The scene above has actually played out in my classroom – several times. It saddens me every time, because I am attempting to do something really valuable with students when I let them write personally. The scene that plays out more often (but less ironically) is one where students dive into writing about their own lives enthusiastically. But some students are reluctant, and talking to students about their reluctance has given me insights about why some of them struggle with writing about their own lives.
Many students say they are just not used to writing about their own lives. Since the launch of the Common Core State Standards, many students only write to prepare for a state writing test, which involves reading 3 essays or articles about a topic and then writing an essay that “synthesizes” (often reduced to “stringing quotes together”) the essays to make an argument or write an informational essay. Stories, or anything personal, are often actively discouraged from these essays.
Some students tell me they don’t particularly want to remember their lives. At the age of 14, so many negative or even traumatic events have happened to them that they have simply stopped thinking about the past. Others tell me they simply do not remember their lives – they essentially claim amnesia, but with no particular trauma involved. I used to think this could not possibly be the case – how do you not remember your own life? Yet this seems to be a real phenomenon. It predates the age of the internet and the cellphone, but I have to wonder if Teen Amnesia has been exacerbated by so much time (hours a day according to studies) immersed in a virtual world instead of the real one.
You may be asking at this point – what is the point of asking students to write personally? If the student has lived through negative experiences, you might not want to open that can of worms. If students claim amnesia, you might find it too much of a struggle to help them remember their lives. And personal writing doesn’t help them on the state writing test – it might even hurt them if they accidentally include personal information on a test that comes with a rubric attached that demands objectivity and formal voice.
Speaking as an adult who grew up with a bit of trauma myself (alcoholic home, domestic violence), I can only say this: the writing I did on my own, and the personal and writing I did for classes, helped me survive my childhood. They helped me heal, both when I was in my teens, and later, as an adult still dealing with leftover issues. As a teenager I was encouraged to write about my experiences, and putting them on paper gave me the chance to get a little distance between myself and the events I wrote about. As an adult, I fictionalized the events, putting even more distance between myself and the events, but also, paradoxically, helping me to work through the emotions.
Speaking as a teacher of 30 years experience who has, for all of those 30 years, asked students to write about their lives, I can only say I have never had a student complain about writing about their lives after the fact. I have heard complaints about other kinds of writing – especially test-prep writing – but never about personal narrative. Some philosophers claim that we are our memories. If that is true, then by encouraging our students to recall and record their lives, we may be helping them discover and nurture that most elusive of things: their very selves. I value my students’ selves more than I value their test scores.
So, how can we help students to tap into their pasts? There are more ways than I can count, but here are a few activities to get students recalling and writing about their own lives. Many of them are brief and can be used as bell-ringers – one of the few areas of our teaching day untouched by attempts to standardize us.
Life List – Have students make a list down the left hand side of their paper, skipping a few lines between each item. They should start with Pre-K and end with their current grade. Under each grade level (and Pre-K counts as not just for actual Pre-K but for any of their earliest memories as a small child), they should jot down any major or minor events that stand out for them, positive, negative, or in between. I model this for them: I recall having an argument when I was 4 with a friend over who could throw a red rubber ball farthest down the road. I recall Thanksgiving when I was 4 in Upstate New York when there was a snow storm that piled snow so deep, the snow banks were taller than I was. I remember getting lost on the New York City subway by myself on a field trip my senior year of high school. Some students will insist they have no memories at all. It tell them to start with recent things and move backward, and to revisit the list often. (I have them keep this list in their writer’s notebooks where they can both reference it and add to it.)
Best/Worst Class – I start my school year, on the very first day, asking student to write about the best class they ever took and the worst class they ever took, in or out of school. If they are writing about a teacher they liked, I encourage real names; when writing about a teacher they didn’t like, I ask them to give that teacher a nickname. I get a lot of Mr. Boring, Mrs. Worksheet, or Ms. Algebra Nation. This is diagnostic – I see how they write from the get-go – but it is also a chance for them to open up their long term memory to something nearly all of them have in common: classes. (I use it as a way to introduce how I run my classroom, but I’ve written about that elsewhere.)
I Am From Poems – I originally got this idea from Mary Pipher’s book, Writing to Change the World, but it originates with George Ella Lyon. Every line begins with the words “I am from…” and leads to some concrete thing or person from their childhoods. Here are a few lines from the one I wrote to share with students: “I am from hot New York summers with wide open windows/And box fans roaring in the corner of the room./ I am from crisp New York autumns ablaze in colored leaves./ I am from bitter New York winters and the hope of snow days./ I am from muddy New York springs that melted but stayed cold./ I am from Star Trek and Star Wars./ I am from Lego spaceships three feet long and stories I made up about them that were three months long.” Are there plenty of examples online? Yes. But when I ask students to write this poem on paper, I have yet the find the student who tried to plagiarize.
Favorites – This one is a bit like my Enthusiasm Map, but it asks them to choose one favorite thing – a video game, a TV show, a place, a person, an author, a book – just about anything – and explain how it became their favorite. I also ask them to remember favorite things from their early childhoods: toys, games, songs, etc. This is a low-stakes assignment for most students.
Firsts – I remind students to keep these, um, innocent. But I ask them to write about things they did for the first time that scared or awed them – especially things they did when they were younger. The first day of school. The first time riding a bike. The first time going somewhere on your own. Some students write about their first time waterskiing, hunting, or driving a real car. This nearly always calls up something for most students.
