Narrative Writing within Common Core

Whether they are disposed toward approval of the Common Core or not, I believe teachers can profit by looking at their classes and their school curriculum through the lens of the standards.

One of the topics on which study the Common Core has changed my understanding of teaching writing is their use of narrative. I’ve always had difficulty teaching narrative (and avoided doing it) because in my own experience a required narrative was typically a personal essay. I don’t have difficulty writing personal essays—I once wrote humorous personal essays for a weekly magazine—but I didn’t see personal essay as useful in the typical school and business situations students were likely to encounter. Moreover, I was reluctant to open myself to reading the self-revelations students vomited into their essays.

As I’ve been digging into the Common Core Standards, I’ve come to see they use narrative in the same sense that the news reporter uses the term story. The author puts events and people into a primarily chronological context in order to reveal to readers the significance of those events and people. The value of the narrative is not just what happened, but why it happened and what the narrative means for readers.

I’ve written elsewhere about Michael Umphrey’s work with the Montana Heritage Project. The projects Umphrey describes employ narratives in the sense that Common Core uses the term. Students do intellectual work (research, analysis, documentation) with and for agencies in their communities. Their studies often use records of the past (newspapers, photographs, court records, etc.) as raw data. They share and preserve their  findings for other researchers to build upon.

Just last week I began a course in Data-Driven Journalism offered as a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) by the Knight Center for Journalism in The Americas. This fascinating course looks at ways journalists and communications professionals in other fields can use data sources to tell stories explaining the connections between aggregations of data and how the data affects individual members of the audience personally.

These two different projects have some common threads:

  • Both projects use data that is directly relevant to the researchers, often because of where the researchers live/work.
  • The projects involve teams of individuals.
  • They involve real work, not make-work.
  • Projects may involve multiple data sources and multiple types of data sources (including print, databases, photographs, audio, objects.)
  • Projects may be presented in several different types of output, including print, audio, video, and oral presentations
  • Projects tend to be multidisciplinary.
  • Mathematical, scientific, technical, and graphic design skills may be needed to research, analyze, and communicate the story.
  • The end products are gifts to their communities.

I believe looking at these two different ways of story-making can help classroom teachers identify ways of using narratives for authentic, engaging learning in either a Common Core or non-Core environment.