Last time on Next Time Teaching, we were talking about resources for teaching storytelling. And, as I said then, I’ve always found students to be very motivated and enthusiastic to learn about storytelling and to write about their own life stories. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good at it.
One natural tendency is to want to tell a story about a really great thing that happened to them–a wonderful memory that they’d like to relive. Completely understandable, but often lacking in the conflict that makes for a good story.
On the other hand, students might dive into a difficult and complex topic, like their parents’ divorce or the death of a grandparent. And I strongly believe that writing can be a form of therapy and a great tool for self-reflection. But the qualities that make a story useful for self-growth aren’t always the same as those that make a polished piece of writing for an audience. And if the student intends to use the piece of writing for something like a college application essay, that mismatch can be challenging.
So what’s a teacher to do? Tread lightly, for one. Keep in mind that the piece of writing might be charged for the student. Use a lot of I-statements, as in “I get confused in this paragraph” rather than “this doesn’t make sense.”
But I’ve also found that certain prompts lead students into better topics than others. Asking them to write about an important decision or moment (a common college application prompt!) can easily cause writer’s block. Instead, ask them to think about their life in a different way. They may think of something interesting that wouldn’t have occurred to them otherwise. They can always clarify their topic later in the revision process. Brainstorming is the time to gather interesting ideas and new ways of looking at things.
Here are journal prompts for writing life stories that I’ve found have worked for a lot of people:
- Tell the story of your life in fairy tale format. Begin “Once upon a time, there was a _________” (what? prince/princess? orphan/lost soul?). Continue with as many fairy tale conventions as possible.
- Describe a memory that happened in the rain. What emotions do you associate with the rain?
- What stories have impacted your life? Do you associate yourself with a character such as Cinderella, Superman, Harry Potter, etc.? How have these stories or characters changed the way you see yourself and the way you tell your life story?
- Fill in the sentence: “I’m a _____________ living in a world of _________________s.” How are you different than other people? How do you feel about being different?
- Which part of your story has never been told? Who has never told this story (You? Parents? Teachers? Coaches? Etc.)? Why has this story never been told? How would life be different (for you or others) if this story was told?
- “Your family,” wrote A.A. Milne, “like every other family, has a language of its own, consisting of unintelligible catch phrases, favorite but not generally known quotations, obscure allusions, and well-tried but not intrinsically humorous family jokes.” Write about (or with) the language, phrases, and jokes that your family shares.
- Describe an important day from the perspective of the shoes that you wore. What insight do your shoes have about you?
- What stories are told about your name (or nickname) and how you got it? How has your name impacted your life? Do you feel like your life story would better fit a character with a different name or that someone with your name should have a different life story?
- Which of the seven dwarves are you (Sleepy, Bashful, Happy, Sneezy, Grumpy, Dopey or Doc)? Why?
- How would you like to change and/or continue your life story? Would you like to revise yourself as a character, the plot events that happen to you, the settings that you are in, etc.?
They’re together in a handout here. I also like to read them off quickly and have students write for just a few minutes on each topic. Often having a short amount of time keeps the critic voice off and allows students to write about topics that are more unusual and interesting than if they had longer to plan. And, as always, remind students that journaling and brainstorming are different than revising and that they will have plenty of opportunity to fix what they see as problems later.