Literacy Narrative Activities

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Don’t be afraid.


These are the words I’ve been telling myself often this semester. You’d think after twenty years of teaching first-year writing I’d find a way to reduce my anxiety in and out of the classroom, but it still hits me every day. I envy teachers brimming with confidence and enthusiasm. I really do. I marvel at the layers of skill that my colleagues who teach have mastered. I think I’ve gotten okay. Maybe even pretty good. But there is still a deep and nearly omnipresent fear that every lesson plan, every classroom exchange, every attempt to motivate students toward authentic and original thought could go terribly wrong.


146748_pastedImage_1.pngI’m beginning this semester with a literacy narrative, a genre I’ve come to appreciate fairly late in the game as first-year writing faculty. I guess I should nod in the context of this blog post to the fact that the literacy narrative is one of the projects we discuss in An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing (p. 14).

I can’t know how many of you have taught this genre, and that frustrates me, so I would just like to talk about how I’ve overcome my fears so far this semester teaching such a beautiful, delicate, vulnerability-inducing genre and how I think it contributes to shaping me as a teacher and the students who teach me every day.


The diversity of students I teach at the University of Arizona are unlike anywhere else I’ve taught: Navajo, Apache, Latino, Black, White, affluent, poor, middle class, West Coast, East Coast, Midwest, Southwest, Southeast, Northwest, International students.


Building relationships and trust in order to create a safe space wherein students can reflect on and articulate the experiences that shape their identities in front of total strangers who look only alike in age has proven awkward and at times shocking.


But reflect and articulate they have. Stories of abandonment. Stories of having a paper torn in half by a high school teacher and thrown in a trashcan. Stories of drive-by shootings and murder. Of parents and families on the brink of collapse. Drug addiction. Abuse. Neglect. Previous teachers who don’t really care seems to be a common theme in FYW literacy narratives.


It’s a lot to process.


There’s a tendency to see students as “students.” Like some generic group of automatons who write papers for us to grade and correct and believe we somehow improve with our degrees and experience and comments in the one-inch margins surrounding their text. But it’s too bureaucratic, if you see it that way.


Students learn best when the agency of knowledge comes from within. I’ve always mistrusted “authority” figures and mistrusted even more systems where authority is rigidly structured.


I suspect, if you’re reading this blog post, you likely believe that writing has the power to improve your life. In the classroom, this only works if students believe you care about them, are sensitive to their experiences and identities, and are willing to embrace the awkward, painful, and uncomfortable moments in a classroom with compassion, openness, professionalism, and enough humility to learn from the very people we are supposedly teaching.


I love the literacy narrative because it sets the stage for the rest of the semester. It reveals character and truth, and if done well, encourages students to be courageous, open, curious, willing to learn, motivated, reflective, metacognitive. It teaches them about who they are, why they are here, and how they can move optimally forward in a complicated world.


What follows is a set of activities I employ to teach the literacy narrative.


We begin the semester by talking about our student learning outcomes. I think it’s good practice that students know 1) we have goals for achievement in this class, 2) what those goals are, and 3) where they come from.


A table in the preface of An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing illustrates how the book aligns with the WPA Outcomes Statement. The FYW course goals at the University of Arizona arise from the WPA Outcomes Statement and the Framework for Success, so I think it’s wise to acknowledge that with my students.


Activity 1 – Generating Ideas for a Literacy Narrative

One process-oriented group activity I use in the class to connect our outcomes to the literacy narrative is cluster mapping.


Students select one of our four outcomes and put it in the center of the cluster map on the white board in our room. They branch out and make a list of subtopics that include activities, genres, processes, or past writing projects that may have contributed to their development with that outcome.


One of our course goals is the development of reflection and revision processes.



The point is to get them thinking about our goals and the kinds of writing they’ve done in the past in order to generate ideas for what they might write about in their literacy narratives.


Activity 2 – Analyzing Sample Literacy Narratives

I usually follow this activity by introducing the project assignment sheet for the literacy narrative. I provide students with at least four samples of a literacy narrative. I prioritize developing group dynamics, and so one activity I’ll use is to ask students to read one of the sample literacy narratives, and then as a group they use a grading rubric to assess the sample. They have to negotiate the point values they would assign to all the criteria, and they present their sample literacy narrative and discuss how they graded it.


Activity 3 – Brainstorming and Drafting a Scene

It’s at this point that I try to highlight the unique features of a literacy narrative and point out how different it is as a genre than a research paper or a thesis-driven argumentative paper. This semester I’ve asked students to develop three scenes using sensory detail that follow a narrative arc representing a beginning, middle, and end to their narratives. We spend a day brainstorming potential scenes from their past experiences as writers and students, and then I ask them to draft one scene using sensory detail.


I give them a prompt I call “When I walked into the room I saw ________” and I ask to make use of at least three different sensory descriptions (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) in writing five to seven sentences that describe their scene.


Generally students love this kind of writing. It’s creative and reflective and often a new genre for them. That said, a good number of students fall back on summarizing too heavily, and so I’ll use the drafts (usually done in an online discussion board) to point out the differences between effective use of sensory detail and summarizing events.


Activity 4 – Developing Dialogue in a Literacy Narrative

We spend a day on dialogue. I point out the unique features of dialogue attribution, paragraph breaks for each new speaker’s line, punctuation around dialogue, and stylistic nuances regarding effective dialogue.


I’ll ask students to draft a dialogue-rich continuation from the sensory detail scene they composed the previous day, and then I’ll ask them to act as directors and choose actors to perform their written dialogue. Some students love to act. Moreover they generally find it exciting to hear their dialogue come to life in a performance by their peers.


Activity 5 – Five Objects, Mood, and the Final Scene

Near the end of the unit, I ask the students to brainstorm a list of potential final scenes with which they might conclude their literacy narratives. Once they have three to choose from, I ask them to select one. For that one scene, I ask them to write down the setting (time and location), characters featured in the scene, and the main idea or insight they want readers to understand about them by reading their literacy narratives.


We discuss these points. I offer feedback. Then I ask them to make a list of five objects that appear in the scene and to describe the mood they want to convey.


A student might write: library bookshelves, the table, my notebook, the clock on the wall, and flashcards. The student may write about the mood she wants to communicate. She may say she wants to convey the stress she felt or the anticipation of her final high school exam.


We discuss this stuff. I push them to explain how the mood of their final scene aligns with the main idea or insight they want readers to understand about them by reading their literacy narratives.


Then I ask them to write their final scenes using the setting, the characters, the five objects, and the mood they’re trying to convey.

I would love to hear back from y’all on this one. What activities or strategies have you used to teach the literacy narrative? What has been most helpful in the classroom?


As always, please like and share this post, if you found it meaningful. Thanks so much, everybody! Peace.

About the Author
Stacey Cochran is a Lecturer teaching academic writing at the University of Arizona. Before that, he taught for nine years in the First-Year Writing Program at North Carolina State University. He has also taught academic and creative writing at East Carolina University and Mesa Community College (AZ). He earned his M.A. in English from East Carolina University in 2001 with a concentration in Creative Writing. He was finalist for the 1998 Dell Magazines Award, a 2004 finalist for the St. Martin's Press/PWA Best First Private Eye Novel Contest, and finalist for the 2011 James Hurst Prize for fiction. He is an experienced videographer and interviewer who was the host of The Artist's Craft, a television show in Raleigh which featured interviews with many bestselling authors and literary scholars.