My solution has been to go more in depth on this important analogy. Personal narratives should be filled with emotion and the reader should be able to feel like they are there with the author. However, when students focus on a large event, they don't give these descriptive details because most of them just want to get the story out…and it is a long story! I can't tell you how many times I've gotten the story that goes from the moment they got in the car to go to Grandma's house until the moment they got out of the car when they returned…and 10 pages of writing later, it isn't at all engaging.
Focusing Personal Narratives – Start from the beginning.
I've found by spending time on the front end really focusing in on what a small moment is I can delve deeper into the nuances of adding description more quickly and grow my writers more fully. To do this, I dedicate about half of our first personal narrative unit to finding and narrowing in on ideas. Yes, it sounds like a long time, but for my students that is what it takes. We even cut an actual watermelon to give them a connection to hang on to as they think about the topic. (Quick side note, don't buy seedless!! Did that on accident one year and had to scramble to come up with a connection… Sometimes authors forget to focus on the seeds, and their stories are a lot less interesting. *Whew*)
I try to work in a number of engaging activities that work through the gradual release model. First, I provide models and we work to sort them. Next, students generate their own examples and non-examples. Finally, we start moving into the process of picking an idea and focusing our topic into a specific small moment. It takes some time, and I try to give tons of models from my own life. However, within this first round of lessons about 80% of my kids really get the idea and start producing focused small moment writing. The other 20% typically need a little more one-on-one support to really get there, but they definitely make significant gains.
Generating Ideas for Personal Narratives
Here is a sample of one of the first activities we do to help my students generate ideas for personal narratives. This activity has them sorting examples and non-examples. They are given the ideas, and we discuss as a class. Students color-code the ideas as we work through them together. Then they cut and paste them into the correct category. I have a similar sort that they complete independently after we do this model together. I also put a card sort that is similar into my language arts centers to help give students extra practice.
The next step from here is having students take a blank organizer and generate 3 ideas that are watermelons and identify seeds within each. I have a graphic organizer to help them with this, and it really seems to help. Finally, from there we move on to actually starting to pick an idea and lay out their personal narratives (which is a completely different process).
I've discovered that this process really changes the tone of my writing classroom for the rest of the year. Any time I ask the students to write about a personal experience, they are much more focused and discussing the deeper pieces of the event instead of just giving the play-by-play. It also helps us build a shared vocabulary as we move forward.
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Get focused narratives
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I hope this article gave you some ideas for helping your writers focus their personal narratives. If you’d like more ideas from The Third Wheel, be sure to follow me on Teachers Pay Teachers, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram to keep up to date and on the latest tips, tools, and freebies for your classroom.