Writing a Personal Narrative

6, 7, 8

Students learn about the characteristics of an effective personal narrative and compare those to a news article. They do prewriting activities and practice writing details to show rather than tell about an experience.

PrintOne 50-minute class period

The learner will:

  • recall specific events, emotions, and impact of a recent service-learning experience.
  • write about an experience using revealing details.
  • plan a personal narrative using prewriting techniques.

Student copies of theĀ Rubric: Personal Narrative (below)



  1. Anticipatory Set: Make a personal statement about your own reaction to the class's involvement in a service project. In your statement, show rather than tell about your feelings related to the event. Avoid interpretation of your feelings (I was sad, proud, etc.), and describe a specific feeling or thought. Here is an example: "Last week, when I looked at the boxes full of food we collected for the hurricane victim families, I noticed one can of corn tipped on its side, rolled away from the other food. I tried to picture the one family that was going to hold that exact can. Then I looked at the thousands of items we collected and thought about the many families that represented. We could have done nothing for these families displaced by the hurricane, but we did all this. And we had fun doing it together!"

  2. Ask the students how your personal statement might be different from a newspaper account of the same event. (They may identify that it is told in the first person and contains more emotion and reveals the personality of the narrator.) Tell the students that a personal narrative is an alternative way (from a news article) to "tell our story" about participation in a service event. See Bibliographical Resources for samples of personal narratives written by students.

  3. Write the characteristics of a personal narrative on the display board:

    • clear purpose (why this event is important to you)
    • first person account (help us understand the narrator)
    • opening sentence (question, interesting observation, or summary of purpose)
    • organized facts and events
    • explanation of need and how addressed
    • sensory description
    • conclusion (what was learned or accomplished/effect on self)
  4. Have the students get out a piece of paper. Tell them that they are going to do some planning and prewriting for a personal narrative.

  5. Hold a relaxed and open discussion about the service event. Encourage the students to tell funny stories, describe conversations, and recall details about the event. If your class has not participated in an event together, discuss different experiences with giving or involvement in community projects. Ask the students to think of one aspect of an event they will write about. It may be helpful to focus on why the event was important, what impact the event had, what they learned, or a memorable experience. Have them write this focus (or purpose) for the personal narrative essay on their paper.

  6. Tell the students that a personal narrative includes observations, facts, and details about their experience. On a planning sheet have them list the events in chronological order. (The final essay will most likely be written in chronological order, but sometimes narratives are written as a flashback.)

  7. Another characteristic of a personal narrative is that it expresses feelings and messages through description without interpretation. One of the ways to avoid interpretation is to stay away from the verb "to be": I was happy. It was fun. We were pleased. Details are much stronger if they use revealing sensory descriptions and let the reader do the interpretation. For example, rather than saying "it was a cold morning," the writer can give revealing details: "I stomped my feet and waited for the truck to arrive. I saw the headlights approaching and fumbled with my thick fingers on the clasp of the gate. Then I blew on my fingers while I watched the truck drive through the gate into the fenced yard."

  8. Give the students a brief practice assignment. Tell them to write a revealing description of someone who is nervous about a test that is happening in one hour. Tell them to avoid the verb "to be" and words such as nervous, anxious, scared, and test. Give the students few minutes to write. Then have them share their sentences aloud.

  9. Give students a copy of Handout One: Rubric: Personal Narrative and go through the expectations for the completed essay.

  10. Tell students to store all their prewriting and planning sheets from this lesson and the others in a file folder. These pages are necessary for the writing activity in the final lesson.


Assess students' comprehension of showing rather than telling by reading their description of the test anxiety. Assess their readiness to write the personal narrative by reviewing their planning sheets and guiding them as needed.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark MS.4 Describe the characteristics of someone who helps others.
    2. Standard PCS 07. Skills of Civic Engagement
      1. Benchmark MS.4 Analyze information to differentiate fact from opinion based on the investigation of issues related to the common good.
  2. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark MS.1 Define and give examples of the motivations for giving and serving.
      2. Benchmark MS.4 Identify and describe the actions of how citizens act for the common good.
      3. Benchmark MS.5 Describe the responsibility students have to act in the civil society sector to improve the common good.
  3. Strand PHIL.IV Volunteering and Service
    1. Standard VS 01. Needs Assessment
      1. Benchmark MS.1 Identify a need in the school, local community, state, nation, or world.
    2. Standard VS 02. Service and Learning
      1. Benchmark MS.2 Identify specific learning objectives from the academic core curriculum that are being applied in the service-learning project.
    3. Standard VS 03. Providing Service
      1. Benchmark MS.1 Provide a needed service.
      2. Benchmark MS.2 Describe the goals of the project and their impact.
      3. Benchmark MS.3 Describe the task and the student role.
    4. Standard VS 05. Integrating the Service Experience into Learning
      1. Benchmark MS.2 Evaluate progress on the service-learning project before, during, and after the project.
      2. Benchmark MS.3 Identify outcomes from the service.