Teaching Narrative? Start with vignettes!

Teacher Essential Questions: 

  1. How can my students see themselves as writers?
  2. How could I teach narrative this year and what is one model text I could use to teach it?
  3. How can I become a practitioner of writing myself?
  4. Where can I find examples of student writing?

The Rationale

Why do units have to be writing genre themed? Why a narrative unit? A poetry unit? An essay unit? Why shouldn’t every unit include students practicing all three?

One of the greatest lessons I learned about teaching writing from Linda Christensen, director of the Oregon Writing Project, was to weave narrative, poetry and essay into all of your units around a common theme. This doesn’t mean that students craft, revise, and polish all three (though you could have them do this), but it does mean that students are dabbling in these modes throughout the year.

I love this for a few reasons:

  1. Students can see their progress over time. They’ll look at a vignette from the fall and a full narrative from the spring and witness how their use of narrative moves (techniques) became more nimble and interesting. Perhaps their poems in the fall helped them improve their imagery, but by the last poem of the year, they began to add extended metaphors and use white space to create meaning.
  2. Students get repeated practice with each mode of writing. It is rare for students to get something the first time. If they only write one narrative at the beginning of each year, how can we expect them to retain their learning and comfort with the genre 10 months later? By bringing narrative writing into all units in some form, students receive multiple opportunities to practice.
  3. Students build their confidence. If I only wrote one poem a year, I would never feel like a poet. Poets feel like poets because they write poems. We want our students to see themselves as writers. Asking students to write less than a handful of times a year does not a writer make.

In the spirit of taking laps with writing throughout the year, I like to have students write Micronarratives or vignettes at the start of the year. These pieces are shorter and less intimidating than full narrative pieces and also build the practice of writing great scenes with lots of narrative moves (techniques). If students can’t write rich scenes, how can we expect full narratives to be any good?

One of my favorite beginning of the year narrative assignments is My Education Vignettes. My teaching partner and I taught a cross curricular unit themed around Indigeneity and Manifest Destiny, so I wanted to use a narrative written by an indigenous author that would also connect with their learning in social studies. I landed on Sherman Alexie’s “Indian Education” as a model text, but this piece could be used in many other thematic units.

Before sharing my lesson plan, I’d like to say hi to the elephant in the room. Teaching Sherman Alexie these days is tricky. A. Because he sexually harassed at least several women who bravely came forward to share their stories last year (what a great opportunity to talk to kids about the ethical dilemma of consuming art created by people who have harmed others, btw). B. Because his success has unintentionally(?) eclipsed many other incredible Native writers including writers like Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Thomas King, and Leslie Marmon Silko among others.

The reason I like this model text so much is because of the writing it got out of me and my students. It’s quite fun to write scenes from your life throughout school, mess around with tone, and borrow some of the great narrative moves (techniques) that Alexie uses in his writing.

Here are some examples of my writing and student writing based on Alexie’s model:

Kindergarten by Student A (link to entire model, the student used colors to show their use of different narrative moves)

My hair, too short for my liking, whipped behind me as my legs carried to the back of the playground where the wall of trees stood. My two best friends Ashley and Oaklee trailed in behind me, dragging a boy behind them.

Instantly my guard went up. I knew both Ashley and Oaklee liked this boy, Wesley, so this could only mean trouble… well as much trouble as four six year olds could get into. 

Being the voice of reason, I defiantly crossed my arms over my chest and with as much brattiness I could muster asked, “What is he doing here?”

“Relax,” Oaklee said. “He’s just here because we asked him to come.”

I was even more annoyed than before. Both Oaklee and Ashley knew how much I despised Wesley for I found him incredibly annoying. 

I glared at him as we gathered in a circle.

“Let’s play truth or dare!” Ashley suggested while Oaklee nodded excitedly.

Ugh, I need to find new friends.

Ten minutes into the game, I was sure of one thing, I NEED to get out of here. Just as I was planning my escape route, things got serious. 

“Wesley, I dare you to kiss Ashley on the cheek,” Oaklee said gleefully. 

Before I knew it, Wesley was leaning in to kiss Ashley. Then, to my horror, Ashley turned her head and full on kissed Wesley.


My head snapped to the the left where I was greeted with the sight of moms car.

Thank God! Saved by the bell!!

I sprinted toward my safe haven, jumped in the car, and slammed the door.

“Mom,” I gasped still trying to catch my breath, “Boys are gross!”

Third Grade by Ms Fitz (link to entire model)

Who knows what my third grade teacher, Mrs. Baker, was saying before she said Oregon. Only, I know she didn’t say “Oregon”. She said, “Ore-ee-gone”.

My spine sat straight up, my right arm shot itself into the air. None of these Virginians knew how to pronounce my parents home state, and I was going to set this Virginian straight. Or I was just a know-it-all. 

“Yes, Jacque?” Mrs. Baker said, calling on me. 

“That’s not how you say it,” I unapologetically started, “It’s pronounced Ore-gun.”

“No. It’s not,” she said matter of factly. 

“Yes it is! Look,” I said, leaping from my seat and running to the bookshelf for a dictionary. I was pretty good with words, so I got to the ‘O’ page fast, scanning with my index finger down to ‘Oregon’ to look for the pronunciation.

Oregon /ore-ee-gone/

I stared at the page incredulously. My god, it’s a damn conspiracy! I thought. I flipped to the front of the book to confirm that indeed, the dictionary had been published on the East coast. 

Good thing my mom was my P.E. teacher and was teaching gym glass for first graders right down the hall! 

I sprinted out of the classroom, down to the gym and yelled for my mother with an urgency she couldn’t ignore. 

