Using Poetry to Teach Narrative Writing

Teaching poetry to young writers has a certain magic. With poetry students suddenly realize that they can break rules, use powerful words, and in very few lines deeply connect to their reader. Somehow writing poetry can simply unlock buried emotions and memories the way no other genre can. Even for me, when writing fiction or a narrative I feel I need to be wordy and explain everything. Young writers feel the same pressure and often want to get into the “and then” rhythm. (Ex. I went to the store and then I picked up some fruit and then I paid for it and then I went home). Or young writers will have a story idea but aren’t quite sure where the story should begin. So to them they start where everything starts, One day I woke up and got out of bed. These habits are hard for young writers who want to explain everything and yet lose their reader in the process.

I have often struggled with helping young writers overcome these crutches. However using poetry can be a powerful tool to assist young writers to realize that they can start a story in the middle of action and that not every step must be told for a reader to understand. Poems in their design are snapshots or moments hanging in the air. However using a collection of poems to tell a story uses a collection of snapshots for a reader. Books such as “Love That Dog”  by Sharon Creech, “Out of the Dust” by Karen Hesse, or “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson all use a collection of free verse poems to tell one story. I particularly like “Brown Girl Dreaming” as it is autobiographical on the author’s journey to discovering writing but also her experience living in the North and South during the 1960s and 1970s. With each poem the reader gets a small flash and peek into the window of Jacqueline Woodson’s life.


I am not my sister.

Words from the books curl around each other

make little sense


I read them again

and again, the story

settling into memory. Too slow

the teacher says.

Read faster.

Too babyish , the teacher says.

Read older.

But I don’t want to read faster or older or any way else that might

make the story disappear too quickly from where it’s settling

inside my brain,

slowly becoming

a part of me.

A story I will remember

long after I’ve read it for the second, third,

tenth, hundredth time.

“Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson (c)2014

Alone, this poem packs a punch revealing a vulnerable memory about Jacqueline’s childhood. With this poem nestled among so many other chronological memories from her past, it becomes another harmonious note in her biographical ballad. Which leads me to ask the question, how can teachers help young writers use poetry like this to write narratives? 

IMG_1279 As a teacher when introducing a new genre or style of writing, it is our job to expose them to many examples to serve as our mentor texts. Using a book like “Brown Girl Dreaming” during a daily read aloud can provide clear examples of the types of writing your students will be doing. I often will have a visual chart (a.k.a. anchor chart) for our class to jot down elements and characteristics for the genre we are studying, poetic narrative. These anchor charts are on display in the room for students to refer to and for us to continue to add as we write. During a study of poetry, pausing to examine poetic narratives can be a good way for your class to see a purposeful goal in publishing. Rather than just publish a random collection of poems, working towards a poetic narrative can be a unique twist for students to explore.

One of my favorite prompts to extract powerful writing from young writers is to use the “I remember when” prompt. Start off by asking your students to write as many “I remember when” memories. Their writing can be focused on just one memory or several but the key is that they write for the entire duration of the quick write. Tell your kids to write until their hand hurts – that always works! I typically give my students about five minutes and I also write along side with them. Challenge your students to come up with memories that evoke strong emotions; sadness, fear, anger, anticipation, courage, etc. Rather than just focusing on “happy” moments, other emotions tend to pull out deeper and more substantial memories for writing. Allow students to share these “I remember when” moments and to see which ones might fit best to craft as a poem. Having a series of memories strung together, students can start to see what narrative story is being told. It is then easier for students to identify which additional memories, emotions, or reactions need to be written in order to fill in missing parts.

If you are looking to get more information about the book, “Brown Girl Dreaming” check out this interview with Jacqueline Woodson on NPR.

How are you using poetry to help young writers tell their stories?


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