The Narrative of Learning Essay: Personal Narrative Meets Literary Analysis

Students have a story to tell. So why not let them tell it as a way in to literature — to walk an idea around to see how far it will go and where else it might lead them?

If your students are like mine, they feel boxed in by their preconceived ideas of academic language (AKA “sounding smart), and they sometimes get stuck in the confines of the formal literary analysis. Rebekah has written some genius stuff about using mentors for literary analysis, and I think she’s on to something.

What I like about professional models of what we might qualify as “literary analysis” is their sophistication, their control, and the authentic and interesting voices exploring some equally authentic and interesting ideas. For students, simply giving them permission to exercise their own, authentic voice in literary analysis can be a game-changer in how they approach and craft this type of writing.

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A mentor text I’ve had great success with is a beautiful piece from  The New York Times called “What Writers Can Learn from Goodnight Moon.” Full disclosure: I have two little girls, who are not so much babies anymore, but during their toddler years, we, like many other parents and their tots, read over and over again the timeless, melodic, sleep-inducing pages of “Goodnight Moon.” Perhaps that’s why I first admired this essay so much, but after introducing it to students as their first ever “narrative of learning” mentor, I’ve realized that it’s more than just a lovely piece of writing.

The Narrative of Learning Essay

Here’s the idea:

The narrative of learning essay is different in both kind and degree. The task is for students to write a deeply reflective essay in which they explore, reveal, and uncover some aspect of the literature being studied.

Students then…

  • Decide what to discover, explore, and uncover about the text.
  • Choose one feature of the text that they find genuinely interesting and worthy of exploration.
  • Write an essay that is, at its core, a mature, sustained conversation about the text, zeroing in on the one feature they’ve decided to explore and what they discover about it.

The blended approach:

Taking a cue from the mentor “What Writers Can Learn from Goodnight Moon”, students must “sandwich” their analysis with personal narrative, and use their narrative as a means of discovery.

This is not an easy task. Especially for students who like to color in the lines. Students are required to not only dig deep into their own experiences and observations, but into the text as well. Some narrative of learning essays can bend a bit toward reader response, but the kind of thinking this assignment produces is well worth the risk.

I typically assign the narrative of learning essay as the final analysis of Slaughterhouse Five. This text seems particularly suited to the task because of the many provocative and mind-bending ideas to discuss. But one of my favorite essays from this year is an essay about Seinfeld, Slaughterhouse, and “nothing.” Madison does a brilliant job of allowing her narrative to guide her analysis. Below is a sample of her work.

What’s the deal with Slaughterhouse V?

            Seinfeld was introduced to me through my grandfather’s venomous hatred. Since its premiere, my paternal grandfather has maintained a dangerous and fuming dislike towards it. The mere vibrations of the show’s introductory bass line is enough to anger him and send him on  a ten minute long rant about the inane, fickle, and idiotic characters. Out of all the characters, he hates Cosmo Kramer the most. Kramer is my grandfather’s declared nemesis, a bane of his existence. Kramer’s flagrant misuse of his friend’s resources, his ridiculous and unsustainable ideas, and his incredibly exaggerated personality drive my grandfather’s discourse on the evils of Cosmo Kramer. To him, Kramer is a hyperbole, a fake, inflated character that is an insult to his intelligence. Inevitably, he brings up Michael Richards’ racist stand up performance at the Apollo; the one that killed his career. So it goes.

My grandfather detests Seinfeld because it is a show about nothing. It lacks substance, leaves the viewer grasping for meaning and depth. Some take it at face value. It’s a show about nothing. What’s the point in searching for meaning? Others ignore the messages about the selfish abandon of human existence and watch it only for the dry, rude comedy. The same can be said for Slaughterhouse V by Kurt Vonnegut. The simple, artistic prose subverts the anti-war sentiment and leads to a romanticized and rose-hued interpretation of the novel, the protagonist and prevents deeper insight into the character of Billy Pilgrim.

Slaughterhouse V is a beautiful and, often times, ridiculous novel. It is silly, dark, and vastly innovative, but its core stems from the atrocity of the Dresden air raids; the massacre of thousands. Its protagonist, the guileless Billy Pilgrim, is an exaggerated, reckless buffoon created to counter the glorification of the American soldier. Billy is thrown through time by chance and circumstance, having no control over his own life and mind.

Every episode of Seinfeld contains a heaping dose of nihilism coupled with dry humor. Seinfeld has a dark side, but it is known for its sharp punch lines and quick wit. Slaughterhouse V follows this same pattern. The novel does not shy away from grotesque scenes of a visceral or macabre nature, but it does combat the horror with short, eloquent statements like “so it goes.” The last three pages of the novel detail the excavation of bodies from the wreckage in Dresden after the bombing. It describes the scent of the bodies, the liquefaction, the rot, and impromptu cremations with flamethrowers, but these pages don’t maintain the same punch as “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” or “how nice- to feel nothing and still get credit for being alive.” These phrases are the reason behind the novel’s rampant success. It is gorgeous and profound; giving insights about life and humanity, but it dilutes the anti-war message. Vonnegut acknowledges this in the opening chapter saying, “…there would always be wars… they were as easy to stop as glaciers.” His argument against war is the dehumanization that it entails, but so much of his novel deals with humanity and the implications of it. These clashing ideas, the absence of humanity and the abundance of it, cause this strange idealized, romanticized fondness that masks the injustices and horrors so vividly described…

Click here to read Madison’s essay in its entirety.


Blending narrative and analysis can…

  • Broaden ideas and deepen thinking.
  • Encourage maturity and depth of thought by going outside the boundaries and constraints of the traditional literary analysis writing style.
  • Develop and nurture a student’s individual and unique voice.
  • Recast the purposes of narrative writing to grow and develop ideas.
  • Up the ante of focus and sophistication.
  • Allow students to write in a way that’s fresh, challenging, and engaging.

And although I’ve experienced success in my classroom with this assignment, I’m still wondering…

What other current, interesting essays and articles blend narrative and analysis? How else might we encourage students to rely on their own authentic voices in writing? What other skills could we help students sharpen by removing some of the confines of the traditional literary analysis?

I’m eager to continue learning, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook! 




  1. This helps me quite a bit with the narrative/literary analysis I have constructed for students to write following a close study of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. The approach you outline will give me more clarity to a concept of writing I have been pursuing for a while. However, how do you formally assess the writing? Is there a rubric you are willing to share? Any additional insight you might provide would be helpful. Thank you!

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