In a time when people are more and more physically disconnected due to a global pandemic and only connected by the reassuring hum of the home wi-fi router, we are longing for connection. Unable to easily meet face to face, we seek out stories via television series, movies, novels, newspapers and podcasts to hear the stories of the lives of others. To connect. Stories ground us in our common humanity.
Recognizing this desire for connection and harnessing the power tools of a good story to strengthen non-fiction writing is the topic of Story Matters Teaching Teens to Use the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform by Liz Prather.
Prather, a teacher and a much-published freelance writer and blogger, demonstrates how to teach writing from a writer’s perspective. She shares how the most effective pieces of non-fiction are full of techniques gleaned from narrative writing to increase the reader’s ability to connect with, and thus comprehend, the topic at hand.
Starting with the assumption that not everyone will make the link between narrative tools and their use in nonfiction, the first chapter of Story Matters, amusingly entitled
“Narrative as Home Base, Ground Zero, Mother Ship,” explores both an expert mentor text and a student text using narrative skills in essays. This chapter is truly a fascinating demonstration of ways to rapidly improve non-fiction writing and provides a solid foundation for the rest of the book.
The remaining chapters explore lessons on developing writing ideas, characters, tension, structure, details, and language. The author gives permission to read and explore any chapter in any order as well as an invitation to keep showing up, practicing the skills and trying to get better. A person could learn a lot from even reading one chapter of this book.
Story Matters offers many clever, authentic and absorbing lesson ideas for budding writers than most books of this genre. In one idea generating activity Prather has her students create a timeline called “Your Life at a Glance.” Students record important personal life events for each year of their life and then research and record world, national, cultural and local events that occurred during these same years. Students discover areas of interest for writing fodder and develop a greater knowledge of what is happening around them, becoming more grounded in the bigger world that they inhabit.
Prather provides her students ample opportunity to explore craft moves and to discuss why the writer used the language they did or to bring attention to what the writer left out. “I want students to see every piece of writing as an artifact of someone’s decision-making.” She notes that only 20 percent of the research gathered for an information piece is used, statistically speaking. Students are welcomed to consider how important writing decisions are made, guided by the understanding that the goal is discovery, and that writing is full of possible right combinations. They are encouraged to play “even if it doesn’t end up in the final piece of writing.” This sense of autonomy when writing is essential for authentic voice and engagement.
In another exercise, Prather cuts up essays into sections and has the students play around with how the essays could be put back together with the discussion focus being “What delivers the author’s main point most effectively and why?” This is another effective way to have students reflect on possibilities for organizing structures that they can replicate in their own craft. Prather’s writing is full of a vast number of such activity examples.
“When we sail in with hamburgers, keyholes, and hourglasses, we cut students out of all the decisions, the measuring and cutting, that makes writing meaningful ……….no one knows where to start, and writing is frustration. There are no shortcuts. Students simply need to practice this decision making over and over to get a feel for the complementary zigzag moves writers make to structure a text.”
Story Matters is an exploration of craft, of thinking about writing, of creating a bridge between the writer and the world and between the writer and her writing. It engagingly demonstrates how far educators have come in the exploration of teaching the writing craft.
Elizabeth Ann Walker is a life-long educator with a background in the performance arts and wellness. A certified yoga teacher, trained sound therapist and meditator, Elizabeth has spent many years teaching literacy in Quebec and New Brunswick. She is an avid reader slowly working on writing about a 12-year transformative experience with Lyme disease.