Welcome to our first writing unit of the school year. Below you’ll find a detailed description of each element, as well as ways to put them together to make your own custom writing unit. To learn more about other writing units, visit our writing curriculum overview.
Stories can thrill, wound, delight, uplift and teach. Telling a story vividly and powerfully is a vital skill that is deeply valued across all cultures, past and present — and narrative writing is, of course, a key genre for literacy instruction at every level.
When your students think “New York Times,” they probably think of our 168-year history of award-winning journalism, and may not even realize that The Times today is full of personal narratives — on love and family, but also on how we relate to animals, live with disabilities or navigate anxiety. If you flip or scroll through sections of the paper, you’ll see that personal writing is everywhere, and often ranks among the most popular pieces The Times publishes each week.
At The Learning Network, we’ve been posting writing prompts every school day for over a decade now, and many of them invite personal narrative. Inspired by Times articles of all kinds, the prompts ask students to tell us about their passions and their regrets, their most embarrassing moments and their greatest achievements. Thousands of students around the world respond each month, and each week during the school year we call out our favorite responses.
This fall, we’re taking it a step further and turning our narrative-writing opportunities into a contest that invites students to tell their own stories. To support it, we’re also starting a new series called “Mentor Texts,” which spotlights great Times models and helps demystify the personal essay and other writing genres for learners.
In this unit, we’re putting it all together. You won’t find a pacing calendar or daily lesson plans, but you will find plenty of ideas and resources to get your students reading, writing and thinking about their own stories, including:
✔ New narrative-writing prompts every week.
✔ Daily opportunities for students to have an authentic audience for their writing via posting comments to our forums.
✔ Guided practice with mentor texts that include writing exercises.
✔ A clear, achievable end-product (our contest) modeled on real-world writing.
✔ The chance for students to have their work published in The New York Times.
Here’s how it works.
Start with personal-narrative prompts for low-stakes writing.
We publish a variety of prompts every week that encourage narrative writing and related skills, and we invite students to respond to them on our site. Each is drawn from a student-friendly article or image that has published in The Times, and links back to those pieces. All are open for comment by students 13 and up, and every comment is read by Times editors before it is approved.
We publish two types of prompts:
1. Student Opinion Questions
These prompts invite students to read a Times article and then respond to questions that help them think about how it applies to their own lives, like these:
2. Picture Prompts
These accessible, image-driven prompts inspire a variety of kinds of writing. Many invite students to write about experiences from their own lives, like “Dog in a Backpack,” which asks: What are the weirdest, most interesting or most surprising things you’ve seen on public transportation?
You can find all our Picture Prompts, added as they publish, here.
At the end of each school year, we round them all up and categorize them by genre of writing. Take a look at our collections from 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19, and scroll down to look for the categories like “What Story Could This Image Tell?” and “Share Experiences From Your Own Life” to find many prompts that can inspire narratives.
Ideas for Using Our Prompts to Teach Narrative Writing
Teachers tell us that they use these prompts in their classrooms in a variety of ways, whether to practice writing, spark discussion or inspire lessons. Here are a few suggestions for how you might weave them into a narrative writing unit:
Help students develop a daily writing habit by using prompts as warm-up activities at the start of class. Students can share their work in pairs or small groups.
Assign them as homework. Many teachers invite their students to scroll through what we’ve offered on any given week and choose their favorite prompt to respond to.
The comments section can offer a “rehearsal space” to practice honing voice, trying new techniques and writing for a real audience. Every week, Times editors select the student comments that do these things particularly well to be featured in our roundup of our favorite comments.
If students are writing formal personal narrative essays, whether for our contest or not, our prompts might serve as inspiration to help them find topics.
Read mentor texts and try some of the “writer’s moves” we spotlight.
The Times is full of wonderful writing that can serve as mentor texts for helping students look at the various elements of the genre and think about how to weave specific craft moves into their own writing.
We have broken narrative writing into several key elements and spotlighted a mentor text that does a particularly good job at each. Here are the six we will be starting with, each aligned with criteria from our contest rubric (see below). We will link to them here as they publish in September.
Tell a story about a small but memorable event or moment in your life.
Use details to show, not tell.
Write from your own point of view, in your real voice.
Use dialogue effectively.
Tell a complete story, with a true narrative arc.
Reflect on the experience and give the reader a take-away.
After students read each text and focus on a specific technique, we invite them to “Now Try This” via an exercise that helps them practice that element. Then, we provide additional mentor text examples, as well as a list of questions to consider while reading any of them. The goal is to demystify what good writing looks like, and encourage students to practice concrete exercises to use those techniques.
Enter our Personal Narrative Essay Contest.
At this point in the unit, your students will have practiced writing about their lives using our many prompts. They will also have read several mentor texts, and practiced elements of personal writing with each one. Now, we hope, they can produce one polished piece of writing that brings it all together.
This contest invites students to submit a “short, powerful story about a meaningful life experience.” Beyond a caution to write no more than 600 words, it will be fairly open-ended. We’re not asking students to write to a particular theme or use a specific structure or style; instead, we encourage them to experiment and produce something that they feel represents their real voice, telling a tale that matters to them.
All student work will be read by Times editors or journalists and/or by educators from around the country. Winners will have their work published on our site and, perhaps, in the print New York Times.
Visit our 2019-20 Student Contest Calendar for more information.
Related: Our “Show Us Your Generation” Photo Contest
In the fall of 2018, we ran our first-ever photo contest for teenagers, and we were dazzled by what we received. Here’s how we introduced the challenge:
What stereotypes about teenagers do the adults you know seem to hold? How does the media portray people your age — whether you’re called Gen Z, iGen or anything else?
What can you show us from your own life, or the lives of those around you, that might help make that portrait more interesting, nuanced, complete or real?
In this contest we invite teenagers to take photographs that depict some aspect of teenage life that you think may be misunderstood, ignored or largely unknown, and, in a short artist’s statement, tell us why. We hope to be able to use some of the winning work in the print Learning section that will come out in early November.
We will be running that same contest again, concurrently with our personal narrative contest. While the two have somewhat different prompts, we see both as invitations for students to explore issues of identity and voice. Teachers focusing on narrative writing may want to bring in photography as a multimedia addition, either in their own classrooms, or via collaborating with art-department colleagues.