Many of us learn by watching others do something and then we try the “something” on our own with greater independence. Learning to write is no different. Sometimes writing mentors are the authors of the books we read. Sometimes writing mentors are our friends and family. And oftentimes in an educational setting, the mentors are also the teachers who model through shared writing.

Over the years of teaching writing I have developed a few tips and tricks, and this next “top tip” applies specifically to teaching personal narrative writing. The problem I always encountered was that my personal narrative (aka small moment story) didn’t fully resonate with my students because I was the only one who lived the experience. It was all fine and well for me to tell my students what happened when I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro etc… but there was no connection – and because the students couldn’t relate it was hard for them to contribute to the shared writing experience in a way that was meaningful to them. At least that’s what I like to think.

And so the solution I stumbled upon was deceptively simple. Craft a “shared experience” with the whole class, something both the teachers and students live through together and can relate to. Yep, it’s that simple.

Obviously in person this is way easier to do, and my go-to skit over the past couple years has been to really need to go to the bathroom just as the school day starts (not all that uncommon actually). As I dash off my co-teacher Ms. Yuka then suggests to the kids “wouldn’t it be funny if we locked Mr. Alex out of the classroom.” And so it starts … I return to a locked classroom and mayhem ensues!

The sticky notes above are taken from the planning stage of our shared writing experience.

Because all the students share the same experience it becomes so much easier to model writing with intentionality. This is especially important in all those elaboration lessons where we often ask students to “add details” only to be met with blank stares. Since I started creating these shared writing experiences the students are so happy to contribute to what they “saw, heard, felt, etc.” Plus, because we lived the experience there is a sense of pride and ownership in the shared writing piece and so much more engagement.

This year (August 2021) as we started the school year online the complications in creating a shared experience were magnified for obvious reasons. Students appearing as small boxes on a screen … well let’s just agree a less than ideal scenario. However my wonderful colleagues and I decided we wanted to try and make it work so and this is what we came up with …

Picture this … Friday grade 2 gathering on Zoom with all of grade 2. Mr. Alex starts off the assembly with a read aloud. A few minutes in he gets interrupted by Ms. Wright looking for the ISKL panther. Then all the students share their stuffies on the screen hoping it is the long lost panther. Alas no. Ms. Wright is persistent and keeps searching under the couch, in the BBQ, everywhere she can think of but no Panther. Next she spots the young ISKL panther floating in the pool so she decides to jump in and save it but Roxy (her dog) jumps in ahead of her to save the day and carries the young panther on it’s back to safety. Crises averted. Everyone lived happily ever after … and we all lived through a shared experience together (albeit on Zoom).

As an added bonus we recorded the whole experience online so we will be able to watch it again and again as needed to refresh our memory. Given the circumstances it worked well enough.

So this year if and when you start teaching personal narrative writing give the shared experience a try, I promise you won’t regret it and will pay dividends with every lesson you teach.

** Special thanks to Ms. Yuka for her illustrations and assistance always **