Narrative, Teaching Writing

Personal Narrative or Personal Essay?

anpencil3One of the writing genres we teach in sixth grade is the personal narrative, and that hasn’t changed with the Common Core State Standards. (Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences. W6.3) Personal narratives are defined as stories about something real that actually happened to you. Students write on topics like a special person, how they acquired a special object, the first time they rode a bike, or an important event. Everything they write about is true. It actually happened. So what’s the difference between personal narrative and personal essay?

Essay writing is also not new for Common Core. (Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content. W6.2) So if you are writing a personal essay about your life–a special person, an event, etc.–can you use the same paper you wrote for the narrative?

While both genres may have the same topic, the purpose is quite different. In a personal narrative, the writer focuses on the elements that make a good story: sensory details, character’s emotion, and a strong beginning, middle and end. A personal essay, however, focuses on personal growth. It is less about the scene and more about the reflection.

Personal essays, of course, can have great details and description, as personal narratives can show character growth. In short, a personal narrative is more about the story and a personal essay is more about the reflection. A popular topic my students write about is riding a roller coaster. Their personal narrative may go something like this:

The hot sun bounced off the pavement and wrapped my bare legs. Thank goodness for the snow cones my brother and I had just bought. 

“Let’s go on The Ripper!” he said as he finished the icy goodness.

“The Ripper?” My heart dropped. It was big. It was fast. It was scary.

“Come on, it’s just another roller coaster.”

Reluctantly I followed him to the line. Minutes passed and we creeped toward the loading platform. With each step, I had to work harder to swallow my fear. My hands were damp with sweat when they finally grasped the cold metal bar of safety that crossed my lap. 

“Wahooo!” my brother yelled as we started off.

I smiled weakly as the coaster began its click, click, click to the top of the hill. My stomach twisted. I felt like I was going to throw up, but if I did that my brother would tease me forever. The roller coaster reached the top and we had a split second to view the entire park. Then the wind snapped my hair straight out in back of me as the coaster whooshed down and around and around and around. My eyes teared up. I screamed, but with exhilaration not fear. 

The roller coaster slid to a smooth stop at the landing platform. I turned to my brother with a big smile. “Let’s go again!” 

That is a short example, but it has the elements of a personal narrative: It’s a true incident that happened to me. There’s a clear beginning, middle, and end. Sensory details and character emotion give it interest and draw the reader in. Now let’s try the same scene as a personal essay.

The sun blazed down on my brother and I as we walked around the park with our snow cones. I thought we were having a good time, but actually we were there for two very different reasons. I was there to eat grape snow cones and go on the log ride to cool off. My brother was there to bring me to the brink of terror. 

“Let’s go on The Ripper!” he said as he finished the icy goodness.

“The Ripper?” My heart dropped. It was big. It was fast. It was scary.

“Come on, it’s just another roller coaster.”

I knew better, of course. There was a reason I stayed with the slower, more reasonable rides. I didn’t like the height and speed of rides like The Ripper. But some sort of brotherly challenge in his tone made me agree. I refused to consider what we were about to do as we waited in line. Finally my sweaty hands gripped the cool metal of the safety bar, and we were ready to go. No turning back now–as if I could turn back and have any shred of dignity for the rest of my life.

The coaster clicked its way up the giant hill. Each click felt like another rock added to my stomach. At the top, the park spread out around us for an instant too quick to appreciate.Then we were rushing down and around the flips and turns. To my astonishment, I screamed in delight. What had I been afraid of? This was great! 

When we reached the end, I turned to my brother with a smile. “Let’s go again!” On the second ride, I racked my brain to remember all the huge roller coasters in every park I’d ever been to. My summer was going to be busy!

While you may have enjoyed both examples, you should be able to see that the second one showed more reflection on the part of the narrator. So could a student turn in either example for a personal narrative? At the sixth grade level, of course.

Teaching Writing

Teaching Writing in Elementary School

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Children enter kindergarten loving school. They eagerly begin learning their alphabet and look forward to writing their name. By the time they reach sixth grade, they groan when the teacher says, “Take out your pencil and three pieces of binder paper.” Somewhere along the line, writing has become a dreaded chore. Something has killed the joy. My goal is to make my students’ eyes light up when I assign a new piece of writing. I want them to be eager for the challenge.

When learning to write, children are expected to go from learning to write their name to sentences, paragraphs, then multi-paragraph essays fairly quickly. By sixth grade they are expected to be able to organize their ideas and express them coherently with correct grammar. Along the way, there are many possibilities for a student to experience failure. As anyone knows, the more you fail at something, the less you like it.

ORGANIZATION OF IDEAS…..When a student first learns to write multiple paragraphs, they are usually handed a format to use. By sixth grade, they have different formats for narrative, persuasive, response to literature, summary, and expository. Some of them are so busy worrying about what format to use that they lose sight of the goal: to communicate their ideas on the assigned topic. Maybe instead of teaching format we should teach them to think. Discuss the topic, get them riled up, then let them write. If they are truly trying to get across an idea, it will be organized enough to understand their point.

EXPRESS THEM COHERENTLY…..After a child learns the basics of writing, they are told to ‘make it better,’ often with no specific instruction how to do that. Teachers teach a variety of strategies (transitions, choosing better words, specific sentence structure). Students get frustrated when they use a thesaurus and pick the wrong part of speech. Their sentences become convoluted when they try to twist them into a certain format. They add extra words and bigger words in order to ‘make it better.’ Often, their ideas are lost.

GRAMMAR…..My own students will tell you that I am a stickler for grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Teachers have a habit of marking up an essay in red and handing it back. Students look at the grade and are happy or disappointed. They don’t look at the markups, especially if there are a lot. No one holds them accountable for improving. When they have some program of Daily Oral Language (DOL), instruction targets certain grammar rules. Very rarely, though, do students translate that to their own writing.

So what’s the solution? Practice. Just like any sport or musical instrument, the more they practice the easier the task becomes. When students master the first steps of writing, they can move on to learn new skills. Frequent practice keeps old and new skills sharp. Positive feedback is a must, even if it means letting go of marking some errors this time around. Work on clarity for one assignment and when that’s achieved move on to run-on sentences.

I strongly believe that all students can enjoy writing and do it well. It is a form of communication that must be learned. It drives me crazy when I get a promotional flyer with misspellings or see a sign with a missing comma. (Check out my DOL page) I’m frustrated myself when a student gives up and turns in junk (or doesn’t turn it in at all) because they fear failure. Maybe not everything you put down on paper is perfect, but something is good. Rejoice in that and do better next time!