“A mouse sat under a tree. He was reading a book.”
– Arnold Lobel
As teachers of writing, we read lots of papers. Lots, and lots, and lots of papers. Usually I start off very enthusiastic about the whole thing, excited to see how far they have progressed since I last saw a draft or spoke with them about their work. About a quarter of the way into the stack of files, I start to lose steam, thinking about all the papers I have left to grade and realizing that I have gotten bogged down in reading and commenting. Somehow I find the umph to keep going – I need to get these students’ papers back to them, with comments that will help them learn more about writing, all in a reasonable amount of time.
Nothing stymies this process more than discovering, on paper three or four, that many students have written basically the same paper. Sometimes prompts that seem promising just don’t produce the kind of variety and compelling thinking and writing I imagine that they will inspire. And sometimes prompts lead to really heartbreaking personal narratives that are very difficult to read with a critical eye – how can I give a paper a C when it discusses a student’s experience with a parent’s terminal cancer or a similarly devastating event? How can I grade, at the same time and according to the same standards, these papers about personal tragedies and those where students discuss playing in (or cheering at) a high school football game as the biggest event in their lives? I close my laptop in frustration and put off grading for another day.
Because of the problems posed by just such personal narratives, I decided to try the literacy narrative and I have grown to love the assignment. Do I sometimes get a bunch of papers about how students’ parents used to read to them at bedtime? Yes, I do, and sometimes they are repetitive. But I also get incredible narratives about overcoming learning disabilities, about being the strongest (or weakest) reader in a class, about teachers who helped them to have the confidence to read out loud, about the first book they read all by themselves, about the cultural difference an international student noticed when he did not have this seemingly ubiquitous experience of bedtime stories with his parents, about learning to write so a young man could communicate directly with his deployed father.
These literacy narratives give me a window into my students’ experiences leading up to what can be a scary class for them: their first college-level writing course. I can see the baggage they carry, often pronouncing themselves “bad writers” here (if not on the first day of class). I can see the strengths they may or may not realize they have as writers. The literacy narrative helps me to figure out who my students are and the route they have taken into my writing course – it also helps them to see what attitudes and experiences they bring with them. And though the experiences are different and sometimes painful to the students, I feel much better equipped to grade their writing in these essays than in more general personal narratives.
I have another, more personal reason for embracing the literacy narrative: I am a mom. I have two beautiful daughters – Debbie, who is five and just started kindergarten, and Clara, who is two. Both girls love story time; Debbie knows her letters and sounds and is working on sight words and starting to blend sounds. She is learning to write more and more words every day. As the mother of two girls who are learning to love books, to love reading, to write (or pretend to write), I am in the thick of my girls’ own literacy development. It is such an exciting time; as someone who has spent much of my life with a book in hand, I am anxious to pass my love of reading and writing on to my girls.
One of our favorite stories to read together is Mouse Soup by Arnold Lobel. As a writing teacher with a background in literature, I always think about the frame (a mouse fools a weasel into releasing him by telling him he needs stories to make his mouse soup taste really good) and the thematic similarities among the stories the mouse tells; as a yoga practitioner, I think about the influence of perspective on one’s happiness in the “Two Large Stones” story, and on and on. Meanwhile, Debbie giggles because the weasel is fooled by the mouse and because “Ewww – yuck! The old lady mouse is going to kiss the police mouse!” and Clara snuggles up to me and comments that the little mouse in the picture is a baby mouse. The story ends with the mouse escaping: “The mouse hurried to his safe home. He lit the fire, he ate his supper, and he finished reading his book” (62-64). Is there a better way to end a day?
My students are somewhere between the girls and me in terms of literacy development. When I read their literacy narratives, my personal and professional lives come together in interesting and inspiring ways and I am compelled to keep reading and responding to their writing.