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posted: 10.2.09 by archived

As I wrote in my last post, for many college writers, the personal narrative assignment is the first prompt they are given in writing class. It can also be a difficult assignment to teach, write, and respond to. But like many teachers, I feel that the positive goals of this assignment outweigh some of its negative entailments.

I want to prove to students that everyone has a story to tell, and that they don’t have to be famous to have an interesting narrative. I also want to show them that there are many ways to write a personal narrative. My goal in choosing readings for How To Write Anything: A Guide and Reference with Readings was to showcase this diversity. And the book’s companion Web site offers even more models. Another one of my favorite sites is StoryCorps, a huge repository of audio files of people telling personal narratives. Hearing these stories can inspire students, and it can also show them that there are many ways to tell a personal narrative.

I have also experimented with changing the prompt for the personal narrative altogether, and asking instead for students to write in unique alternative genres that are personal, but that ask for different forms of self-research, self-exploration, and self-reflection. One possibility is an autoethnography: This assignment borrows its methodology from anthropology and asks students to view themselves from without—think of the perspective of the Lindsey Lohan character in Mean Girls. Or students can write a personal narrative that focuses on one particular theme, like the popular literacy narrative assignment. I currently teach a multi-genre personal narrative, in which students put their story together through multiple genres: letters, pictures, diary entries, maps, and so on. As composition scholars such as Julie Jung have shown, this approach moves students away from the traditional forward march of the 5-paragraph essay and engages them in important rhetorical thinking about the best genres to express their ideas. Finally, I’d love to try assigning students a multi-vocal personal narrative, in which they have to try to narrate their own stories from multiple perspectives, imagining an important moment in their life from several different points of view.

I think these approaches and alternative assignments can really encourage originality and discourage plagiarism. I also think they can revive an old standard assignment while focusing on the important goals we have for this writing. Please post your own ideas here, too, in the comments section. What strategies do you have for teaching the personal narrative? How have you altered this assignment?

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Categories: Assignment Idea, How to Write Anything, Jay Dolmage, Rhetorics, Teaching Advice
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