Regular commenter Crystal has asked for some more details about my Personal Narrative course, in which I focus less on literary analysis and more on literary appreciation. Here’s some general info on how the course unfolds. Feel free to steal/adapt/query, etc.
Module 1: Literary Analysis Review
In the first part of the course, we all read The Glass Castle and discuss the genre of the personal narrative. We review elements of narrative (theme, plot, setting, character, imagery/symbolism) and they apply them to the memoir. We then do a short analytical essay in class based on a choice of unseen texts (I like using the “Lives” section of the New York Times magazine as a source for excellent very short personal narrative texts.)
Module 2: Book Talks
Texts: students have a course pack containing copies of the front cover, the back cover or inside flap, and the first chapter of eight book-length memoirs. I ask them to browse this pack and then tell me the three books they’d most like to read. This term, I included the following texts:
- Boy: Tales of a Childhood by Roald Dahl
- A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
- Stick Figure by Lori Gottlieb
- Just Checking by Emily Colas
- Dharma Punx by Noah Levine
- Lucky by Alice Sebold
- Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
- Epileptic by David B.
I assign one book to each student, so each book is read by a group of 4-5 students. Their major assignment for this module is a “book talk,” in which they must, as a group, present the book to the class and encourage the class to read it. Each person is responsible for a 5-7 minute presentation on one of the following topics:
- Plot summary: this is a challenging topic, because you will need to give a detailed enough summary to intrigue the audience, but you can’t give everything away! Try giving a brief overview with a description of the important characters and relationships, and then identifying important events/scenes that you found interesting, and explaining why.
- Discussion of theme: Identify an important theme in the memoir. Make sure you state your theme clearly and precisely. Then give evidence from the memoir to support your theme, WITHOUT GIVING THE WHOLE STORY AWAY.
- Historical, geographical or cultural information: Identify the historical, geographical and social setting of the book (where, when, and in what social context it happens) and discuss important facts that readers may need to know that will help them understand the story better. Make sure you make direct connections between the facts you provide and the events of the book.
- Discussion of another element of the narrative: You may wish to discuss the author’s use of another literary element such as conflict, characterization or imagery, and how it helps us understand and appreciate the story.
- Medical information: Some of these memoirs are about physical or mental illness. You may wish to provide facts about the conditions the narrators or their family members suffer from. Again, make sure you don’t just give a list of facts – connect your information to the characters and events in the book.
- Author info: This book tells a story of a particular event or time in the author’s life. Besides the events in the book, what else is interesting about the author? For example: what happened before or after the events in the book? Has the author published other books, stories, etc., or have other works been written about him/her? Is the author still alive? If so, what is he/she doing now? Tell us any information about the author that you think adds to the information in the story.
- Personal connections: Choose a scene, character, event or idea in the memoir that you found particularly interesting and discuss why you related to it. Tell us about how this aspect of the book reflected events in your life, and why other people in the class might relate to it too.
- Difficulties: Tell the class about some challenges you had, and that they might have, in reading this book. Explain why it will be worthwhile to take on these challenges and read all the way to the end.
- What you learned: Tell the class about some important things you learned from reading this book, and tell them why the book is effective in teaching readers those things.
- What you loved: Tell the class about some things you loved about this book. Be detailed, but again, don’t give everything away. Sell the book to the class!
- Bonus topic: Dramatic scene: Two or more group members might want shorten their talk from five minutes to four, and then to bank their extra minutes in order to perform a scene from the book at the end of the talk. Take care not to run over time if you do this.
After all the presentations, students must write a Book Talk Report in which they explain their impressions of each book and justify which book they will choose for their third reading.
Module 3: Comparison
Text: each student chooses a second book from the list above.
Students must write an essay comparing the memoir they presented in their book talk to the memoir they have chosen for their third reading. In this module, we are also going to look at examples of personal narrative in film (maybe Persepolis?) and in radio/TV (This American Life).
My goal in the course as a whole is to balance the ministerial requirements of the course (understand and analyze a genre) with my personal goals for the students (learn to behave as readers by choosing reading material, discussing it with others, making informed decisions about what to read next, thinking through the pleasures and difficulties of a text, etc.)
Toward the end of the semester, I’ll let you know the general student response to these various books.
Your questions and suggestions are welcome and anxiously awaited.