Narrative Writing: The Orphan Child of the Common Core

By Rob Montgomery

Here is a neighborhood map drawn by a young child

Some of the most vibrant writing I ever received from my ninth grade students came courtesy of the Neighborhood Map, a writing activity I first learned about through my involvement with the South Coast Writing Project in Santa Barbara, CA, wherein students wrote stories based on events that occurred in their neighborhoods. These narratives were funny, heartbreaking, and triumphant—sometimes all of these in the same story.

In the process of writing these stories, students explored new concepts and built on lessons I had already taught. We revisited the importance of word choice, whether it was painting that one indelible image or selecting a strong verb to carry a character’s action. We explored the role of the narrator and tried writing portions of their stories from different perspectives. We practiced writing dialogue, which inevitably meant that I taught mini-lessons in punctuation. And I emphasized over and over again the idea – revolutionary for young writers who often feel at the mercy of the blank page – that they controlled their writing, not the other way around.

As my ninth-grade students learned, and others have argued, narratives require thinking that is every bit as rigorous as argumentative and explanatory writing. But, as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are implemented in my state of Georgia and elsewhere, narrative writing, unlike argumentative and explanatory writing, is often dismissed as though it is somehow an inferior genre. When narrative writing is squeezed from the curriculum, we miss irreplaceable opportunities to help our students understand and appreciate the power of the written word in their own lives.

The tendency to overlook the significance of narrative is certainly not a new idea. In his 1995 book Writing with Passion: Life Stories, Multiple Genres, Tom Romano acknowledges the “orphan child” status of narrative writing in schools. Romano offers up a compelling defense of narrative writing, which engages students in both analysis and synthesis. This was true for my 9th grade students, who had to consider word choice, syntax, and narrative structure in telling stories that rendered not just individual experience but attempted to hint at a universal truth. It was also true in the instances when I asked students to present research in narrative, non-expository forms, another approach favored by Romano and others.

In some places, narrative writing’s “orphan child” status is only growing more pronounced. It is because of my own positive experience teaching this genre that I’m sensitive to how I see it being taken up in the rush to implement the CCSS. This is especially problematic in Georgia, because narrative writing has been all but relegated to the margins of the high school classroom by the state’s model curriculum frameworks. While it’s true that the Georgia Common Core Performance Standards include narrative writing as one of the three primary genres to be taught, the model curriculum frameworks published by the State Department of Education (especially at the ninth and tenth grade levels) specifically identify argumentative and explanatory writing as the two genres on which to focus. Narrative writing simply falls into a catch-all category labeled “Narrative/ Research/Routine Writing.”

This might not be such a problem if teachers were free to deviate from these frameworks; the problem is that some districts have mandated them in a nonnegotiable fashion. In working with teachers from the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project, I know of at least three schools in three separate districts in the metro Atlanta area whose teachers have been instructed to use the state’s model frameworks (which include lessons and assessments) in an unexpurgated fashion, not as exemplars to be emulated but as actual lessons to be taught. I hear similar stories from former students now teaching in California, and reports are emerging from New York State about EngageNY, a program whose scripted modules are apparently being mandated by some schools. Respected writing researcher Arthur Applebee also sees implementation as one of the key “perils” of the CCSS, and acknowledges that they are less voluntary than they have been billed to be.

While it’s tempting to speculate about the reasons why some schools have deemphasized teacher autonomy and minimized (or even eliminated) narrative writing, it is more important for teachers, parents, and administrators to remember that the narrative writing we value is a part of the CCSS. In fact, in Appendix A of the CCSS, the authors go so far as to acknowledge the following strengths of narrative writing:

  • It can be used for multiple purposes

  • It features sophisticated techniques, such as dialogue and/or interior monologue to express character and/or the manipulation of pace to create suspense

  • It is interdisciplinary in nature, and can be used effectively in classes other than English Language Arts

  • It can effectively be embedded in non-narrative genres to achieve a particular purpose. (23-24)

As I’ve mentioned, one of the biggest challenges when it comes to the CCSS seems to be the way districts and schools implement them. The strengths of narrative writing are acknowledged in the CCSS, and we need to be vigilant in monitoring the content of curriculum frameworks at the state and district level to be sure that things we know to be valuable in the classroom remain there. Public schools are still responsible to the communities they serve. For that reason, teachers, parents, and other community members should not be shy in marshaling the strength of their voices to speak to school board members and administrators at the site and district levels when they see mandated policies and practices that run counter to what we know to work well for children.

Rob Montgomery is Assistant Professor of English and English Education at Kennesaw State University. He is also co-director of the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project’s annual Summer Institute. His most recent research on standards, education reform, and teacher identity can be found at English Teaching: Practice & Critique.

8 thoughts on “Narrative Writing: The Orphan Child of the Common Core

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  3. Your post struck a chord. The initial paragraph caught my eye and, although I live in a more rural area, the Neighborhood Map idea is an intriguing concept. However, I wonder how to tailor it without losing the vitality and essence of its structure to fit the lifestyles of students who live without all the amenities of a larger city? Is there as much action in a rural neighborhood? How do I get the students talking about what they observe in their environment?
    I love how you were able to incorporate mini-lessons within the assignment, i.e., learning/reviewing punctuation ­ something that is often missing in students’ writings today due to texting and IMing. Also, the emphasis on teaching them effective word choice is something that will carry over into other content areas, as well as in their everyday conversations.
    I have to admit I am saddened that CCSS is overlooking the importance of narrative writing within the curriculum, especially in the South. Narratives ­ both oral and written ­ have long been a tradition of sustaining historical accounts and family history. Students can learn from both writing and listening to narratives. Narratives encompass much more than just writing a story or retelling facts. You stated your students “had to consider word choice, syntax, and narrative structure in telling stories that rendered not just individual experience but attempted to hint at a universal truth.” It is a shame narrative writing is not given the same due as other genres of writing such as explanatory or argumentative. I agree with your statement that we “miss irreplaceable opportunities to help our students understand and appreciate the power of the written word in their own lives.” Words are a powerful instrument when taught how to play effectively.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Kimberly. I wanted to follow up on a couple things.

      1) I’ve done the Neighborhood Map activity with teachers and students from many different settings, including those who grew up in rural areas. In fact, when it comes to helping students create their map and tap into those childhood stories, I always draw a map along with them. I grew up in rural Ohio, so they can see how even though the parameters of my childhood “neighborhood” are a little broader, there are still plenty of stories to be found there: the time my brother had to be rushed to the hospital after nearly slicing off his finger on a sharp piece of glass he discovered in the freshly-plowed field next to our house; the time my high school principal dad caught students toilet-papering our house; the day my brother and I were terrorized by a rabid groundhog that came wandering out of the woods. Stories are everywhere, and by sharing some of my own experiences it helped students recognize just how rich their own childhoods were (even though they were still technically children).

      2) You make an important point about the storytelling tradition in the South. I find it troubling that by deemphasizing narrative in the classroom we’re sending an implicit message that the stories our students hear at home may not actually matter – or at least don’t matter as much as writing a persuasive essay or business letter. Of course, the argument could be made that this isn’t particularly surprising given how David Coleman, the main author of the ELA standards, has an admitted disdain for both narrative writing and the role student experience plays in constructing meaning about texts. I believe strongly that we still need to carve out spaces for students to leverage their histories into the creation of new knowledge, something the Neighborhood Map can do quite well.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment!

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