Teaching Students to Write their First Narrative Essay

When my sixth graders write their first narrative, I have them start by writing five sentences about an important time in their life. This is after we do a “choosing a topic of the right amount of specificity” activity that I need to share later. Why only five sentences? Because I want the playing field to be level. EVERYONE can write five sentences. No one feels behind. I write one, too. Here’s 5-line “essay” I wrote for one of my classes this year (remember I think it’s very important to be a transparent writer).

One time I baked a loaf of bread in the evening and left it on the counter to cool when I went to bed. The next morning, a whole bunch of the bread was chewed off the sides. I knew the cat did it! I was so mad at the cat. The next night when I put my daughter to bed, I found a whole bunch of bread crumbs and pieces under her pillow.

(I purposely started with “one time” because oooooh does that beginning my my skin crawl. Almost as much as “This essay is about…”).

Then, we walk around and read each other’s essays (mine too). As we walk around, we ask the writer questions by typing them right on the screen. There are a lot of ground rules, like only one person per computer, absolutely no talking, ONLY question-asking and no general comments (this prevents things like “good job!” and “funny story!” or even “this stinks!”). I model this before we start. As they question, I circulate too and make sure I hit the essays without many questions (I can quickly type 3-4 and the students have no idea who typed them or that I added more than one question).

Next, everyone goes back to their own computer and uses the questions to create a new version of the essay. Here’s my version 2:

Last spring I baked a loaf of bread and left it on the counter to cool when I went to bed.

The next morning, a whole bunch of the bread was chewed off the sides. There were crumbs all over the countertop. The entire loaf was practically ruined since there was a row of little chunks missing all around the top.

I knew the cat, Charlotte, did it! Who else could it have been? The dog is in a crate overnight, and we have no other animals but the cat. Cats are perfectly capable of jumping on countertops. Even though our cat has never done that in the past, she was the only possible culprit.

“That stupid cat!” I said to myself, “I don’t even like cats!” I even took a picture of the bread and posted it on Facebook to show all of my friends how bad my cat had been. I couldn’t wait to get home from school to check the sympathetic comments from my friends.

Then, I put the cat outside. I wasn’t sure how else to punish her. You can’t exactly spank a cat without them returning your wrath.

The next night when I put my three-year-old daughter Campbell to bed, I found a whole bunch of bread crumbs and pieces under her pillow.

The next day, we finish up version two. As the students finish, they stand up. As soon as someone else is finished and also stands up, they read each others’ , and within a short time everyone is circulating around reading essays and typing questions on them (once again, mine too).

At this point I start teaching a writing mini lesson every day. Things like using dialogue, good beginning strategies, vivid description, adding character traits, adding reactions, etc. After the mini lesson, they revisit their essay and try to add the skill we just learned about. When they are ready, they stand up, and start circulating. Not everyone ends up circulating every day, which is okay. Some are more comfortable with it than others.

A week or two in, I share with them my third version, which is closer to completion. I point out the techniques I’ve used that we’ve learned about. I explain that my essay is about 95% true but that I’ve embellished details to make it more interesting and filled in things I can’t exactly remember (like exact dialogue). It’s getting to long to block quote here, but you can see all four versions here: essay progression “Framed”.

When I finish my final version, I read it to them. Other days, I’ll read them the final versions from my other classes. This year, I also wrote about the time Lori and I saw the “cougar” eyes and about skiing with Evan and Lori . They enjoy listening to personal stories of mine. I’m not a fantastic narrative writer, but I think I can write well enough to explain it to a sixth grader. 🙂 I keep all of my stories in a folder where they can read them.

Once they have their final versions finished, they start sharing them with me, writer’s workshop style. This continues several times until they are ready for grading.

After we have written personal narratives (the easiest type), we are ready to work on other narrative tasks like writing an ending, retelling a historical account or scientific process, and so on.

Other narrative writing posts:
Teaching Historical Fiction Narratives
Narrative Writing — Using Character Description as the “Hook”
Using Art to Teach Descriptive Writing
My Narrative Essay Rubric (ironically I’m not using that one this year)
Using Skippyjon Jones to Teach Narrative Writing Strategies

In case you weren’t around to enjoy the “bread” story the first time, here are the pictures:

My loaf of bread on the counter:

Campbell’s bed: