It’s just after 7:20 a.m. and my students are settling into their seats. Although it’s early, this class is lively, with students generally willing to try out whatever their English teacher has planned for them that day. This morning, I pass out cream-colored quarter sheets of paper and several tape dispensers. I go over the lesson plan to the sound of pages flipping, synchronized to the squeaky pulling and staccatoed tearing of tape. Into their notebook, students tape the following Willa Cather quotation:
“Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
Today is Day 1 in a brief unit on the personal history essay. I decided to call this next essay a personal history rather than the more familiar term memoir for a few reasons. One, the term memoir feels a little intimidating to me; the term has always implied a confessional quality to it, like a great secret is about to be shared, a great burden lifted. For better or worse, memoirs feel too big a task, too much to ask.
So instead, I like the term personal history. It feels more open to those small, everyday moments that only upon reflection—by looking back and connecting the dots—do you appreciate their significance. The other reason I prefer the term personal history is because it’s the term that The New Yorker uses for its collection of essays of this genre. One day, as I was browsing the magazine’s digital archives, I came across their official description for their Personal History collection:
Writers reflect on the intimate moments and events that shaped their lives—I enjoy the simplicity of this description. It feels inviting and manageable, deceivingly so. After all, as most writers can attest, mining our experiences can often lead to unexpected paths.
When students are asked to choose a meaningful experience, they can sometimes struggle with determining what makes something “meaningful.” They think that only the relatively big moments of their relatively brief lives are worth writing about—moving away, a death in the family, volunteer work that changed their lives. While these are certainly worth writing about, not all students have these types of experiences. Or even if they do, these experiences aren’t necessarily the ones that are most meaningful to them. Instead, it’s the small, everyday moments of their lives that most deeply shape who they are.
Unfortunately, these are also the moments that are underestimated, overlooked. When I give students the Willa Cather quote to tape into their notebooks, I do so to remind them that they have already had many rich experiences—many moments worth writing about. The key is to dig a little deeper in our writing to unearth them.
Moments Worth Writing About
Lately, I find myself using the phrase—”moments worth writing about”—whenever my students write, as they search for topics and generate ideas. But I’ve also used it when they read, too. As they read, I ask students to pay attention to those moments in the text—whether it’s fiction or non-fiction—that stand out to them, that call to them in a way that makes these moments “worth writing about.” A “moment worth writing about” is a moment that makes a reader stop and wonder, a moment that needs to be “figured out,” a moment that confuses or surprises. A “moment worth writing about” could be an epiphany a character experiences, a dramatic plot twist in a story, rich and vivid description, or even just a word or phrase that draws their attention. I like the simplicity of asking students to find “moments worth writing about”—whether those moments are from a text or from their own lives.
As with all our writing endeavors, I try to expose students to rich and diverse mentor texts for inspiration. In this personal history unit, my students and I read together 3-4 shared texts. We discuss the texts: in particular, we identify what the writers do in each essay to make them successful pieces of writing. This year, I asked students to look at our mentor texts specifically through the lens of the Six Traits: How does the writer convey their ideas? How does the writer organize them? Where can we hear, sense the writer’s voice? What words work and why? Can we hear the rhythm of the sentences? How does the writer use conventions for clarity?
As Atwell reminds us, one of the goals of these shared reading experiences with students is to ultimately handover the responsibility of learning to them. That said, after we look at these core texts, I give students a choice of several additional essays to choose from. They work in small groups and together, they decide what to read and come to class each day ready to discuss with one another. After a week or so, my students have read more than half a dozen mentor texts.
Four Ways In
Of course, just reading examples of personal history essays will not necessarily be enough to help students move from thinking about their personal histories to writing them. Along the way, students also write personal responses to each of the mentor texts in their writer’s notebooks. The mentor texts touch on many experiences familiar to students: Sedaris’ story of his cruel French teacher reminds students of their own classroom memories, while Brooks’ reflection on his first experience at a Springsteen concert evokes similar musical moments.
But even these reflections may not be enough. I recently used the following four techniques to get students moving. (I use these writing exercises at the same time we’re studying the mentor texts listed above.)
QUESTIONS FOR MEMOIRISTS
I take a page right out of Atwell’s Lessons that Change Writers and pass out another quarter sheet for students to tape into their notebooks. This time, it’s Atwell’s list of “Questions for Memoirists.” As you can imagine, this quarter sheet includes a list of questions designed to get students thinking about meaningful experiences in their lives. For example—What’s an incident that shows what my family and I are like? What’s a time or place I laughed a lot? A time or place I was perfectly happy?
I spend the first few minutes of several class periods asking students to choose questions from this list and freewrite. For some students, this list of questions might be enough to pinpoint that “moment worth writing about,” especially when they have several days to explore.
A HIGH SCHOOL READ-ALOUD
I love the story of Roxaboxen. In McLerran’s book, neighborhood children gather to create their own little “town”—one made from collected rocks, abandoned boxes, and their imaginations. As McLerran writes, “a town of Roxaboxen began to grow, traced in stones,” and soon, the children added stores like a bakery where “pies and cakes and bread baked warm in the sun.”
Roxaboxen is a wonderful text to read with high school students because somewhere, in most of their childhoods, students have their own Roxaboxen. After I read aloud the text, I give students time to reflect on the memories and moments that the story evokes. When students share out, their talk is animated, lively—so many of them have stories of beloved adventures in made-up worlds, worlds they hadn’t thought about recently, perhaps in many years.
I also love using Roxaboxen because there are also so many wonderful mentor sentences found throughout the story. Look, for example, at the specificity in the following sentence.
Frances moved to one of them and built herself a new house outlined in desert glass, bits of amber, amethyst, and sea-green: a house of jewels.
I use Roxaboxen as an opportunity to talk about purposeful punctuation—the use of colons, em-dashes, semi-colons, and parenthesis to add clarity and showcase voice. For example:
When Marian dug up a tin box filled with round black pebbles, everyone knew what it was: it was buried treasure.
Marian was mayor, of course; that was just the way she was.
Everybody kept trying them both. (In Roxaboxen you can eat all the ice cream you want.)
Because I had already done several lessons on purposeful punctuation using Noah Lukeman’s Dash of Style, studying sentences like these in Roxaboxen makes for a wonderful review.
WRITING LIKE LENA DUNHAM
For inspiration the next day, I project the following opening paragraph from Lena Dunham’s essay, “Difficult Girl.”
I am eight, and I am afraid of everything. The list of things that keep me up at night includes but is not limited to: appendicitis, typhoid, leprosy, unclean meat, foods I haven’t seen emerge from their packaging, foods my mother hasn’t tasted first so that if we die we die together, homeless people, headaches, rape, kidnapping, milk, the subway, sleep.
There is so much to talk about in these two sentences. There’s the contrast of the first relatively short declarative sentence followed by a much longer second sentence that overwhelms with its catalogue of fears. And then there’s the list of fears itself, each item carefully chosen to convey both seriousness and humor.
I ask students to “write-like” Lena Dunham in two ways. First, I ask students to stick close to the original text: choose an age and then list all their fears at that age. Listing their fears at a particular age can be one way to help students get back into the mindset of their younger selves.
Next, I ask students to not only choose an age, but also choose the “state of being” or emotion in the second half of the first sentence. For example, one student wrote, “I am fifteen, and I am indifferent to everything,” while another student wrote, “I am twelve, and I read everything.” The list that follows in the second sentence then elaborates. The first sentence tells; the second sentence shows. As I walk around the room, I notice that students include items on their lists with the same level of specificity that Dunham uses, so this “write-like” also becomes an opportunity to talk about the effectiveness of specific versus general details.
A LIFE, IN GRAPHS
I‘m generally of the mindset that it’s better to provide students with as many ways in to potential writing topics as possible—to uncover those “writing territories,” to quote Atwell (again).
For this last “way in,” I ask students to go back through their writer’s notebooks and search for their list of “Things I Know About” or “Things that Make Me Who I Am” from earlier in the year. I ask them to choose a few things from these lists and then turn to a blank page in their writer’s notebooks. On the board, I draw a graph with an X and Y axis.
I label the graph, “Teaching,” and then I say to students, “As you know, teaching is something that I know a little about. Here, I’m going to graph my teaching life.” I label the X axis for time: “I’m going to start my graph at the year 2000, because that’s the year I did my student teaching.” I end the X axis with 2016.
“I’m going to use the Y axis,” I continue, “to measure my quality of teaching—how awesome or meh I think I was as a teacher over the years.” I label the highest point on the Y axis “awesome,” and the lowest point, “Meh.” (To be funny, I once extended the line below the X axis into negative territory and labeled the end point, “What am I doing?”.)
I then think aloud as I plot points on my graph and connect them to make a line. As I plot away, I say things like, “I was mostly trying to survive as a first year teacher, so I’d rate myself close to the “meh.” I then add another point and say, “I remember that I had a really great second year of teaching because I could fix everything that had gone wrong the year before.” A few years later along the X axis, I add a much higher point and say, “I remember trying out blogging for the first time with my students this year and it went really well. My students produced some of the best writing I’d ever seen up to that point.” And so on. To the right, you can see a version of my teaching—as well as a parenting—line graph from my notebook.
I talk through these “life graphs” and explain to students that we can find some “moments worth writing about” by looking at the way the line moves up and down. “Look,” I tell them, “for not just the high points, but also the low ones. Ask yourself, what happened here? It’s at those points—those moments—that something happened. Those moments can provide the richest material to write about.” I also point out that when you do several of these life graphs, you may be able to see patterns or draw correlations. For example, I joke that the minute my third son was born in 2010 that the overall quality of my parenting declined. I point out that my teaching life graph is a bumpy one, which is to be expected, but that the overall trend is upward. One student points out, “It looks like the better you got at teaching, the worse you got at parenting.” I had to laugh.
As I walk around the room to watch students creating their own life graphs, I see that their faces are focused, intent. I see life graphs for the following: relationship with my parents, self-confidence, playing tennis, artistic life, friendships, and so on.
A few days later during our writing conference, I ask a student what he’s going to write for his personal history essay.
“I think I’m going to write about some of my experiences in middle school,” he replies.
“What made you decide on that?” I ask.
“Actually, I got the idea from the life graph we did in class. I did a graph on ‘self-confidence,’ and I noticed that I had a huge decline during middle school.” He smiles. “So I think that’s something worth writing about.”