before the unit: write a about an important event or moment in your life. This time, though, they didn’t receive completion points; instead, I used the same rubric (the checklist) I used to grade their published pieces, with some minor modifications (I took off the most challenging stuff for the test: they didn’t have to have a lead that connected to the big idea, they didn’t have to have a flashback to another time they learned the same bigger meaning, and they didn’t have to use figurative language or symbolism). I warned them that the test was coming and that they needed to write a new narrative (not the one they published), but that’s the only preparation they had. They had an hour, but most finished well before the end of class and claimed it was easy. Success!! Later, several of them realized they did better on the test (the new piece completed in an hour) than their published piece. So awesome!!

Ok, so now you can imagine I’m drowning a little bit in grading. What did I do? I showed a movie 😊 But not just any movie. I showed the movie “Freedom Writers,” one of my all time favorites. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. In one sentence, it’s about disenfranchised high school students finding their voice while writing in their high school English class. It also has some great life lessons that seem awfully relevant these days. And, best part, it’s based on a true story. At the end, the students actually publish a book of their writing called “The Freedom Writers Diary.” I surprised my students with a “book” our their writing with a plastic binding to leave in the classroom. I also asked them for ideas on where else we should “publish” our writing; they requested to send it to their middle school Spanish teachers, which is now the plan. Those that wanted to wrote their name on their stories, and others just left the numbers to identify their story. I also worked with a few connections in my building to offer them a few options for extra credit. First, they can submit their stories to the school’s literary magazine (anonymously), and second, they have the option to record their voice (or a video) of themselves reading their story aloud in the school’s recording studio and publish the link as they choose. They have another month to submit those items if they choose.

A few days later, after the movie and after I had graded EVERYTHING, I handed everything back: published piece (printed out), rubric for that, and test, with rubric for that. They glued everything in their writing notebook and did a little reflection, answering these questions:

  • How have you changed as a writer?
  • What are three areas you’ve improved in?

It was really cool to see how they were able to voice concrete, transferable and portable writing strategies that they’d really made their own, and that I know they can use in the future, and I could tell that they felt empowered. It was really fun to read their reflections. Next time, I’d like to add this question: What did you learn about yourself through this process?

One of the most challenging (and vulnerable) parts of this process was learning to be a writing teacher, but also learning how to be a WRITER. Many Language Arts teachers understand the process writers go through before publishing their work, and also the immense difficulty that comes with sharing a piece you have worked so hard on with others. Not because it’s amazing, but because I have been encouraging my students to be vulnerable and write about what matters, and to be brave and share that work, I am choosing to share the piece that I wrote alongside them here. Should you choose to use this unit, you could use this a “benchmark” for this level (I really tried to make it a mentor text I could use in the future.) It’s definitely not perfect, but it’s a start. Also, I’m making note of how absolutely terrified and vulnerable I feel right now, sharing something like this with the public…I want to remember this feeling when I think about asking my kids to share their writing.

The Curriculum

I thought it might be smart to offer a little background on this curriculum. A year and a half ago, my district adopted the Teachers College of Reading and Writing Project Writing Units of Study for grades K-8, and our Spanish Literacy team jumped at the chance to adopt some great materials for our students. I know I just said that it was adopted for K-8, and that we adopted it for our 6-8 Spanish Literacy programs. The truth is that because many of our Spanish speakers don’t have as much academic experience in Spanish as they do in English, their Spanish literacy skills are often behind where their English literacy skills are. Plus, these materials are based on Common Core…and I’ve learned that Common Core is quite challenging! Needless to say, as long as I don’t tell my students we are using the 6th grade curriculum, they never need to know and the class is plenty rigorous for them. You can find more info on the curriculum here, and request a free sample here. Some of the materials are translated into Spanish, and there is a Facebook community of teachers using the curriculum in Spanish called “Units of Study en Español TCRWP”. It’s pretty reasonable…for $125 you can be in business, with no additional purchases. And full disclosure, I am not here trying to see you anything, and I have no affiliation with them, nor do I receive anything if you decide to buy it 🙂 I am just here sharing what has gone awesome for me!

Closing Thoughts

Whew!! That’s it! Next up for my classes is a little break from writing in order to read some great (and challenging) short stories, and then we’re on to the next unit – literary essays! I’m excited to hear your thoughts on narrative writing and how it has gone (or is going or could go) for you!

Adrienne

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