Teaching Narrative Writing: A Place Narrative Unit

Posted on October 7, 2008

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My English 11 students are currently writing a place narrative modeled after a narrative in Penny Kittle’s book Write Beside Them. Taking Penny’s advice, I’ve been walking students through the writing process, working alongside them to share my own inventive process, using my work as a model for students. Here’s what we’ve done so far:

  • Brainstormed: Created a list of places where we had vivid memories.
  • Brainstormed more:  Selected one place from our list that held strong potential for stories and created another list, this time of as many stories as we could remember tied to that one place.
  • Pre-Writing: Narrowing our list, we selected three to four stories that we want to write about, and for each we drew a sketch depicting the moment and listed as many details as we could remember, concentrating especially on sensory details.
  • Drafting: For each story, we completed a ten minute quick write, getting our ideas into paragraph form.
  • Revision: We then returned to our quick writes, looking for places where we could elaborate (or zoom in as I’ve been calling it–zooming in on a precise moment and focusing on showing, not telling, that moment), adding more details, especially imagery.

That’s where we are now. Throughout the year, I’ve been leading mini-lessons in writing workshop that students are now employing in a larger writing piece:

  • showing not telling
  • using muscle verbs
  • writing in present tense
  • using similes and metaphors
  • including dialogue
  • starting in the middle of the action

I used some Michael Degen’s mini-lessons from Crafting Expository Argument to give students practice in showing not telling. We still have a few steps to go to reach a publishable draft. I’ll share those steps in a future post.

The Thinking Behind My Narrative

For now, I leave you with the first draft of one of my stories. My idea is to share how in college, without my realizing it at the time, God was measuring my steps, leading me to my soul-mate, my husband, Steve. I’ve planned three stories, each about relationships with three different guys. My final story will be about meeting my husband for the first time and knowing he was the one for me.  I’m not normally so sappy, but attending my twentieth high school reunion this past weekend has apparently ignited a bit of reflection in me. I admit–drafting this piece made me feel a bit like Stephenie Meyer (not that I can measure up to her by any means): I couldn’t resist incorporating an allusion to one of my favorite classicals, a strategy Meyer also seems to adore and one I wrote about in an earlier post.

I know it’s a bit lengthy, but I’d love to hear your feedback on my first draft. What a great model it would be for my students–to show them how their blog can be a tool to get feedback on their writing!

My Narrative Model

The knock echoes through the living room into by bedroom, rousing me from the wooded forest where Hardy’s Tess struggles futilely against Alec.  I dog-ear the page, a bit perturbed that someone, in the early morning hours, is disturbing my reading. I slide my wool socks across the cold tile floor. Peering through the peep hole, I recognize Ken, clothed—despite the cool morning air that punctuates each breath—in a yellow Gold’s Gym muscle shirt, the kind with arm holes sagging half-way to his waist. He shifts his weight to his other leg, turns to the side, gazing off into the distance, taking his blue eyes and white perfect teeth out of my view. The bulging biceps and taught shoulders are still clear, still vivid in my mind. My heart skips a beat, and my mind returns to last night. I can still hear the music pulsing through the student union and feel Ken’s breath against my cheek as he leans forward to shout at me above the music. Is he really standing outside my door? The electricity I imagined last night—had he felt it too? Suddenly, my head is pounding, my pulse racing forward like a greyhound bolting from a newly opened gate.  A ringing pierces my ears, blocking out all sound. I gasp for air, realizing I’ve been holding my breath, and struggle to steady my breathing. I reach for the door knob. Oh crap. My hair—my face—my breath. I’m still in my pajamas. I quickly tassel my hair, using my fingers as a comb. I rub my eyes, feverishly trying to wipe away remnants of sleep. It will have to do. There’s not enough time. I wish I could at least brush my teeth. My hand returns to the doorknob, and slowly, very cautiously, I edge open the door, trying to block my just-got-out-of-bed appearance.  Ken turns toward me, his toothy smile and square chin erasing any confidence I’ve mustered in the last few seconds.

            “Hey. How’s it going,” he says, not really a question. His flat monotone voice leaves me dizzy and unsure. The electricity from last night is gone replaced by awkward silence.

            “So, I was wondering if you might have time to, uh,” he says, shoving a basket of dirty laundry toward me. My eyes fall to the basket he’s now nudging into my stomach, into my uneasy, unfolding arms.

            “Well, I don’t…I can’t really…I have class today, and I’m trying to finish reading a novel that’s due tomorrow.”

            “That’s okay. There’s no rush.”

I clumsily unfold my arms, unwillingly letting the basket slide into them. Shocked, unable to react, to move, I want to tell him I can barely keep up with my own laundry, that I’m not his maid, that no—heck no—I don’t want to do his laundry. But, I’m frozen, reeling from the excitement I felt just moments earlier and from the confused numbness that now paralyzes me. My mind returns, not to the electricity of last night, but to the book perched on the side of my bed.

I’m Tess, a helpless female standing before him, a girl unsure of herself, unsure of her place in a world she’s just beginning to understand. He’s Alec. All too willing to take advantage.

            “I guess,” I say, as I reach for the basket.

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