Mr. Hirni, Narrative Writing, and the Common Core

Today’s post comes from Mickey Ebert, education specialist at the National Archives at Kansas City.

Yesterday I called my favorite teacher. I hadn’t talked to him in over 45 years. He had changed my life but I had never told him. After 32 years of teaching and telling the story about my favorite teacher countless times, I finally picked up the phone and told him how important he was in my life and career.

Mr. Hirni taught Sophomore World History and assigned us to create our own Utopia. Mine became a fiction piece more than just a description of the rules and government. After hours of work, I turned in what ended up to be a story about a person living in a place based on The Communist Manifesto, which I did my best to read—much to my mother’s horror. In my Utopia, I took care that everyone was equal. They all wore uniforms and no one had more money than others. Mr. Hirni honored my work by making copies for all his classes and letting each of his students evaluate my Utopia. After reading their critiques, I held a different view of fairness and democracy than before.

I learned and practiced critical thinking through other writing assignments as well. Whether it was a play, poem, song, or essay, I had to research my facts and then apply them to the situation or genre. To write a play about Anne Boleyn, I had to know what she would have worn, how she would have talked, the characters involved, and the historical context. I had never researched so much in my life, but it was one of my favorite assignments —and one of the few I remember from high school. I still have an uncanny amount of information about her life stored in my brain. There are four high school assignments I remember after all these years. What they had in common were that they were assigned in history class and they involved narrative writing. The topics I wrote about, and the historical context, were sent to long-term memory.

The Common Core Standards encourage educators to create assignments like this, in which students can use their talents to learn and practice research, writing, and critical thinking.

A Section of Jessie Varelmann's Enemy Alien Registration Affidavit

Primary sources, such as Jessie Varelmann’s Enemy Alien Registration Affidavit, lend themselves as writing tools. These affidavits were first filled out by men, starting in 1917 during World War I, and then by women, who came from Germany and were not naturalized. Men living in an Old Soldiers’ Home for Civil War soldiers, nuns, farmers, 14-year old girls, and businessmen had to declare themselves Enemy Aliens. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a woman who married a man that was a citizen of another country lost her citizenship and became a citizen of his country. There are 300 different registrations digitized in the National Archives online catalog. Researching the WWI homefront through these documents begs for more research and stories to be told. Using primary sources to tell these stories adds authenticity and interest.

Narrative writing assignments invite students to use historical thinking skills. Chronological reasoning is the thinking skill that stands out above the rest. Historical causation, periodization, and contextualization are all components. In my experience, these are critical in writing a historical fiction narrative. Brain-based teaching strategies list emotions, storytelling, and rhyming as gateways to long-term memory learning. Narrative writing, based on analysis of primary sources, has its place in a Common Core classroom.

We can learn to be better teachers by thinking about our own teachers that inspired us. Did you have a Mr. Hirni that assigned something that made you love school or history?  Who was your favorite teacher and why?

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