When I first taught personal narrative in my freshmen Literature and Writing course last year I planned a traditional unit. I practiced descriptive writing techniques by having them listen to the first five minutes of Saving Private Ryan without the screen visible, noting what they expected to see based on the sounds they were hearing. I then showed them the movie again with just the picture and no sound, and had them reflect on whether their expectations were met by the visuals. We then spent time creating a visual paragraph to describe the first five minutes of the movie to a person who had never seen it, taking into account their experience of listening versus viewing. Students struggled with this exercise because it was difficult to include the auditory as well as the visual component into their writing. Descriptive writing, at its very core, asks to incorporate the use of the five senses when appropriate. This exercise took my students, who were very used to only writing about what they could see, out of their comfort zones.
In the two weeks I had allotted for the personal narrative unit, I tried my best to teach my students how to reflect on and write about a personal experience in a descriptive way. I wanted them to illustrate to a reader not only the sensory details of the experience, but also a lesson they learned or a moment of personal growth.
At the end of the unit, I was faced with the stark reality that I had failed to achieve this goal. My students had difficulty conveying their personal narratives in an immediate way to the reader. Asking my students to incorporate visual and figurative language while telling a personal story was an immense task because often they were writing about an experience they fully did not comprehend themselves because of their young age. Without the aid of reflection, or the ability to communicate the experience to another person, the narratives often lacked the hallmark emotional intensity and reality that are trademark characteristics of the writing. Regardless of my good intentions and the hard work of both my students and myself, the idea of personally connecting to an experience and communicating a broader lesson from that experience proved too complex and difficult for my ninth grade students.
As I approached the narrative writing unit this year, I decided to make changes. With the agreement of my PLC, I moved the unit to the spring and in December went on KQED Teach for inspiration as to how I could help my students learn how to communicate a narrative about their own experiences. It did not take me long to discover the KQED Teach course on podcasting.
As I worked through the lessons in the podcasting course, I was struck with inspiration about how to help my students create emotional connection in their narrative writing. I thought about how cool it would be to have my students work in pairs or groups of three to create a podcast on a personal experience they all had in common. Instead of adding an auditory component to their writing through exercises like watching Saving Private Ryan, I could have my students use their own voice to describe their personal experiences to serve as inspiration for their future narrative writing assignments. The podcasts would give my students a safe space to use their voices to express, reflect and learn from not only their experiences, but also from the experiences of their classmates. My hope was that the creation of the podcast would then allow each individual student to connect to their own personal narrative in a more immediate and emotional way that would translate into their writing.
As a teacher, I was intrigued by the format of podcasting because I believed that it would be an excellent media to help students use their voice in a low stress arena that would appeal to their interests. For the final in my class, students are required to give a 3-5 minute individual speech in front of the class which is often a terrifying prospect for a freshman. I find that the only way to dissipate the fear of speaking is through practice and podcasting seemed like an excellent way to offer my students a way to practice speaking about a topic that interests them for the final. In addition, I really was intrigued to have my students complete their work using a digital portfolio. Often, as a teacher, I ask my students only for the final product but never ask them to think about the steps that are needed to make the final product. This is the thought process which led to the Podcasting/Narrative Writing Assignment.
Last year, my students struggled to write personal narratives because it was a singular experience. They worked alone to write their narratives and peer edited narratives that were vastly different from their own. This year, my students created podcasts on common experiences such as failure, dreams, school/career challenges, student stress and illness. Students had to take an idea from this experience and use it as the focus of their narrative writing. While the podcast was an oral group story, the narrative writing was their individual written work. I asked my students to fill out a plot triangle chart for their story. I also included an example of my own narrative writing for reference, and gave my students one day for peer editing the narrative rough drafts. Then students created a digital portfolio that captured the entire process from creating the podcast to writing the narrative, ending with a reflection on the entire process. Having the chance to work together and to speak and reflect about their experiences in the podcast made a big difference in my students’ final narrative writing.
The process of finding a quiet place for students to record their podcasts was complex, but I received help from my colleagues and arranged to have students record in the library and office conference room. During the creation of this project, my students and I encountered challenges with technology. The chromebooks that I have in the classroom were not the best equipped for voice recording so students used smartphones to record their podcasts and uploaded the voice memos to their own personal computers. They then used Garageband or iMovie to edit the audio files. iMovie and Garageband only export audio files as an MP4, but Google Sites–where the digital portfolios were hosted–only play MP3s. So we all learned how to change the file format (thanks to the help of a Google search) and students were able to play the podcasts from their digital portfolios.
I was utterly amazed and humbled by the level of sophistication, honesty and genuineness that I found while reading the final drafts of the personal narratives. Since incorporating digital literacy in the classroom, I have become passionate in the belief that it is a conduit for students to express individual voice. Through this assignment, digital literacy has enabled my students to reflect upon their negative experiences and allow them to come to a place of growth and healing. As an English teacher, I find myself focused on the form of an assignment and digital literacy allows both my students and myself the opportunity to see that content comes in a myriad of forms. Incorporating any new type of assignment in the classroom is a risk because the outcome in undetermined. I am committed to continually learning and incorporating digital literacy in the classroom because I firmly believe it benefits my students.
At the end of my second year of teaching a narrative writing unit in my Literature and Writing I course, I can now confidently write that I believe that my unit was a success. Digital media literacy continues to be the key to instructional success in my classroom.
Stacey is a certified PBS Media Literacy Educator. Learn more about the program and how to get involved here. If you want to learn more about how to make podcasts in your classroom, take our free, online course Podcasting with Youth Radio on KQED Teach.