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Home  >  Teaching and Learning  >  Writing Workbooks  >  Multiple Skill Levels
Literacy Narrative Assignment
By Kate Partridge

Kate Partridge

My composition courses are structured around scaffolding assignments and in-class practice for several major assignments, including a personal narrative reflecting on an educational experience and a profile of a community organization. Throughout the semester, my students learn to identify the voices active in a conversation; analyze their arguments, perspectives, and values; and formulate appropriate and powerful responses. I believe that students write best when they are responding to and identifying real rhetorical challenges, and I design my assignments to help students become aware of the unique requirements of their own communities and roles as citizens.

The literacy narrative, a common assignment among composition instructors, is the first assignment that my students tackle in English 111: Introduction to Composition. The assignment asks students to begin the process of developing their voices as writers by constructing a narrative related to their own encounters with language and information; they describe an experience related to reading, writing, or information literacy and discuss its importance. During class sessions, students focus on elements of effective narrative writing, including imagery, dialogue, and character development.

For instance, in "the restaurant exercise," students work in groups to describe a location (a restaurant of their choosing) in as much detail as possible. Then, groups compare their scene descriptions and eliminate any elements that are common or may reasonably be assumed by a reader-for instance, we can safely assume that any reader imagines that a restaurant has tables, plates, and chairs. What makes descriptions of places, and people, interesting, is what sets them apart-the odd wall decorations or the host with a bright orange necktie. Then groups revise their descriptions to focus on these engaging details rather than the banal.

The following student examples take approach this prompt from two common angles. In the first essay, Maria Rarillo Luna weaves her own literacy experiences as a bilingual student with her observations of her aunt's therapy practice. I particularly like how Maria uses vivid scenes to develop character, and her thoughtful reflection on how language impacted her education. The second essay, by Khulan Bazarvaani, describes a recent encounter with a book that caused her to reflect on her own relationship with her father. Khulan uses detailed descriptions of life in Mongolia to offer an alternative role of fatherhood.

Assignment Description:

For the first essay assignment, you will write a literacy narrative: a type of memoir that relates to your process of learning to read, write, or share other symbolic communication. Your narrative will identify and describe a specific literacy experience that shaped you as a person or a student and discuss how the event affected you. You will draw on your own experiences to practice synthesizing narrative, description, and analysis while developing your own writing voice.

You may select an event from any period of your education, and your experience does not necessarily have to occur in the classroom-it could be something that happened at home, at basketball practice, or any other time that writing or reading was meaningful. It should, however, be an event that you remember well enough to describe and analyze the effect that it had on you. 

Your essay should not incorporate any outside sources, but should instead rely on your own experiences and observations. Describe the event and then reflect on the lasting impact of the event on your life or education. You should discuss the event in sufficient detail so that an audience of your peers would be able to understand your experience and its significance. For this assignment, you may write about your experiences in the first person ("I").

We will use class time to work on brainstorming activities, peer review, and writing strategies as your work on this essay progresses. You may, as always, consult with me about your essay during my office hours or at another time we mutually arrange.

Student Example 1:

Maria Radillo Luna
English 111
February 2, 2015

 What Mariano Taught Me

            At seven years old, I sit on the couch and hear my aunt yell Mariano's name as she stood outside on the sidewalk. I am excited to meet him, as I am home all day helping my grandmother peel mangoes. My aunt says goodbye to Mariano's mother as she drops him off at our home. I suddenly see a small boy with vivid green eyes and an Elmo backpack walk into our home; he looked nervous as I flashed a smile to greet him. My aunt takes him by the hand and they go into her room for his therapy session.

My aunt is a therapist for children who require special education, and Mariano was her patient. He was hard to communicate with when he started attending therapy sessions, as a deaf toddler, in our home. The casual, welcoming environment in my grandmother's home made him feel at ease and before I knew it, his session was over and we were watching TV together until his mother picked him up. I remember his eyes brightened up when he would see the characters on the screen and he would laugh at the expressions they made. He wore ear pieces, but I could tell he wanted to express himself.

Before he came to my aunt for therapy, Mariano would communicate with his family with facial expressions and sign language. As time went by, I could hear him try to pronounce words. He would memorably say "agua" (water), "tele" (TV), not perfectly but incredibly close. I would over hear my aunt's and his session, and he would scream with excitement when he could pronounce a new word. He would repeat it several times and laugh gloriously, and it was a beautiful thing to witness. I also noticed how patient he had become. Before, he would get more and more frustrated when I couldn't get him what he wanted because I didn't know sign language, and all we could do to communicate was use our body language and facial expressions. As he gained the tools to communicate, he would try with his vocabulary to ask for what he wanted.

