Common Core Writing: Narrative Writing

January 02, 2015

To become good writers, students must study good writing. Use mentor texts to help your middle school and high school students build strong narrative writing skills, which can then be used to make any type of writing more interesting.
This is my sixth in a series of posts about my online course, Common Core: Implementing the Writing Standards. In my first post, I gave an overview of the writing standards. In my second post, I showed how the gradual release process can be used with writing. In my third post, I explain why it is so important that basic writing skills be explicitly taught, no matter the age or grade level.

My fourth post focused on argument writing, my fifth post focused on informational writing, and this post will focus on narrative writing, the third and final type of writing in the Common Core Standards.

Narrative writing conveys an experience, either real or imaginary, which means it can connect with both literature and informational standards. Students should be developing skills like giving detailed descriptions of events, characters, and settings, depicting specific actions (blocking), using dialogue and interior monologue, and manipulating the sequence of events to build suspense by using flashbacks or flashforwards and foreshadowing. So narrative writing = stories, but what about other types of creative writing like poetry or plays? The Common Core does not focus on those types of writing, but leaves that up to the teacher's discretion. To read more on this issue and narrative writing defined, see Common Core Appendix A, page 23-24.

The standard for narrative writing, standard 3, (at the 9-10 levels) reads "write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences." As discussed here, the standard is the same at all grade levels, just more complex over time.

I first want to address the part of the standard that calls for "effective technique." What is effective in narrative writing and how do students learn to write like that? Over the summer I obsessively read Teaching for Joy and Justice by Linda Christensen. I can't recommend her book enough.

In her unit on teaching narrative writing, she included a checklist of criteria she asked students to include in their narrative writing. Effective techniques found, but how to teach students to write like that? Enter mentor texts, the importance of with I discussed in my last post.

I used "Thank You Ma'am" by Langston Hughes and "The Jacket" by Gary Soto (both recommended by Christensen) and added "The Family of Little Feet," an excerpt from The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros as well as student samples from Teaching for Joy and Justice to create a set of mentor texts themed around materialism.

I then created a simple, yet clear graphic organizer listing the effective narrative techniques I wanted students to look for: dialogue, blocking, character and setting description, figurative language, interior monologue, and flashback. The graphic organizer gave a description of each technique and provided space for students to record their own examples from any text.

We used this graphic organizer over and over with our mentor texts through the gradual release process. First I modeled with one text ("I do") and then students guided me through usage with another text ("We do"). After that, students worked in small groups or pairs ("Two do") and finally, independently ("You do.")

When it came time for students to write their own narratives, they had ample examples at which to look back. And when they entered the revision stage, they were looking for these same techniques in their own writing and peers'.

To become good writers, students must study good writing. Use mentor texts to help your middle school and high school students build strong narrative writing skills, which can then be used to make any type of writing more interesting. The techniques students were looking for as they self and peer assessed are listed again with their definitions. Using a different color for each technique, students highlighted evidence of the technique in their own writing. They then rated their usage of the technique on a scale of 1 to 4 (1=needs improvement, 4 = excellent). A peer also ranked them.

The color coding made it very clear to students which techniques they were using frequently, infrequently, and not at all. Students now WANTED to add more to their stories.

I also find that because this type of writing is often the most personal, students can take criticism of it the most to heart. Using checklists for students to use while self and peer assessing can help make the process a little more objective, and show students it isn't what they are writing about that needs to change, just how they write about it.

Now let's look back at the standard: "write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences." Effective technique? Check! Well-chosen details? If blocking, character description, and setting description are included in the techniques, then also check! That only leaves "well structured event sequences."

As we were reading our mentor texts, I had students complete a series of quick writes related to the theme of materialism: write about a favorite or least favorite possession, write about a time you wanted something that you couldn't get, etc. At the end of reading our mentor texts, students selected one of these quick writes to develop further. This strategy eliminates the "I don't know what to write about" whiners. The mentor texts also validate that these topics are worth writing about. Once students decided upon their topic, I had them outline their story using a plot diagram.

To become good writers, students must study good writing. Use mentor texts to help your middle school and high school students build strong narrative writing skills, which can then be used to make any type of writing more interesting.
Charting out the plot of their stories using these diagrams ensured that all students had a clear beginning, middle, and end. We discussed as a class how some of our conflicts might be internal, like wanting something you didn't have the money to buy, or external, like classmates making fun of your ugly jacket, or sometimes both. We also discussed that the chronological order of events on the plot mountain did NOT mean you had to tell your story in that order (i.e. using flashback, flashforward).

And just like that list of narrative techniques reappeared at revision time, so did the plot diagram. After a peer ranked the usage of a student's narrative techniques, he/she then completed a plot diagram for that same student's narrative. I had to remind my students that they couldn't help each here. If a peer couldn't identify the conflict, that meant the author didn't have one or it wasn't clear enough, and that was a place that needed revisions. Students were thrilled when their peers were able to diagram their stories just right. Well structured event sequences? Check! If you are interested in using this lesson with your own students, you can find it here.

With all of the emphasis on nonfiction with the Common Core, you may be feeling guilty about reading fiction and even more guilty about writing narratives, when argument and informational writing may seem so much more important. But who says you can't blend the two?

In this article, "Common Core in Action: Narrative Writing," by Heather Wolpert-Gawron, she discusses how you can incorporate nonfiction by asking students to write science fiction or historical fiction. These types of narratives would require students to do research (and read nonfiction texts) in science or history to make their narratives convincing. Students could also incorporate argument writing by centering their science fiction narrative around debate over a new form of government in a future society, or incorporate informational writing by detailing an important invention in the past.

To become good writers, students must study good writing. Use mentor texts to help your middle school and high school students build strong narrative writing skills, which can then be used to make any type of writing more interesting. As my students were wrapping up reading Kindred by Octavia Bulter before winter break, I assigned them a science fiction/historical fiction narrative. Like Bulter's main character, Dana, students would have a character traveling back in time to a time and place of their choosing. They were required to complete research on their period and location to make their narrative realistic. The students loved it and will continue writing when we return after break.

I think it is also important to remember a point that Wolpert-Gawron touches on, but could have said more: the skills that students can build through narrative writing are transferrable. To become good writers, students must study good writing. As she mentions, the literary techniques we use in narrative writing can be used to make any type of writing more interesting. Research shows that telling a story helps students connect to and remember what they have learned. Students can use narrative elements in an argumentative or informational piece to help convey their argument or facts.

I would love to hear about how you are using narrative writing in your classroom or blending the different types of writing. More on research and writing next.

For more writing lesson ideas and resources:

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