“Come on, Mom! I need you in my classroom!” I yelled, grabbing her hand and rushing with her back to class. 

My mom and I stood in the doorway of my classroom and I shouted, “Mom! How do you say the state you’re from!?!”

“Oregon…?” my mom said with a tone of inflection that denoted her utter state of embarrassment and surprise. I’m sure her eyes were wide with apology to Mrs. Baker, but I didn’t notice. I was too busy gloating. I was triumphant. 

9th Grade by Student B (link to entire model)

Athena’s curly, wild hair was moving all around her. It was layered like a birthday cake, the top brown, middle blue, and bottom purple, with cat ears adorned on top. Her brown eyes stared directly into my own hazel ones. Her face was flushed pink from the cold, and us arguing.

“But I’m telling you, if the grass is every single color except green, then it’s not green! It’s every color except green,” I said with a relaxed smile on my face, taking joy in the fact that she could get so worked up over colors. But, it would be a given that she wouldn’t want to be proven wrong by her friend that wasn’t an artist.

“It’s how we see light! It’s basic physics!” Her voice was getting louder, higher pitched than normal. Her cheeks puffed out as she breathed in, and held it to calm herself down. The people waiting for the bus around us didn’t pay us any mind at all, too busy either talking or dreading the school day. I gave a tiny giggle, it bubbling out before I could try to keep it down. A look of pure annoyance passed over Athena’s face, before she stopped mid eyeroll. It seemed that she had remembered the most important part of the argument.

“I forgot that you don’t take physics,” she muttered. I broke out into laughter, it tearing through me like an earthquake. It seemed that the earthquake was too strong, because moments later Athena was laughing too. We stood there, laughing like idiots for a good few minutes, before the bus rolled up to come pick us up. As we got onto the bus, I murmured to her,

“Grass is still technically not green.”

The 90 min Lesson Plan:

Before the lesson: Label pieces of paper with numbers 1-12 and tape them around the walls of your room. You are creating talking stations for later in the lesson. 

  1. Each student receives a copy of “Indian Education” by Sherman Alexie
  2. Read the story (either silently and alone or the first couple together then alone)
  3. Highlight at least one noticing* per vignette
  4. Label 4 of your noticings with a corresponding letter: (A) the noticing that resonates with your experience the most (B) the noticing that made you stop and think (C)  noticing a narrative technique you like (D) noticing a new narrative move that you want to try out
  5. Ask students to stand up and move to the number poster on the wall that matches the grade level from Alexie’s story where they labeled noticing A. For example, if the noticing that resonated with their experience was in Alexe’s “Fourth Grade” vignette, then that student would move to ‘4’ on the wall.
  6. Ask students to share their noticing and why it resonated with them in their small groups (usually 2-3 people)
  7. Ask students to move to the number poster on the wall that matches the grade level from Alexie’s story where they labeled noticing B
  8. Ask students to share their noticing and why it made them stop and think
  9. Repeat this for noticing C and noticing D. Be sure to make a note that students do not have to know what something is called to notice it — for instance, maybe a student notices a really great metaphor, but struggles to remember that its called a metaphor, that’s okay and will be addressed later.
  10. Between the C and D rounds, call on 2-3 groups so that students can hear the narrative moves that their classmates noticed. As they share, make a list of the narrative moves they notice on the board. This is the time to help students name their noticings. That great metaphor that student noticed and shared? Remind them that that is a great example of a metaphor! Write ‘metaphor’ and a few key words from the example on the board.
  11. After sharing noticings, ask students to return to their seat and let them know that they are going to be writing vignettes modeled and inspired by the vignettes of Alexie’s “Indian Education”. No need to go into depth about what a vignette is. Repeat the word and reference it and the text features, they’ll get it.
  12. Pass out a model (ideally yours!) and tell them that this is an example of three vignettes inspired by “Indian Education”. Read aloud or have them read and mark the text to notice where the writer (ideally you!) borrowed narrative moves from Alexie.
  13. Ask students to turn and share their noticings about what was borrowed. If time allows, share out to the whole class and add to the big list of narrative moves on the board. They’ll notice things like structure and dialogue and the fun hyphenated words and humor/sarcasm and irony etc.
  14.  Ask students to make a 3 column chart in their notebook and label them with Elementary | Middle | High. Have them take a moment to brainstorm memories and moments from each of these periods of time in their life. I prompt them a bit here (because they always say they can’t remember) to think about moments with teachers, friends, people they thought were their friends, after school, before school, learning something, lunch time, the playground, funny times, sad times, embarrassing times, times they were angry, etc. to help get them going. You could also model your brainstorm in front of them if you want.
  15. After 3-4 minutes of brainstorming, do a Mingle Share. Take 4-5 minutes of walking around the room to give one, get one. Give a story, listen to a story with 3 different people. No beehives! Meaning, they should only be partnering with one person and should mix it up! You can give them fun prompts for this.
  16. Ask them to return to their seats and add to their list. Hopefully the Mingle Share gave them some ideas.
  17. Before they start writing, remind them about the time and pacing in these vignettes, they take place over a very short moment. Remind them of the narrative techniques they noticed and we listed on the board.
  18. Write on writers!

Over the coming weeks of the unit, I ask students to write another narrative. For the portfolio, I ask them to pick one to work on and polish. We use feedback groups and mini lessons and coloring to revise and finally polish their pieces.

I had a ton of fun with this lesson and the students did as well. Their favorite part? Reading my writing about vignettes from my education and then sharing their own stories no matter how sad or funny or embarrassing. Try to write your own vignettes. The kids will love it.

*A noticing is anything a student notices related to style or content. It can be the use of italics in an interesting way or a part of the story that made them feel sad.

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