            His strength and optimism spoke volumes to me at such a young age. At age ten, my family was moving back to Alaska from my paradise, Mexico. I had forgotten most of the English that I learned when I was back in kindergarten and I couldn't hold a conversation. My first day back in American school was a complete nightmare, because I wanted to make friends but I couldn't communicate with them. It was unimaginable the frustration I went through when the teacher would call on me knowing I knew very little English. The embarrassment I went through made me shy and it put me into a little box, scared of having attention on me.

            In times of my miserable gloom, I would remember Mariano and how hard he fought to make himself clear and understood. He didn't like it when we would smile politely because we didn't know what he wanted; Mariano would always make himself known. I remember how he stumbled and mumbled his way into saying the word "banana" for a couple of minutes in order for me to give him one. This kind of perseverance he carried ever so boldly inspired me to practice my English. I began watching as much TV as I could on my free time and soaked up any phrase or conversation. I started practicing my broken English with my cousins, since they have been living in the U.S. all their lives.

            I resumed school in the third grade, at the same school I attended as a kindergartener, and it was nothing but stressful for me. I had a teacher whom I compared to the devil several times a day and classmates who looked at me like I was an alien. I think they treated me like this because every time they'd ask me something, I would look at them and with heavy eyes and a timid smile. I knew some familiar faces but I had no real friends who I could talk to about my favorite colors, my weekend adventures, or my love for the Disney Channel.

This seclusion of embarrassment and angst I buried myself in was really inconvenient, so I eventually spoke up. I was over my classmates laughing while I slipped on my words and sentences; I was so done with feeling like my language was a joke to them. I carried what felt like a 100 pound brick of guilt on my back because of my broken English. I finally told myself one day that there was nothing wrong with living in another beautiful country with my people, there was nothing wrong with speaking Spanish fluently, and there was nothing wrong with my English. I expected myself to speak English smoothly from one day to another, but these things take time. That is what Mariano taught me, to be patient and be strong.

There was a certain incident, in particular, that boosted my confidence in school. My teacher was having us practice multiplication problems in front of the class and a chunky boy with red hair was given a problem several other classmates failed. English was definitely hard for me, but math was a language we speak in Mexico identically. He failed the problem and as the teacher's eyes brushed towards me; I shouted the answer and surprised everyone in the room. They didn't know I could pronounce the number, but I did, and this experience really gave me the confidence to participate in class. I was no longer treated like I was behind a glass box, I was now a regular student. This courage I gained stays with me even to this day, as I push myself to learn and never lose my appetite to learn.

Mariano was a special boy who developed his communication skills to ease his life, and I was lucky to witness it. He carried the biggest hunger for knowing what exactly was going on in the world around him, even if he couldn't hear. He was always thinking ahead and making himself clear, even if the person he tried to communicate with had trouble understanding him. Mariano's curiosity and patience inspired me when I struggled through my broken English in third grade. His forest green eyes and warm smile would haunt me when I had trouble being strong and embracing this adopted language. Without Mariano's impact on my life, I would have taken a much longer time to have my American accent when talking; I would be shaky with my English and never express myself. To this day, the barrier I carry between silence and my voice shining through in English will be owed to Mariano and his determination.

Student Example 2:

Khulan Bazarvaani                                                                                                                   

            Two Different Worlds

            Over the winter break, I read the book Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan. It fascinated me to read and to learn how Khan grew up, and about her environment and her culture. In the book, a Muslim girl named Jameela and her family live in a small, poor, war-torn village in Afghanistan. Jameela's lip is cleft and she has a lack of educational opportunities. However, she feels relatively secure with the love of her Mor (mother in Afghan). When her Mor dies, Jameela's father wants to start a new life in Kabul. The new life is fun for her father, with alcohol, drugs, and a new marriage, but for Jameela it is a nightmare to be a slave for her stepmother.  One day, Jameela's father leaves her on a busy street and never comes back, because his new wife does not want her around any more. She ends up in an orphanage, where she gets the opportunity to learn how to read and to have her lip fixed. Because she is a hard-working and intelligent girl, the orphanage wants her to stay as a teacher for the smaller children. Once her father finds out that Jameela is a teacher and has income, he wants her back. However, Jameela chooses to stay in the orphanage. While I was reading the book, I thought about my childhood and compared it with Jameela's. Mine was different, and my father was not like Jameela's father. He loved me even when he was angry at me.

