Telling stories help us understand the world around us and helps us understand ourselves. Why, then, not use them to understand literature?
The writing we assign based on a novel or a play is often a literary analysis essay and, as much as that form of writing has its place, I’ve never seen it create much engagement from the majority of students. Yes, there are a handful of future English teachers in our classes who think literary analysis is fun, but the reality is that it will not inspire most kids to get excited about what they are reading and writing.
I’m not suggesting that we forget the literary essay, only that we should consider other forms of writing sometimes, especially ones that allow students to make real connections to the stories we ask them to read.
I love this quotation from Graves because it gets to the heart of what I’m trying to say here. Our traditional method of assessing literature may lead to “well informed” students but not to passion. Narrative writing can, however, because it allows students to explore their own truths and to develop skills that are effective for all types of writing: organizing, sequencing, using transitions, choosing the best words, showing, etc.
So how does it work?
Begin with some discussion and pre-writing that allows students to explore ways in which the events, characters and/or themes of the story relate to their own lives. Encourage them to choose a meaningful event from their lives so they can write about something that matters to them. That is the key. Once they are engaged in the subject, they are far more likely to dig into the writing and work on honing their skills. And, because they need to link to something from the text, they will be exploring important elements of the text at the same time.
With this kind of assignment, I always ask my kids to use an allusion to the text in their narratives. This does two things: it illustrates a connection to the text and allows them to use this literary device in an authentic way.
If you want a more literary focus, you can ask students to pass in an explanation with their narrative. I’d strongly suggest that this not become a mini-literary essay, however. You can ask for a brief paragraph that explains the connections, as well as quotations that illustrate this.
If you’d like to try this with your students, I’ve just created an assignment to use with Macbeth and To Kill a Mockingbird. You can check them out HERE and HERE. You can also give your students a more focused look at narrative writing with my stations.