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Teaching the Personal Narrative Essay
by Brad

Adult students often amaze me. Imagine a writing class filled with adults from Alberta to Afghanistan, writing outside of the standard five-paragraph model essay, assigned to write one sentence paragraphs, to use parenthesis, to try out a dash or two for the first time.

And then imagine that you’d asked them to bare their souls a bit and tell about a time they’d changed in some fundamental way. Using a model essay published by The Globe and Mail (When Bad Luck is really Good Luck), I began by sharing some stories from my first summer job away from home—working as a cook’s helper in a remote camp on the Arctic Circle north of Yellowknife.

I told them first in person, conversationally. The first person narrative is the same as a conversation and more the way we really interact with each other. A few of my stories were mildly funny and, being a ham, I had fun giving them a view of an eighteen year old boy away from home the first time.

But, the truth is, I’d never written it down before, that extraordinary summer spent at Camp Lake (such a prosaic name) just south of Bathurst Inlet and only thirty miles or so from the ocean. A bleak landscape—punctuated by boulders—that resembled high alpine meadows, in summer wildlife was abundant. Caribou migrated past for eight long days. Wolves as tall as a man’s shoulders dashed across the esker at the end of camp.

I helped them with ideas, notably by using a technique called RENNS, developed by Lynn Quitman Troyka: the “R” for reasons; the “E” for examples; the first “N” for names; the second “N” for numbers; and last, but most important, “S” for senses.

My first writing model was my RENNS list for the summer of 1974. It was published at our newest addition to the PALC’s resources: Pearson ALC English Students, a blog that gives students access to each other and to their teacher on questions concerning the difficult job of writing a 1 000-word essay.

I then posted my first draft to the blog, unfinished—an important model for the students, to let them know that tackling the story in parts was perfectly acceptable, to be expected, even, given the daunting task ahead. My words were read, but uncommented on by my students. Soon, some questions appeared on troublesome matters of punctuation and a student answered first. She gave good advice.

Then I posted my second draft, then a link to a rough but more finished third draft for them to see before their own final copies were due.

Their first drafts were read and commented on in the following class. I had them give “reader-based” feedback as outlined in Peter Elbow’s classic text, Writing with Power. With comments from their classmates in hand, the writers went home to work over the weekend on their final drafts. I did, too.

I got it done, but got a humbling lesson. It takes time to write a good piece. For my students, it took even longer, I’m sure.

The results were a delight. From a mother with a son living far away from home for the first time, to a young woman who’d lost her best friend to rioters, their work was honest, and filled with the tiny details that make for memorable writing—a baker watching his bakery burn; an unexpected present; laundry done in 50 degree heat; all the glass broken in a living room.

And they learned to break out of the standard essay model, to use punctuation for effect, to dare to use a paragraph as a form of transition or exclamation, to write conversationally in the first person.

Because their work is intensely personal, I’m not sure that any will be published here at the PALC. But if any student dares, you’re in for a treat!




(January 29, 2006)

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