To Narrate or Not to Narrate: First Grade Retrospective

Planning for a new school year is as much about looking back as looking forward. Before getting excited about all the books we’ll be reading come September, I take time to think about what went well and not so well in the school year past.

When I looked back last June, I saw a kindergarten year fraught with uncertainties over curriculum. I ditched more than one math and reading program before finding peace to continue with one that fit us best, no matter what other people liked better.

This year, my doubts revolved around our process of learning. We love reading tons of good books, but then what? What do we do to help us digest the material and make it our own?

I knew Charlotte Mason fans would uphold narration as the answer to all my worries. Ah narration, that supposedly magical process whereby you read from a book, the child tells back what they remember from the reading, and presto! the ideas become forever part of them. I loved everything else about Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, but narration seemed, well, kind of boring.

I mean it’s tedious, right, reading something and then making your child repeat it back to you? I figured we’d have a lot more fun doing projects. And just because my children can repeat what they heard, does that mean they really understand it? At least with comprehension questions, the teacher can guide the student’s response. With projects, you end up with something solid to show for your efforts.

Beneath all these objections, a deeper fear lurked. What if my kids didn’t like narration either and rebelled? What if the readings were too difficult and they couldn’t narrate? What if they didn’t learn anything at all and our whole homeschool project turned into a colossal failure?

Despite my fears, I figured I’d never know unless I tried. September rolled around and found us reading Alice Goudy’s delightful nature books. The girls narrated fine, and I decided to keep notebooks to avoid the feeling of all our work disappearing into thin air. They narrated, I typed their narrations. They illustrated, and I collected the pages into three-ring binders. The notebooks provided a natural opportunity for review, since the girls enjoyed looking back on their pages and talking about them weeks later.

History was a different story, though. Maybe the books were harder, maybe the concepts foreign to them, but for some reason, they struggled with narrating history. Then came the Dreaded Day  – the day they couldn’t narrate one single idea from our reading. To make matters worse, our reading was none other than D’Aulaire’s Pocohontas. The beautifully illustrated, absolutely stellar D’Aulaire’s biography that homeschoolers far and wide rave about. I panicked. I had been right all along. Narration didn’t work.

You can always find voices to affirm what you wish to believe, so when I started looking for people who didn’t like narration, I found plenty of company. You don’t like narration? No problem. You can try discussion questions, notebooking, lapbooking. You can just read and tell yourself that the book is enough.  You can make sugar cube pyramids and cardboard box Viking ships and Abraham Lincoln beards.

I assured myself that I need suffer no pangs of guilt over ditching narration. So we did projects. There’s nothing wrong with projects, if the kids enjoy them and you have the strength for them. But somehow I couldn’t escape feeling that projects weren’t enough, that they should be the icing and not the entire cake.

I considered notebooking; after all, keeping notebooks is the way I learn best in my own reading life. But the canned notebooking pages proliferating the Internet seemed no better than cleverly disguised worksheets. And how could I expect my kindergartener and first grader to take notes when they were still learning to read and write?

Discussion questions seemed a reasonable option, until I got down to the nuts and bolts of asking my first grader things like, “How would you change the ending of this story if you were writing it?” I realized I actually didn’t want my kids spouting opinions on literature yet. I wanted them humbly receiving knowledge into their souls. And such questions proved no help for discussing our science and history books.

No matter how I longed for something flashier than narration, I found myself inexorably drawn back to narration. Listening to The New Mason Jar podcast one morning, I finally understood why. In Episode 25, Cindy Rollins says:

“Narration is not about our opinion of the book, it’s not about our feelings about the book, it’s not about where we find ourselves in the book. Those things all happen organically, but that is not what a…narration is about…It is about the actual writings of the book and what the author said in the book.”

As Rollins and Dawn Duran went on to discuss “the propensity of our culture to focus on self as opposed to focus outside of self,” I thought back to my experiences teaching freshman English composition classes. How swift my students had been to propound their own opinions but how ill-prepared to grapple with the text’s ideas. If narration served as antidote to this epidemic of self-centered reading, I was willing to commit!

When I finally confronted my narration ambivalence, I was forced to admit I never truly gave narration a fair chance. I had been inconsistent; I had given up too easily. I hadn’t even explained to my children what narration is and why we were doing it, hoping if I could trick them into narrating unbeknownst to them maybe they would like it after all.  

What it boiled down to is that I wasn’t approaching narration in faith. I was like the double-minded person in James 1:8, unstable in all she does. And so to finish our school year, we went back to narration. It still wasn’t easy. Grumbles and blank stares weren’t completely unheard of in our schoolroom. But instead of throwing up my hands in despair, I sought advice from seasoned moms to make it work better. Here are some of my favorite narration strategies:

  1. Remind them of the beginning. After we read an episode, it helps to remind the child of what was happening at the beginning of the chapter. So I’ll say something like, “When we started reading today, Pa made a giant straw stack. What did Laura and Mary do next?” Otherwise, children will often repeat the last thing you read and leave it at that.
  2. Make a game of who can remember most. Books that are more factual, like science books, are harder for my girls to narrate than books that tell a story. So after a Let’s Read and Find Out Science book, for instance, I’ll say, “Let’s each say three things we remember.” Or we’ll go around the circle each saying something we remember until we can’t remember anything else.
  3. Let your child narrate to the dog, the cat, a favorite stuffed animal.
  4. Let them tell the story with peg people, Lego people, Calico Critters.
  5. Make a video dramatization. Aesop’s fables are especially wonderful for acting out. My girls love watching themselves on video, which means they get to hear the story over and over.
  6. Do a project that incorporates narration. Our Little House on the Prairie story quilts are an example of a project that incorporates narration, art, and handicrafts all in one while making something of practical use for the home.

In May, as I gathered together samples of the girls’ work for our year-end evaluation, I came across our narration notebook pages from earlier in the year. And do you know what? I realized they were my favorite things we did all year. The projects were fun, the worksheets got the job done, but the narration notebooks were entirely the girls’ own creations, their thinking, their comprehension, their artistry, free from adult intervention. They were true learning unmediated by me or curriculum developers.

And best of all, they didn’t require hours of preparation from me. Just read and narrate. Simple and effective. As Cindy Rollins says, “If you don’t use narration, you’re going to have to use a lot harder other ways to teach your children to think and write. We’ve got this very simple way to do it.” Why make myself work harder than I need to?

I would love to hear about your journey with narration. Do you have any tips or encouragement to share?

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