Writing personal narratives: Perspectives from inside a CÉGEP ESL classroom (by April Passi, Manal Djerroud, and Arianne Lemay)

“Storytelling brings family together. It brings students together. It is shared experience that helps us see and understand each other. It is time well spent in the teaching of writing.” (Penny Kittle, 2008, p. 129)

In this blog post, we share our personal perspectives, musings, and ideas on the value of writing personal narratives in the ESL classroom. After years of effective but unsatisfying English second language instruction, Manal and Arianne feel like this type of writing was worthwhile. So much so, that they even put in extra time over several weekends to co-author this blog with their instructor, April. Personal narratives are a way to change the dynamic in the classroom, from top-down impersonal curriculum to “something to look forward to”, a chance to express real stories that matter. We hope that after reading our reflections, other ESL teachers will be inspired to try creative and personal writing projects with their students.

 

April’s Story

When I am assigned highest level of pre-university English as a second language offered at the CÉGEP, I decide to continue my experiment with personal narrative writing. I had tried this type of writing with my students last year, and with Anglophone high school students years before when I first read Penny Kittle’s book Write Beside Them (2008). The students in my pre-university class are motivated, smart, curious. At the beginning of term, several students lit up when I told them we’d be doing a unit on narrative. Those same students are still excited, if not a bit tired since we’re now nearing the end of term. Other students shift uncomfortably in their seats and share sidelong glances and whispers. I explain that I want these narratives to be drawn from personal experience, which can certainly be uncomfortable in a college classroom, with a teacher and peers you hardly know and will only be studying with for a few months. However, as I start sharing my own ideas for a storyboard – reflections on moments of my life where I was angry or being hard on myself to write a narrative on the theme of tolerance – something in the room changes. I’m inviting them in, to laugh with me at my quirks, to share in my outrage, and most importantly, to watch as I grapple with language and ideas. We start writing “moments” together. I’m “writing beside them”, projecting my work on the screen at the front of the class. Honestly, I’m breathless and nervous. What if my writing sucks and my students lose respect for me? Does this assignment make sense? What if I make too many spelling mistakes? But the room is calm. Everyone is writing something…everyone is just trying…including me. I start to forget my nerves and just enjoy the flow of memory being shaped and expressed in words. After a few minutes, I invite my students to read what I’ve written, talk to them about how my ideas for a story are developing, and invite them to do the same.

A few months after the introductory class, I’m at my kitchen table with a stack of student narratives. With anticipation, I start reading. These are amazing stories of overcoming sexism, travelling to new places, learning about different cultures. Some make me laugh right out loud, some chill my spine with fear, still others bring me to tears. I’m so grateful to my students for having shared their stories with me. This is real writing. Penny Kittle (2008) writes, “I ask students to reach for an emotionally charged place because that’s where the energy to write well comes from” (p.104), and I have to agree with her. Most of my students have gone well beyond the word length requirement in the syllabus (following Kittle, I refused to give students a word limit for this assignment in order to encourage the writing process), and I can tell that most of them have wrestled with language to develop vivid imagery, captivating dialogue, and a structure that matches what they want to say. The texts still contain errors in English syntax and grammar, but despite that, each student has conveyed powerful meaning by digging into their personal experiences and looking for something important to say. This is most valuable kind of learning.

 

Manal’s Story

I was lucky enough to learn English at a young age. Indeed, I had the chance to attend an intensive program in fifth and sixth grade which is the only reason I am fluent today. English is my third language and I use it often.

When I first started learning English, my teacher focused a lot on grammar and obviously, it is very important to first learn the basics (vocabulary, verbs and syntax). It certainly helped me to feel confident in my writing. Then, once in high school we were expected to write essays. The writing topics, subjects and constraints, however, were boring and frustratingly not interesting. In CÉGEP, after five years of discouraging high school English classes, I was looking forward to being challenged again by an English class, something that hadn’t happened to me since sixth grade. Once again, I was disappointed. These discouraging school experiences are the reason I now believe that something has to change.

The personal narrative writing project Miss April tried with my class is, to me, the perfect solution to these problems. Creativity is a very important aspect of learning, because everyone of us is unique and we all have feelings inside we’d like to express and being creative allows us to do just that. The narrative writing project gave me the chance to put my thoughts, ideas and emotions on paper and I held nothing back. For the first time, I didn’t have to follow a certain structure imposed by the teacher and I could write about whatever I wanted.  It was freeing to experiment with sentence structures and vivid imagery.

I enjoyed every second of this project and I was very proud of myself once I submitted my work. I had so much fun doing the personal narrative and it even gave me a boost of motivation when I attended class every morning.  For once, I was given the chance to write about a theme that is very important to me and I was allowed to write how I wanted, because no structure was imposed. I did something I wanted to do and I felt accomplished.

