Personal narrative and developing a student’s own narrative voice

Writing

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.

sneak peek 2

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:

  1. Mr Utterson, working at a conference as an usher, is looking for a delegate to give her a message.
  2. An aged Draco Malfoy is looking for his 5 metre swimming certificate to take to a job interview.
  3. 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.

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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!

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Flash fiction not flash bang (my presentation at #TLLeeds)

 

Slides

For those of you who attended my presentation yesterday at Teaching and Learning Leeds, here are the slides: Flash Fiction Not Flash Bang by Louisa Enstone

 

Before you open it – I need to get a few things off my chest (again)…

The government are controlling our students’ creative voices – this is wrong

DfE legislation has forced creative writing into a technical corner from which it is very hard to escape. I said yesterday that teachers are prisoners of the government legislation and while this metaphor is a tab hyperbolic, the constituent idea is true.  When creative writing is most frequently discussed (and marked) in terms of its technical components, then it is easy to see writing as only a technical exercise.  It is no surprise that these requirements have resulted in checklists, success criteria, targets and marking rubrics have reduced creative writing pieces to another form of gap-fill. This time each sentence has to have a different technique (a simile, prepositions, gerunds – yawn).

Ok – hold your horses. Writing is a technical exercise. Yes, I agree. But… what the DfE have done is take literary techniques stretching across several centuries (not to mention numerous forms and styles of writing) and funnelled them in what is a very modern form of writing: flash fiction. This is why it doesn’t work.

Flash fiction

Flash fiction (a term somewhat unfairly abhorred by academics) is any fiction that does quite make it to short story length. Flash fiction can be anything from 250 words to 7,000. Our students are writing a few pages. They are writing flash fiction. It doesn’t matter how you feel about the term. Call it a very short story. Call it concise narratives.

But don’t mistake it for a novel. It isn’t. It shouldn’t sound or feel like one.

Don’t forget that at GCSE this piece of writing is spontaneous, unplanned (because a 3-minute plan at the beginning of an exam is not a plan) and unedited. While this might mirror ‘real life’ writing scenarios (might), it does not in anyway mirror how writers of fiction (or indeed fact) work.

As part of my presentation I set out the main differences between novels and very short fiction. What we teach explicitly and what we intentionally avoid. I make the case the novels are long enough to absorb great literary flourishes. Short narratives cannot swallow them. The plot and characters become bogged down.

In my session, I also talked a little about developing a strong narrative voice. I didn’t get enough time to talk this through properly.

So here’s a whole new blogpost on developing narrative voice in writing.