Many of us looking at the new GCSE language papers are having to again (or perhaps for the first time) tackle the ‘autobiographical’ writing question.
Write about a time when you felt fear.
Write about your first experience in a new place.
While there is no actual requirement to write in the first person in the mark scheme and I have yet to have an exam board answer the question – if a student wrote in the third person would they get marked down? – we do need to a way forward for autobiographical writing.
Unsurprisingly when teenagers write in the first person about their own experiences they sound like teenagers. They are young, they sound young. Even pupils who read widely don’t always have a strong internal narrative voice. Ask a year 7 boy, who has only ever read Diary of a Wimpy Kid and David Walliams books, to write a personal narrative and they will write about someone having their head flushed down the toilet. There will be lots of SHOUTY capitals and a million !!!!
So where to begin?
I have tried so many different ways to do good autobiographical writing in the last few years and this one has worked consistently. It’s not without danger though.
Write using someone else’s voice for a while, then write yourself.
In year 7 I have a mini-scheme of work looking at the diaries of Darwin and Conan-Doyle (during his adventuring years). One of the reasons I love these two writers is that they diaries are factual. Their writing style mirrors the what I hope for in narrative generally – more Hemingway and less Henry James. We have already taught our students to ‘write like a scientist’ and this gives them a new opportunity to try it out. We take the Darwin style and the Conan-Doyle adventure and have them report on a shark attack at sea, or being accosted by savages, or experiencing an earthquake at sea. We peel back all the emotive language, ignoring subjective commentary and make clear observations as Darwin or Conan-Doyle.
Here’s an example I showed at #TLLeeds of a piece of writing done in this style.
While it is not the student’s own history, it is a better example of personal narrative writing than I usually see in KS3. Here is our starting point.
Fast forward to Year 9 and Year 10, how do we do good exam writing preparation? Again we begin with writing personal narrative for others. Here (Personal narratives – blog version) is a series of lessons (I use it very flexibly as a collection of writing prompts) where students write personal narratives for a favourite character from an existing story. It culminates in a short story called The Search, where the character is looking for something.
As with all writing, I work alongside pupils. You can see my plan for Don T’s search for coffee and love at the end. I do have the written up version somewhere which I will dig out.
We had some fabulous examples of this from Year 10:
- Mr Utterson, working at a conference as an usher, is looking for a delegate to give her a message.
- An aged Draco Malfoy is looking for his 5 metre swimming certificate to take to a job interview.
- Tinkerbell, who works as a dental nurse, loses her bag on the tube.
So when we have a plan, we work out how we can withhold the character identity long enough to engage the audiences’ interest. Utterson became simply Gabe. Draco: Drake. Tinkerbell: Belle.
Once students are comfortable with writing personal narratives for other characters. We started writing ourselves. This lead to an uncomfortable few lessons where students were to intensively self-diagnose how the world sees them.
As ever, I am writing alongside them. Often with this one, I model on the whiteboard first so they can see what I mean.
I go through a whole process of step by step developing a sense of self in writing. I model how when I write myself, I exaggerate elements of my identity and my personality. No one will know these are dramatic embellishments but for the purpose of personal narrative writing, it works.
The lessons I have attached here (Writing yourself – blog version) take students through a series of very simple activities where they write themselves focussing on their appearance, their actions, thoughts and dialogue. This gives them an opportunity to write numerous vignettes (which is less terrifying). It also allows them to build a holistic picture of how they can create their own narrative voice in a number of areas. They can be insecure, funny, cynical, upbeat. All of them, none of them. Then I present them with the scenarios at the end which they write, often reinventing some of their earlier writing.
I know I also promised stuff on mentor texts. This will have to be tomorrow now!