Personal Narrative and Imaginative Narrative are loaded terms in elementary schools in North Carolina. Children and teachers cringe when they think of the writing test and its unreasonable expectations. Within 50 minutes, the children are asked to complete a five-paragraph essay written in response to a neutral question, or "prompt" as it's called in test lingo. In Personal Narrative, they might, for example, be asked to write about a happy day or the biggest surprise they ever had. Teachers say it's incredibly hard for fourth-graders to weave emotions and evidence of their learning into this essay. Even it there weren't a time constraint, it is a near-impossible task for anyone to write impromptu on a subject she doesn't care about.
Last February, I stood in the back of a classroom speechless with awe as I listened to children discussing the plans for their personal narratives. What moved me was the sight of a creative teacher who has turned the necessity of teaching a difficult subject into real learning, showing her children that writing is a tool for understanding their lives. The results were amazing.
I've always coached students in developing character, motivation, conflict and resolution. Over 10 years of teaching in classrooms, I've evolved a "story skeleton" that puts these writing concepts into a form children can visualize, grasp and enjoy using. The motivation becomes the backbone, the conflicts are the ribs that "breathe excitement into the story" and so on. So many writing models are a series of boxes and flow charts that children neither understand nor care about. The story skeleton speaks to them.
I have visited hundreds of classrooms in 10 years as a writer-in-residence and have encountered all kinds of teachers. Some correct papers at the back of the classroom and view my writing residencies as "free time". Others listen attentively and involve themselves in our writing. But this year, after a decade of teaching, I finally met a teacher who understood the methods behind my madness even better than I did. She taught me the power of what I'd invented, showing how it would work to help students on the writing test and still provide genuine writing experiences. She used the story skeleton to write a collaborative story with the children and then coached her students through to their own story-planning and writing. They evaluated stories and ideas with a depth and confidence that shocked other teachers. When a resource teacher overheard them discussing a story, she said they sounded like they were college students.
In January, Wake County announced that third-graders would be required to take a "practice writing test". The teacher used the story skeleton to help. All but one child passed--and that was the one child who hadn't used the story skeleton. After the test pressure had passed, they wrote personal narratives based on their own lives and found new meaning in something they'd considered a test strategy.
This teacher knows the power of stories, and she tells them often. She led personal narrative by telling a story about how her dawdling young daughter had made her late one morning when she had an early meeting. She left her house 10 minutes late and fussed at the sleepy girl as they rolled down the highway--until she saw a van just like her own, smashed into a brick wall. She realized then that those 10 minutes might have saved their lives and realized that safety was more important than rushing.
After relating her story, she urged her class to look inward and discover their deepest desires, discover the obstacles that got in the way, find a difference between what they thought they wanted and what they needed, and plan a solution. I happened into their classroom on the day that they were sharing the plans for their stories.
One child wrote that he felt alone in his new neighborhood without any friends, and he longed for a canine companion. His dad wouldn't even consider a dog. I wondered if that would change once he showed his father what he'd written. "Do you think writing will work better than whining?" I asked. He grabbed a pencil.
A little girl wrote about how she wanted to be the fastest swimmer on her team, but when her coach moved her to a higher level of competition, her teammates teased her, and she couldn't win. When the coach told her to be patient, she realized that she wanted success more than speed.
Another child spoke about how his sister teased him because he wouldn't ride roller coasters. He was afraid of the speed and the curves. Even so, he conquered his fear because he wanted his sister's respect.
One child examined how he wanted to read better and had to face the problems of frustration, giving up and asking for help.
This introspective writing is not comparable to test questions like "the best present I ever got." These third-graders learned much more than writing from their teacher. They learned that they can look at life in terms of what they want, what gets in their way, what they really need and how to solve their problems.
Several months after I'd heard the personal narrative plans, I returned to the school for a meeting and stopped in to visit this third-grade class. As soon as I entered, one boy's hand flew up in the air and he waved it with so much energy, I thought it would fall off. "What is it?" I asked.
"I showed my dad my writing about the puppy," he said. "And guess what? We're getting a dog in five weeks."
He's one child who knows that writing can be used for more than getting a high score on a writing test.