Funniest or Scariest – I do acknowledge that students may not want to go to the “scary” side of this equation, but I also tell them it’s where a lot of authors get their best material. I’ll have them list the funniest things that have ever happened to them – or the scariest. Both topics tend to get them writing. Funny things are usually friend and family stories. Sometimes they have to consult with their peers if they have known each other a long time. Scary things are often isolated events, like car accidents, that stand out as anomalies in their lives. I warn them not to write about really scary things – abuse, or instance – unless they want me to report it, since I am a designated reporter.
Pets or Wild Animals – I first used this topic as a bell-ringer when I taught 7th grade and we read “Rikki Tikki Tavi” by Rudyard Kipling. When I asked students to write about interesting experiences with pets or wild animals, I thought we’d have a 5 minute discussion. Turns out, whenever I give this topic, virtually everyone has at least one story from the animal kingdom. Sharing them took up the rest of the class and set me back a day in terms of my plans, but it was worth every second. Stories of dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, squirrels, snakes, birds, gerbils, rats, and possums (among other critters) abounded. A good time was had by all. I have since discovered that the prompt has a similar effect on high-schoolers as well.
Posts related to Literature – When teaching fiction, I point out to students that authors’ first attempts at fiction are often autobiographical. I tell them they can write autobiographical fiction as well, and based on whatever novel we are reading, I give them prompts to help them come up with material. The following prompts were inspired by my classes reading To Kill a Mockingbird a few years back:
Write about one of the following: Your family history – odd figures, old stories you grew up with, tales of the past you have heard about OR weird neighborhood characters/legends – creepy characters, grouchy neighbors. Your childhood – Write about: Imaginative play you engaged in as a child. Getting caught (or almost caught) doing something sneaky or forbidden (within reason). A description of your town or neighborhood from your childhood. Receiving gifts that mattered to you. A time you were disappointed by something or had a wonderful surprise. A time when you had to deal with a disaster or something scary (if you are willing to write about it – avoid it if you’re not ready to write about it yet).
Holidays or Special Days: I simply prompt students to write about a great holiday or special day, or one that went wrong somehow. Most people have both. You may have some students raised in certain religious traditions who do not celebrate any holidays or birthdays; that’s why I also say “special days.” Holidays are great fodder – especially holidays that went wrong somehow. But even without holidays, there are also non-holiday events that can stand out: trips, vacations, restaurant visits, cookouts, picnics, visits to the beach. Once you get the ball rolling, it can be hard to stop students.
A few provisos. If you are afraid of hearing too much – of having students report things going on their homes – I’m going to tell you that those occasions have been few and far between. Yet when they have happened, when I have had to call the 800 number to report possible abuse, I have never regretted either the call or the writing assignment to write about something personal. That writing assignment could have possibly changed a student’s life. Or saved it.
I know some of these prompts and topics might smell a little bit of privilege. I get it. Not every student has a happy family to write about, or holidays, or pets. That is why I always tell students that this writing is for them, not for me. If they don’t like or can’t relate to a topic, or find it painful – I tell them not to write it. Come up with something else, or else don’t write at all. Just put a note that says, “Couldn’t write on this topic.” But looking at the idea of personal writing through a different lens, I think about David Coleman, architect of the Common Core Standards, telling a group of English teachers in New York State many years ago the longer he’s lived, the more he’s discovered that “no one gives a $#!+ about your personal story.” When we don’t let, don’t encourage, our students to write their stories, we are essentially telling them that we don’t care about their stories, that no one will care about their stories, that their stories don’t matter. That is the real crime – to tell students that their stories don’t matter, or worse yet, to imply that they have no stories to tell at all.
Thomas Newkirk’s book Minds Made for Stories drives home the point that we are story-telling beings, and that all our writing, whether we realize it or not, is based on story. Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, makes the case that creative people, people who can tell stories, will soon be in demand in a world where many jobs are being automated by algorithms and robots. The kind of writing-to-sources we ask students to do for tests is, quite frankly, the kind of writing that has already been automated. Teaching them to pass tests means teaching them to write like a robot so robots can score them.
Although the occasional student may plagiarize a personal essay, most students love narrative, love telling their stories, and find themselves remembering more and more about their own lives. The act of writing inspires memory. It is the cure for Teen Amnesia.
I have already written in this space about the fact that students need to know how to tell their story when writing college essays and cover letters, so I will only remind you of the fact here. Writing about your past helps you deal with the difficult parts and helps you remember and appreciate the positive events. It also helps you face the future based on the lessons learned from your past. But you can only learn from the past if you remember it.
I’ll end with a brief story of my own. I mentioned holiday stories earlier in this post. Just a few days ago, on Halloween, I went to a very popular trick-or-treating street in my neighborhood to check out decorations and costumes and enjoy the atmosphere. I walked all the way down the street, on sidewalks packed full of hundreds of costumed kids and adults, and then turned to walk back on the opposite side. A young woman came walking toward me in a vampire outfit. She saw me, smiled, and said, “You were my favorite writing teacher! I loved your class! I still write to this day because of you!”
I suspect she wasn’t referring to the writing we did about 3 random articles. I suspect it was the stories I encouraged her to tell through her writing. Writing itself becomes a memory sometimes. Meeting her, however briefly, was one of the best Halloween treats I ever got.
Images via www.mrfitz.com. Created by David Lee Finkle
How do you get your students to tell their stories? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.
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