It’s always the same routine dining out for lunch when away from my classroom for a conference. Instead of being across the hall in my department lounge that day with teachers I have known for a while – some ever since I started teaching 10 years ago – I was among strangers at the UW Club as I stopped for lunch after the lecture that brought me to campus. With nothing to hold my attention, I passively eavesdropped, the chatter like mumbles from a television in another room. One sentence from someone at the table directly behind me stood out, though. As I would later find out, I was sitting behind a couple of staff from the admissions office, one of which who said, “How can so many applicants not know how to write a narrative?”
Narrative, one of the writing modes CCSS prescribes, is tricky writing to bring into the classroom, and one I struggled with for several years. The catch is unless students have ample time to develop a narrative with adequate elements of plot, their work tends to be lackluster, seeming like shells of stories, and unless it is a creative writing class, there will probably not be enough time in the scope and sequence.
It was not until I overheard the couple from the admissions office while lunching that I realized I was working with the wrong genre within narrative writing. With everything else I had to teach in my ELA class, I did not have the time to teach students to develop a story with a complex narrative arc. Nor do college admissions offices give prospective students the space, usually requiring under 1,000 words for the personal statement as part of the application materials.
The Value of Vignettes
Vignette then became the genre that allowed narrative writing to flourish in my classroom. Its characteristics make it manageable in a unit; however, narrative writing tends to be the mode of writing students struggle with most. They question the purpose for writing it since many of them will not become professional writers. College admissions essays then justify the mode’s presence. Many colleges ask for a narrative essay as part of their admissions materials. The University of Washington admissions page on their website asks students to write “a comprehensive narrative essay” that in part demonstrates their “cultural understanding.” Western Washington University prompts applicants to “share a meaningful experience” and advises them to “make yourself come alive.” What better way to achieve that than through a vignette, which focuses on entrenching details of a character or situation instead of all the elements of plot. And I tell my students that these prompts are asking for vignettes – provocative brief snapshots of their lives. While many of them will not write professionally, many of them do aspire to attend college, and many colleges want them to write narratives to introduce themselves. Not knowing how to write narrative, many college applicants will resort to the expository mode as the college admissions staff indicated. Even students who are familiar with writing narrative, but not necessarily vignettes will struggle to develop a compelling story within the word limit.
Where to Start with Vignettes
Vignettes have their own challenges, though. While they may have naïvely seen vignettes as part of a larger work, such as The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, students most likely have not seen a stand-alone vignette. It helps to start a vignette writing unit with a plethora of mentor texts. Each year I have found myself spending considerably more time prefacing the unit with reading example vignettes, which helps students evolve a thorough understanding of how the genre functions and provides quality writing for students to emulate in their own work. A great resource for this is Short Takes: Brief Encounters with Contemporary Nonfiction edited by Judith Kitchen. Many of the pieces in this anthology are autobiographical vignettes, the same I ask my students to write.
Still, students struggle with the concept of a narrative capturing only a single, descriptive moment, and they will write narratives with superfluous details spanning a wide range of time. In this case, I take a student’s draft, find the most provocative part, and circle it, telling him/her to develop that one scene in the same amount of words.
As this school year concludes and your ruminations on the past nine months commence, consider how vignettes might fulfill narrative writing in your classroom in order to prepare students for the narrative writing they will do in the future.
When outside of the classroom, I enjoy mtn. biking, skiing, running, and grilling good food, but don’t enjoy karaoke or green beans, mainly because I can’t sing and was afraid of the Jolly Green Giant as a kid.