3 Ways To Draft A Literacy Narrative

All, Teaching Tips

Recently, as I was extolling the many benefits of the literacy narrative (see  “10 Ways Literacy Narratives Will Rock Your World”) another teacher asked me plaintively how I do it – how do I start students, who for the most part, do not want to write and do not believe they can write, to tell their literacy story. I am sad to report that as often as I have written about teaching literacy narratives I have not shared those tips, but today that ends. Here are my three favorite strategies for drafting a literacy narrative.

Slamming Our Stories

For many semesters, my literacy narrative work began with slam poetry. I cast a broad definition of literacy that encompasses more than reading and writing (see Transliteracy) and so we watch a selection of slam poems exploring a variety of literacy themes. I follow the simple strategy taught to me for using slam poetry as a writing prompt. We watch some slam poetry performances for inspiration, generating a list of possible topics as we watch, and then we pick one of those topics and write our hearts out. The goal is not to craft perfect piece, but simply to tap into a visceral memory. Then we discuss those memories and those discussions inspire more writing. This has been and continues to be fruitful ground for the stories we will use to build our literacy narratives.

Exploring Others’ Beliefs

I almost always use This I Believe essays to expand our definitions of literacy and the ways that others tell their literacy stories. I love using these models to help students better understand how to frame a simple claim about their own literacy, select anecdotes to illustrate that argument, and situate their story within a larger narrative framework. Some of my favorites to use for reading followed by writing and discussion prompts include:

Unburdening Our Hearts

This year I started the literacy narrative process more quietly. We began by simply drawing the shape of a heart on a piece of paper and coloring in the portions of our heart that represented either the love of or hate of writing. We wrote a while about why we felt that way and then we wrote “I Wish You Knew” letters to the person who most contributed to our fear, hate, or loathing of writing. We then shared our hearts and letters and that discussion inspired still more writing.

I typically use more than one of these methods and sometimes all three to first inspire students to share their key literacy stories. I have found that simply asking students to share important stories does not inspire the truly meaningful events because all too often they have tried (and often succeeded) to forget those events. Those are not happy memories and why should they willingly choose to relive them? Yet these unhappy memories can spark some powerful emotive writing. I have found that my approach unlocks words that many struggling writers did not know they had locked away. Students tell me at the beginning of the class that they are not writers and then as we engage in one of these activities will proceed to write hundreds of words in just a few quick writes. It is a powerful moment in any writer’s life when they can write their truth and see an audience touched by their words. That is how and why I teach literacy narrative. Do you teach literacy narrative? What entry points do you provide for your students?

Artwork via Pixabay


  • Deanna, do you know the poem “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Martin Jude Farawell? It’s one to get conversations started for sure. Brenda Hillman’s poem “To the Writing Students at Orientation” is a bit more involved, but worth time for students to get them thinking context. “But you are lonely with ideas; you came/ to this room because it is difficult to have consciousness in the twenty-first/ century, & you need a community, & here they possibly are, sitting beside/ you….” Hillman’s collection, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire is an inspiration. Thanks for providing literacy narrative specifics.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.