Posts Tagged ‘How to Write Anything’

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What Did You Do On Your Summer Vacation?

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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Enough About Me, Tell Me Something About You…

posted: 9.18.09 by archived

For many college writers, the personal narrative assignment is the first prompt they are given in writing class. As Robert Connors wrote in 1987,

“From the 1890’s through today, personal writing assignments have remained central to the teaching of composition. Almost every writing course includes personal writing, most start with it, and many concentrate on it.  Personal writing is not only widely assigned, but is widely accepted by students.”

One of the main goals of a personal narrative assignment is, simply, fluency. We want to get students to feel comfortable writing. So we ask them to begin by writing about themselves. The assignment can also serve an important social function in a writing classroom. Each essay allows the students to introduce themselves to you (their teacher) and to their peers. Sharing this writing allows students to learn from and about one another.

There are, however, some disadvantages to this classic assignment as well. For instance, when I say that the personal narrative assignment is popular and common, I am also speaking to teachers who have read thousands of these papers in their careers (or just this week). We can readily recognize the recurrent sub-genres of this form of student writing: from conversion narratives to stories of athletic triumph. Often, a personal narrative reads like a prose résumé or the treatment for a predictable Hollywood movie. It can be difficult to push students to write a personal essay that contains “genuine” reflection or critical thinking.

It is possible that the impetus for reflection or critical thinking calls for a difficult gymnastic — many students simply aren’t yet comfortable thinking critically about themselves. Many students may feel they don’t have enough distance from an experience to write about it. Others might not see their life as interesting enough to share. For many students, this assignment is simply too close to one of the most high-stakes forms of writing they have been asked to do in their lives: the college entrance essay. And so the genre doesn’t really feel new, and maybe it feels fraught to them.

Of course, none of these explanations should dissuade us from encouraging students to do this writing. There is too much to gain. I feel we need creative ways to critically engage the personal.

So I’ve developed alternative lessons and assignment ideas to help move students beyond predictable and clichéd narratives and toward more engaging writing.

Here are a few assignments to get students started:

  • Dialogue: Ask students to re-create an important conversation from their past.
  • Adjectives: Ask students to compile a list of adjectives that best describe them, and then use these words in a poem or short story.
  • Character Sketches: Ask students to describe important people in their lives (and perhaps to draw them).
  • Artifacts: Ask students to describe or draw pictures of key objects from their past (a baseball glove, a tree in their backyard, a bike), tell the story of the object to the class, and then write this story down.
  • Story Board: Ask students to draw several scenes from their past, describe the sequence between these key scenes, and then write this description down.
  • Playlist/Mix Tape: Ask students to choose a song that has deep personal meaning to them, or that was the “soundtrack” to an important moment or period in their life. Then listen to the song and freewrite, allowing the song to call up memories.

I find these in-class activities can spur students to “enter” their own lives from different angles. In my next post, I’ll look at some of the ways the entire assignment of a personal narrative can be redesigned.

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Categories: Drafting, How to Write Anything, Jay Dolmage, Rhetorics, Writing Process
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