Cultivating Student Voice through Narrative Writing

“As someone who grew up reading and writing, no one ever asked about my stories,” she said. Her lesson plan now is about “letting students know that their stories are valid and academic. To tell them, ‘your voice changed the room, pEvery day, students at University Laboratory School, a public charter in Honolulu, Hawaii, have the opportunity to spend a quiet 10-15 minutes with their teachers for a Writer’s Workshop. One on one, they talk through the student’s progress on writing assignments they were assigned to complete during class. But these aren’t the stale essay responses most students might be familiar with. Instead, University Laboratory’s K-12 students and teachers pour over reflections on culture, bias, literature, and media, all written in narrative form. Narrative form writing is writing that tells a story from the point of view of the author. The authors in this case are the students telling their own stories.

Bill Teter, English curriculum developer and former department chair at University Laboratory School, said the purpose of this approach is to help students gain confidence in their writerly skills. “It is to teach students to find their own voice, to empower them, to make them feel valid.”

In the 1990s, James and Cheryl Harstad, who headed University Laboratory’s English department at the time, found inspiration in professor Peter Elbow’s book “Writing Without Teachers.” They chose Elbow’s method due its alignment with strategies they saw were already working well with students in the classroom. The couple worked with Teter, then an English teacher and curriculum developer, to draw up a curriculum that focused on the narrative form and reader feedback for grades 6-12. Called the “Golden Triangle,” adapted from Elbow’s method, this approach has three components: a daily journal, in which students respond to a prompt, writing nonstop for five minutes each day; grammar and sentence dictation (labelling parts of speech for older students); and reading aloud.

A departure from the traditional five-paragraph essay assignments, University Lab’s approach sets out to help students connect with their writing early on. “It allows students to speak from a personal point of view,” said Christina Torres, who teaches ninth-grade English at the school. “It’s reflective writing, where there is a connection between the text and the self.” That connection, the thinking goes, allows students to respond and engage with discourse pertaining to their own cultures and backgrounds. Torres’s syllabus includes assignments with titles like  “Community Sketch” and “False Expectations: Examining our Own Bias and Assumptions” to complete these writing assignments, are asked to reflect on factors and experiences that shape their identities.

This is useful for the culturally responsive teaching Torres says she strives for in her classes; one of her goals throughout the academic year is to help students understand social justice issues – those in their own backgrounds as well as the conflicts facing the world outside of school. One assignment prompted her class to consider the meanings of the terms “allies” and “advocates”:

Write about a time you helped someone else or worked with someone to achieve a goal.

Have you ever had to ally with someone else to do something? What was it? What happened?”

Torres said assignments like these can validate students’ own experiences.

“As someone who grew up reading and writing, no one ever asked about my stories,” she said. Her lesson plan now is about “letting students know that their stories are valid and academic. To tell them, ‘your voice changed the room, people heard you’ is empowering [the] student voice in an educational world that often doesn’t value it.”

On a practical level, the reflections prepare students for the college application process, which can be daunting for those who haven’t yet connected to their writing voice.  “Writing becomes so natural for our students… that by the time they head to college, writer’s block is not a problem they face,” Teter, the curriculum developer, said. “They become confident in their persons – ‘I can say what I want to say, I can put my thoughts out there.’”

Teter said the emphasis on narrative writing helped to “encourage peer-to-peer interaction, and improve grammar and sentence structure.” The school also includes instruction on forming arguments and critical thinking, using exercises like textual analysis and close reading, but, Teter said, “we believe that storytelling is the backbone of writing.”

University Laboratory’s approach holds weight with educational scholars, who see the value in the additional skills it offers students. “We used to think about ‘writing’ as a stable thing that could be taught, but now we think about it as a process or a practice that needs to be developed” says Robin DeRosa, professor of English and chair of interdisciplinary studies at Plymouth State University.

“Those of us who teach composition are very attuned to the fact that a lot of our students won’t end up writing academic essays once they graduate from college,” DeRosa said. “We want to prepare our students for graduate studies, yes, but we also want to prepare them to write for a wide variety of audiences, and engage their readers in appropriate ways.”

Narrative form writing meets students’ learning outcomes and also increases students’ enthusiasm about writing. Torres recalls one of her students, who was not very enthused about writing. Throughout the year, he began to not only enjoy it, but also have fun with it. He started writing his own Science Fiction pieces that he proudly shares with the rest of the class. When asked what she thinks appealed to him when it comes to narrative form, “he found his voice, he had agency, he was able to choose what to write about. That made a big difference to him” Torres says.

The method isn’t without challenges in the classroom.“It does mean we have to push harder for kids to do analytical writing that some other disciplines require,” Torres said. “And it also means more training is required for us teachers to teach kids how to turn narrative writing to analytical writing, or even how to bridge the gap between the two.”

Torres said the teachers are provided with manuals “supported by qualitative research” to help them understand how to use the narrative form in lessons. Torres and Teter said teachers are also participate in continuous professional development sessions and regular faculty meetings to ensure that students’ and teachers’ needs are being met.
That preparation and support carries University Laboratory School toward James and Cheryl Harstad’s original goal: to unlock students’ passion for the written word.

“Writing doesn’t have to be painful,” Teter said. “Analyzing literature doesn’t either. Primarily, I want students to see that literature is not outdated, and it is still very much relevant to their everyday lives.”

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