There’s Power in Narrative Instruction, Part 1

Recently, the state of Texas has made great strides in reducing the test length and the overall number of state assessments. I applaud these moves. Any step away from standardized testing is generally a good idea. However, I also fear a by-product of this decision.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) as a requirement of new laws enacted after the last legislative session reduced the length of the 4th and 7th grade writing assessments so they could be completed in one day. Yes, nine year olds were previously expected to stay focused for two days, in rigid rows, writing to prompts for an audience they would never meet.State Assessment Quote

TEA made the decision to reduce the assessment to a single writing piece: an expository piece. The personal narrative essay is no longer in any Texas state assessment.  The state standards (TEKS) still fully support writing personal narratives; however, the gravity of this decision resides in those who place a higher value on the state assessment. I know there are instances where the test has become the focus rather than robust instruction in all areas of the TEKS. I realize not all TEKS are created equal, but TEKS do not gain their importance from any assessment.  That comes from their influence in growing our students as readers, writers, and individuals.

The narrative structure is critical to building strong readers and writers. In Minds Made for Stories, Thomas Newkirk shares what he considers “absurdly simple rules for reading and writing: Read as if it’s a story. Write as if it’s a story” (43). For this advice to work we have first instruct students how to write stories. As an educator that works closely with secondary students, I ask/beg those educators that get to meet our students before me to not trivialize the writing standards that support the personal narrative and narrative writing in general.

Write as if it’s a story.     -Thomas Newkirk

Applaud Texas for decreasing the length of state assessments, but do not foolishly assume their decision indicates a hierarchy of writing genres. Good writers understand and use them all interchangeably. I am starting a series of posts about the power of narrative. Each post will look at a new reason teachers should not abandon the narrative mode of writing, and perhaps even grasp it a bit more tightly than before.

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

My “Worthless” Degree and What it Taught Me

Today it seems that every other Yahoo article focuses on which college degree will earn you the most money and which ones are barely worth the paper they are printed on. More than once my lowly communication degree has appeared at the bottom of the pile while the math, science and engineering degrees hold court at the top.

These articles often make me laugh and a little sad at the time. I think of those poor kids entering college for the first time without a clue about these lists. Is anyone warning them? I think about myself, back in 1997, clueless as to how the world of college worked. No one in my immediate and most of my extended family had ever been to college, much less graduated. I had exactly one person in my world who had gone to college. She lived across town and I rarely had an opportunity to speak with her.

What I learned in high school is that everyone expects the smart kids to go to college but no one really bothers to tell them how to do it.

They seem to assume the smart kids have family members who will guide them through the process. No one thinks about those of us who didn’t. *Newsflash* There are smart kids in low SES households. Trying to figure out applications, FAFSAs, scholarships, programs of study, best colleges AND complete your senior year is absolutely daunting. I chose to attend junior college my first two years of college not because I necessarily wanted this path, but because I simply couldn’t figure out the world of college while maintaining my honors course load, my class ranking, and work. I was intimidated by I world I wanted to join that didn’t really seem to want me. Knowing this about myself always made me empathetic to the seniors I saw in a similar position. You always know who they are. It’s evident in eyes that yearn for something just beyond their grasp.

We tell our kids the American dream is to overcome long odds and make something of yourself and that the first step is a college education. But, no one gives them a solid road map. Later, we scratch our heads and wonder why they drop out. Then there are those like myself who preservere to later learn from Yahoo News that their degree is useless. Fantastic.

I remember when I choose my degree plan. I was on a tight budget and knew I couldn’t manage five years of school, so the degree needed to be a four-year plan. That meant no pharmeceuticals, architecture, or engineering. I knew I couldn’t pick a degree that would require HOURS of study because I had to keep a job to pay my bills so I could actually go to school. That nixed math and science (while I understood the concepts, it didn’t come nearly as easy as reading and writing). That left me with a Bachelor of Arts in something. I liked to talk and write plus the communications degree required the fewest hours- win! They called it public relations – whatever that was – and it never occured to me to try and figure out how this degree would translate to the real world. Remember, I was a kid new to academia and the business world. I assumed a degree meant a good job. The end.

I ended up with a Bachelors of Journalism with a focus in Public Relations and a minor in Marketing. I graduated the August before 9/11. On September 8th I had a fabulous interview with a PR company and nailed a job. On Septemeber 13th, they called to let me know all jobs were frozen. Many PR people were later laid off and the chance for me to enter that field was gone.

Many times I have cursed my choice of undergraduate degree as worthless. I blamed myself for being uninformed when the truth is that I was as informed as a person in my position could have been. I see many young people now in the same predicament. It’s sad. However, I have been fortunate enough to recently realize my degree choice isn’t all that worthless.

While it’s true that I had to go back to school to earn a teaching certificate and later a Master’s degree to be successful in my craft, my original degree has been highly beneficial. My Bachelor’s taught me how to write in a professional, concise, error-free manner. It taught me the power of a good narrative and the art of persuasion. Public Relations taught me how to work with people and present my messages in the most people-friendly way possible. Marketing gave me tools to sell an idea or product. These skills are invaluable. I probably call on them now as much as I do my curriculum expertise.

Fortunately, I managed to land on my feet. My hope is that the other kids out there in the same boat I was manage to do the same. I hope their Art History, Fashion Design, and Creative Writing degrees pan out as well as mine did. In the meantime, we need to remember these students exist and help those hungry kids who want a future- and are willing to work for it- but need a little direction to help make it happen.

Terrified

I need to do it.

           You want to do it.

What if I mess up?

           What if you never speak up?

How do I start?

            How can you not?

When will I have time?

           You won’t. You’ll have to make it.

Others will judge me.

           Others already judge you.

You can share all that you’ve learned.

             I just want to talk.

Then start the conversation.

          …

You are terrified to write.

I am more terrified of not writing.