CCS Narrative Essays: Going in "Cold" 9th -12th

Analysis of the CCSS for 9th-12th narrative writing reveals a strong emphasis on structure and reflection. While the majority of students have written a narrative essay, with the understanding of how to “tell a story,” what they haven’t experienced, probably, is creating a purposeful design that expresses a reflective insight.

We can help students reach these goals by emphasizing that the choice of experience for the narrative can be construed as an argument or message to the reader. Thus, the impulsive drive to make the narrative “exciting” (which generally falls flat) is set aside in favor of a more profound, purposeful telling, towards which the standards point.
The prompt for a narrative assignment should call for reflection. Consider something along these lines:

Describe an experience in which you gained new insight into yourself, another person, people, or life.

Students don’t realize that what they consider to be the smallest of experiences can resonate with readers. Often, they’ll say, “Nothing’s happened to me,” or “It’s stupid.” They really don’t get that small things contain very powerful messages.

I once read a freshman comp essay about a young lady recalling the experience of taking care of a cow that she despised. The cow eventually got very sick, and by the end, she’d had a complete turn-around, desperately trying to save it. The poor animal died, but the insight she’d gained from the experience—which I could barely read through my tears—was absolutely wonderful.

Once we help students tap into the emotions under the experience, we find gold, so we must push them “deeper” into that experience to help them find the message or argument. 

The standards are multi-layered with many options, so we can use those options to our advantage by  constructing a more purposeful movement through them. 

Students may find it helpful to work through one experience, changing the approach to that experience each time. By having them stick to that one experience, we'll not only reinforce the standard's goal of purposeful design--same story, different ways--but we'll also reinforce the recursive nature of the writing process.     
Stage I:  First-person p.o.v. focus on progression of a single experience and pacing, description, reflection. Sequence: chronological.
Stage II: First-person p.o.v with a distinction between narrator and characters in the experience. Incorporation of dialogue. Chronological sequence, incorporating foreshadowing.

Stage III: Third-person limited omniscient, structured in  medias res. 

Stage IV: Third-person omniscient, sequenced in flashback, beginning with conclusion/reflection on the experience.

Stage V (optional):  Imagined experience in the structure of their choosing.

What works nicely with these stages is that you can evenly disperse them throughout a school year (one paper per nine weeks) with the optional final stage for those students who desire the challenge. Or, they could be dispersed by grade.  

The emphasis on the revisions of the work (either by year or grade) would allow for greater mastery of the skills as opposed to assigning several different prompts throughout the year. 

Using this approach, for example, Freshmen would work through one prompt in Stage I, providing several revisions of that same paper. 

Sophomores would work through Stages I and II that year, changing the prompt for 11th and 12th. Juniors would work through Stages I-III on the same prompt, changing the prompt for their senior year.  Seniors, would have it a little more rough, working through all four stages on the same prompt in the same year.

For those students coming into CCSS “cold”, this approach might help ease them into the expectations, and I hope that teachers will find the use of stages a bit less intimidating. Let me know what you think! :-)

Here are the CCSS, side by side:

Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences. 

9th/10th                                                           11th/12th
Engage and orient the reader by setting out a problem, situation, or observation, establishing one or multiple point(s) of view, and introducing a narrator and/or characters; create a smooth progression of experiences or events.


Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.


Use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole.

Use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole and build toward a particular tone and outcome (e.g., a sense of mystery, suspense, growth, or resolution).

Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.


Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on what is experienced, observed, or resolved over the course of the narrative.



  1. What do you propose for schools on that dreaded "block schedule", where instead of having a whole year to develop a writer, you only have a semester in which to cram in a whole year of writing maturity?

  2. Wow, those are definitely tough! Maybe have a "writing" time at the end of the block? The most I ever had to plan for was 180 minutes, so I tended to construct the lessons with the same approach as I might write a short story, complete with exposition, conflict, climax, and resolution! lol. I saw writing as the reflective, sort of denoument activity. It would follow a more lively, loud "climactic" activity. Thus, those last 15-20 minutes might be better served that way.

    One nice thing about high-schoolers is that they can make "leaps" as writers. I mean, if something clicks, they run with it. They can make a significant stride with the revision of one essay. That's why I like the idea of sticking with the same prompt. They don't get hung up on creating (details are already there); they get into the structure, which is what the CCS emphasizes. I hope this helps!

    If anyone else reading is working on this type of schedule, please let us know what you think! : )

  3. Correction: 100 minutes. (Don't know where I got 180 from!)

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