            I grew up in a small village in northeast Mongolia. My grandparents were herders. Every summer we moved to the summer camp with our caravan where there is good grassland for our livestock. Depending on the summer we might move again to find another nice grassy place. Our nearest neighbour was at least five kilometers away from us, not like Jameela's, which is like a sandwich. However, we can have visitors sometimes. It is normal for people to stop by if they want to have some tea and food, let their horse rest a bit, and ask their way.

            A morning started with a beautiful sunrise along with cows mooing around 4 am. The cows were ready to be milked. After milking them, grandmother let the milk boil on a dung-burning  stove. When the milk cooled down, she took off the cream on the surface and made yogurt with the leftover milk. When we kids got up there was always warm cream and grandma's bread, made in our oven, waiting for us for our breakfast.  After breakfast, our daily duties started along with the adult's. We took the lambs to the river to water them, and went to the spring to carry back water for the next day.  We picked cow dung for fuel, which has to be dried. Sometimes we went five to ten kilometers to fill our container. We made sure all the sheep and goats, about 1000, were stationed and grazing well. Back in the "ger'' (yurt) we helped grandma and our aunties make cheese, dried curd, butter, and sour cream; my grandmother used to make "vodka" out of yogurt. Washing dishes was my least favorite duty, just like Jameela's. We did not have to sweep the floor because it was dirt. We always opened the bottom edge of the ger to get some breeze. Otherwise, as long as the fire is burning in the stove it makes the ger very hot. Also, my 3 year old cousin liked to see outside and to do her communication with my lazy dog through the wall. The cousin was tied up to the bed so that she could not move around, because there was nobody who could take care of her; everyone was busy. Outside, we helped the ladies who were working the sheep wool to make it fluffy and then make it into felt. Making felt is important for us. As we work we sing, and somebody who is an elder reads verses to thank our livestock for providing all these goodies.

            On this particular day, my uncle was making leather for a saddle outside of the ger in the shade. Father went to take care of almost 60 horses.  He had to catch the horses we needed for the day and train them to allow them to be rideable. Our horses are half wild. We have to milk the mares every two hours. We make a beverage called airag (fermented horse milk) out of the milk, which makes your face red after you drink it. We also milk our goats. Thus, we were always busy just like  Jameela.

            Here is what happened that day. Elders told me and my cousins to go and turn our cattle to the other direction. They were grazing in the valley and moving too far away. We saddled up our horses and took off. We started racing and laughing a lot. Suddenly my horse got scared from something on the ground and ran away in a different direction. I could not stop him no matter how hard I pulled. He was out of control. He started bending his ears back, which meant he would not stop . I was scared. Then I saw my father was chasing behind me. We ran six to seven kilometers for sure. There are no fences in Mongolia, so there was nothing to stop my horse.  The horse was accelerating more and more. Father was screaming, "Take your feet out of the stirrups and jump! Jump!"

I was 6 years old, and I could not jump. Finally, my father caught my horse and took me off. The horse run away. Our horses can run hundreds of kilometers. However, our horses do not get lost. Somehow, they always find their way back home. My father and I went back home on his horse. My father's voice was very high when he said, "You must listen to my words!" He was scared that I could have fallen off with my foot stuck in the stirrup and been hanging on a running horse. This kind of accident happens and people have lost their children. I learned that horseback riding is not a game and I can not take it for granted.  In fact our culture is derived from the powerful and very smart horses.

            Every nation has their own features and culture. From Khan's book I learned about the cultural differences between Kabul and the rural village. In Mongolia we can also see it. Through the globalization the cultures are mixing and shifting in the world. I think we should open our eyes and see more of the richness in the world instead of believing what the internet tells us and try to keep and save own cultures as long as possible.


About the Author: Kate Partridge teaches composition and literature courses. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from George Mason University and a BA from Denison University.

Kate's poems and lyric essays have appeared in Colorado Review, Carolina Quarterly, cream city review, Better: Culture &Lit, and Verse Daily, among others. She is currently working on a new poetry manuscript focused on urban Alaska through a Polar Lab grant from the Anchorage Museum's Northern Initiative. She coordinates the Crosscurrents Reading Series and has taught community writing workshops through the 49 Alaska Writing Center. Kate also serves as a co-editor at Gazing Grain Press, a feminist chapbook publisher, and as a Count Coordinator for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, which produces statistics related to gender disparities in publishing.

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