When it came time for me to write a personal narrative essay for my college applications, I instinctively went to a five paragraph essay format. Naturally, this is the format (or a variation of it) I learned in my English classes in high school, and I was good at it.
However, something felt off. They were asking me to write about a time when I learned a valuable lesson, and here I was giving them a thesis statement as the last sentence of my introduction. When my mom read it, she thought the same thing: “It sounds good and it’s organized, but I have to say it’s missing something…it’s missing pizzazz.”
She was right. It was going, but it wasn’t awesome. It was standard, and that’s not how I wanted my first impression to be for the selection committee. I loved creative writing, so I decided to scrap what I wrote and rewrite it like the creative writing stories I wrote all the time. It worked!
The moral of this story is that when students break out of the formal essay model, they can and will write really powerful narratives. By teaching narrative writing, not only are we addressing Common Core Standards for writing narratives, but we’re also preparing students for tasks they’ll have to do outside of your classroom, like college application essays and scholarship essays.
I also want to make a distinction here between personal nonfiction narrative essays and fiction short story narratives. While both types of writing meet the standards for narrative writing, I’ve found that personal narrative writing is a great entry point into fiction narrative writing. In other words, it’s more accessible for students to write about something that happened to them in a creative way than for them to make up their own stories. While I’m focusing on personal narrative writing in this post, many of the strategies can be used to teach fiction narratives.
So, how can we teach students to do this? I’m going to share how I teach students to write powerful personal narrative essays. I teach this unit to juniors and seniors as they are preparing to write college application and scholarship essays, but these strategies can work well with other grades too!
1. Brainstorm with Conversation Starters
One of the hardest parts for students is deciding on a story worth telling. Sometimes they will be given a prompt, such as a college application essay. Even still, the prompts are usually very broad, so narrowing down a topic is the first and arguably the most important task. Powerful narratives come from memorable stories.
Therefore, to start a personal narrative unit, I give students a bunch of brainstorming cards. The goal is for them to discuss these topics with a partner or small group to generate ideas. I’ve found that talking through these ideas is a great brainstorming strategy. A perceptive partner will ask questions that can help them flush out the details. They can take notes and jot down ideas as they come up in conversation.
If they would rather have a “conversation” with themselves, I give them that opportunity too. As they are coming up with ideas, they may want to make a list or free write as an alternative
2. Provide Powerful Examples
After brainstorming topics, students may have several viable ideas. To help them narrow it down, we review many different personal narratives. I personally like to provide with different media formats to make the case that storytelling can be powerful in different formats. Therefore, the selection we use includes student essays from the New York Times essay contest, a podcast interview, a TEDTalk, and a formal essay. Here are some examples that we use:
- New York Times essay contest winner’s selections (This collection has eight personal narrative essays written by teens. These essays are perfect to use as mentor texts.)
- Salman Rushdie’s NPR Interview, Becoming ‘Anton,’ Or, How Rushdie Survived A Fatwa, personal narrative
- Brandy Robinson’s TEDTalk Your Narrative is Your Super Power
- Andrea Levy’s essay, Back to My Own Country
3. Answer the Prime Questions
The next strategy asks students to take their top ideas and narrow them down even further with the guide of a few important questions. To start, I want students to think about their writing situation:
- Who is their audience?
- What could this story reveal about you?
- Why would this reveal be interesting to your audience?
These questions help students narrow down to a topic that would be most appropriate for their task. In other words, some stories are funny or sentimental to the writer, but not to the reader. This helps the students focus on the reader, and it helps them identify what story would be the most powerful. Finally, this process encourages reflection so students are prepared to reveal something about themselves.
4. Judging the Details
Once they have their story topic selected, we complete judgement activity to get them thinking about the fine details. This activity aligns to a challenge that I noticed in many students’ writing: they were reporting, not storytelling. To show the power of using imagery and figurative language, I present them with two paragraphs describing the same setting. They read both and are to judge which section was more engaging and why.
Unbeknownst to them, I intentionally write one paragraph that reports the setting while the other one describes the same setting but with imagery and figurative language. The key to making this work is to make both paragraphs about the same length, so they can’t judge length, but have to go just by content. This activity usually produces a few ah-ha moments, which leads well into their own writing!
5. Practicing with Dialogue
To be honest, I don’t use dialogue in my own writing very often, so I had to give myself a lesson on dialogue before I created this strategy. Because students don’t often use it, they’re not likely to remember it off the top of their heads.
Rather than asking them to study and memorize the rules, I want them to put them into practice when they need them. For this task, I created a dialogue checklist. This strategy works really well because they can use the checklist as they’re writing to make decisions about quotations, formatting, language, etc.
To get them started, I give them one more version of the paragraph from strategy 4 (above). This time, I add dialogue. Not only does this demonstrate a much more engaging story, but it gives examples so that I can review the checklist with students before writing.
Once students have their essays written, we complete a peer review targeted at getting them to focus on “So what?” For example, the review might reflect, “So what is the purpose of this narrative?” You can read more about how I set up peer review and download my free peer review activity here.
Check out my complete personal narrative writing unit with all of these activities and strategies, plus a rubric and a narrative writing example, “The Big Scare.”