 

Arianne’s Story

Creative and narrative writing are not something I was confronted with very often in English class, but I started writing on my own. Creative writing became my way of getting out of long, dragged out classes and assignments I finished too quickly.  My English classes bored me the most I think, not because of the teachers but because the level of the classes was always weaker than what I could achieve, and we were never pushed to do more.  Whatever creative or narrative writing we were asked to do was always a way to judge our writing and with a subject like “talk about your summer”, “What’s your favorite hobby”, and so on. It was never more than a few lines long and was either work that just didn’t matter or translations of work you did back in fourth grade in your main language.

It took until my last year of CEGEP with April to get a long, fulfilling creative writing project, the most fun I had in years in an English classroom.  We were allowed to write about the theme we wanted, to write it how we saw fit and it was truly eye opening. Usually, my creative writing is a narrative in the third person of an extraordinary adventure. It was never about me or my experiences.  If there was pain, it was the character’s and so I never sought out in my pool of experience to write it more realistically. The character wasn’t real and if I wanted it to die, it would and no one would care about it being realistic or not.  Narrative writing was a project of self-discovery, because it forced us as the main character to look back and pinpoint what was a strong enough memory and make it stronger for the reader to enjoy, feel and understand.  It was taking something personal and turning it into something anyone could read and be able to understand: the pain, the joy, the sadness, or any other emotions we could have felt in that moment we chose to write out. It also made me realize how hard it is to express emotions and how I lacked in ways to describe them at first.

I know today, expressing emotions to others is scary and it’s hard.  Expressing emotions can be seen as a weakness by our peers, or we can be disregarded and it hurts so we keep it bottled up inside in fear. Narrative writing, I really do believe, can help youth express their feelings better, even if English is only a second language like in Québec.  It allows the students to reflect on, to put it out in words, and to describe what we felt in that moment we chose to share with our peers and that we rediscovered while writing it down to share it.   It helps us to understand the second language better as well, because you want to convey the emotions correctly, so you have to look at the translation of said emotion.  Creativity is so important for humans, it allows us to put names on deep feelings and share them with everyone, and yet modern education barely allows students to dive in it and grow from that.

 

Final Thoughts                

We wrote this article together because we knew what had happened in our class was truly meaningful. As we reflected on our experiences and everything we had learned from teaching and writing personal narratives, we wanted to find out if any research had been done on creative writing in second language settings. We found that researchers such as Hanauer (2012) and Kenemen (2016) suggested that writing poetry in second language classrooms supported ownership of the second language by displacing the native speaker ideal and encouraging students to find their own authorial voices. This reflects our experience in the classroom, where writing personal narratives provided a meaningful and authentic engagement with English that was challenging, empowering, and gave students a space to develop their identities. Penny Kittle (2008) has the following to say about writing personal narratives:

My goal in the first weeks is to infuse confidence in my class. I want [students] to realize they can write well – to believe it. But I don’t believe crafting story is easy. What is true about narrative is the student is the authority on the topic. Authority empowers voice. (p. 102)

Kittle’s observations that writing personal narrative empowers student voices is just as important in the second or foreign language classroom, where students are possibly even more in need of feeling they have the right to the language. Manal and Arianne’s stories reflect the power of narrative to promote positive growth and multilingual identity building (Kramsch, 2009).

April also notes that writing personal narratives can potentially have some profound impacts on the language classroom and beyond. She proposes, based on Kittle’s teaching strategies (2008), that teaching personal narrative in the classroom can be a site for language learners to critically think about how they use language and how their identities are constructed. Students can read mentor texts that share stories from a variety of perspectives, and writing can empower students to develop their own voices and critical reflection on their own experiences.

Author Biographies

 

Manal Djerroud is a 19-year- old student in her second year at CÉGEP du Vieux-Montréal. She is studying both natural sciences and social sciences and decided to work on this article because she has an interest in the teaching of English as a second language in Quebec. Manal is interested in literature and a lot of other subjects, but she will probably study history in university and she might one day become a teacher. (Guest Blogger)

 

Arianne Lemay is a CÉGEP student in the history program who enjoys English classes and creative writing in her free time.  She studied in a music program in secondary school and currently works at St. Justine hospital.  This is the first time she is writing an article that will be published, and she is currently in the process of being admitted to UQAM in the History program. (Guest Blogger)

 

References

Hanauer, D. I. (2012). Meaningful literacy: Writing poetry in the language classroom. Language Teaching, 45(1), 105-115. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0261444810000522

Keneman, M. (2016). Empowering the foreign language learner through critical literacies development. Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 12(2), 84-99. Retrieved from https://proxy.library.mcgill.ca/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1969009791?accountid=12339

Kittle, P. (2008). Write beside them: Risk, voice, and clarity in high school writing. Portsmouth, Heinemann.

Kramsch, C. J. (2009). The multilingual subject: What foreign language learners say about their experience and why it matters. Oxford: Oxford University PressBottom of Form

 

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