Students love freestyling on topics like love, jealousy, and truth, so when I discovered The Wall Street Journal’s The Soapbox column, I knew I had landed upon a great mentor text for personal writing.
I decided to plan an in between study, a concept I borrowed from Two Writing Teachers. In between studies are great for a few reasons. First, they can break up the repetitiveness of larger studies, providing an often-needed reboot of the workshop. They also allow students to experiment with a new genre––an opportunity for “medium-stakes” writing, writing that asks a little more of students than a rough draft but isn’t as weighty as a summative assessment.
The Mini Personal Essay
Coming out of a memoir writing unit, I knew these mini personal essays would resonate with students. The column is described as a soapbox where “luminaries weigh in on topics.” These little blurbs have a little bit of everything: the first-person voice, anecdotes and personal examples, definition, and the kind of insight that makes them personal essays, not just personal narratives. They’re small — under 200 words — so we called them mini personal essays.
There are plentiful editions of the Soapbox column to choose from. I selected three mentor texts that I thought would be most relevant to students, as well as columns that were authored by luminaries they knew. Here’s our list:
I taught three minilessons in this study, as opposed to the 6+ lessons I teach in a regular-length study.
- “Be Original: Coming Up With New Ideas”
The idea behind this lesson is that writers have written above love and other big topics for centuries. It’s not easy to come up with new ideas, but this is the pain and pleasure of the writing life. This lesson instructed students how to avoid cliche writing and create fresh ideas by cracking open stale language, and adding fresh details, anecdotes, and examples.
- “Go Out With a Bang: How to Create a Memorable Ending”
In this lesson, I explored three techniques for creating a memorable ending: using punctuation to slow down, leading up to your best idea, and strategies for keeping the conclusion short and interesting.
I taught this lesson as an inquiry lesson. I typed up em-dash sentences from each of the mentor texts, grouping them according to how the em-dash is being used in the sentence. Then I asked students to study the mentor sentences, and explain how the em-dash affects the meaning and structure of the sentence. By the end of the lesson, we had a series of noticings that I typed up and gave back to students as a glue-in for their notebooks. If you click through the Powerpoint, you’ll see my students’ observations at the end.
Normal length studies take 3-4 weeks to complete. We finished this study in a little over a week.
Day 1: Read and study the mentor texts
Students read, studied, and jotted noticings about the mentor texts. They used the following guiding questions to complete this task: What topics are appropriate for mini-personal essays? How do writers make their writing compelling (look at word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, etc.)? What do writers have to do before writing a personal essay? What are some ideas for your own essay? Students completed this assignment for homework.
Day 2: Share noticings
Students shared noticings in small groups, and then we shared out as a large group. Later that day, I typed up noticings and gave them a quarter sheet to glue-in to their notebooks the next day.
Day 3: Flash drafting
I created a Google Docs folder with six shared documents inside, one document for each big topic students would be able to choose to write about. Following the Soapbox model, I presented students with several big topics: love, jealousy, truth, honor, guilt, education, identity, and rejection. Borrowing from Penny Kittle’s big idea notebooks and the write-around model, I assigned the following task: every student would spend several minutes flash drafting on each of the above topics.
By the end of the day, after each of my three 9th grade classes had completed this activity, we had several-page-long documents on each of the topics. Students liked being able to read what others had written before diving in themselves. While they weren’t responding directly to others’ writing, each student’s response was undoubtedly inspired in some way by what their peers had written before them.
Days 4-6: Minilessons
Students read back over each of their flash drafts and picked the essay they wanted to move forward with. Then I began teaching the first of three mini-lessons (see above for more detail): “Be Original,” followed by “Go Out with a Bang” and “Do the Dash.” Because students already had a flash draft to work with, these lessons were framed as revision lessons, so revision was at the core of our work together for three days.
Day 7: Final Edits and Polishing
One of the neat features of the Soapbox column is the artsy thumbnail headshot that accompanies each mini essay. On the final day, students took headshots of one another and used the free version of Sketch Master Pro (or another app of their choice), an app that converts photographs into sketches. This was SO. MUCH. FUN.
Day 8: Student editors help assemble the columns
I knew I needed the help of several capable students to help assemble the columns in a timely manner. In class this day, I organized the lesson in learning stations, so I could pull a few students to work with me without sacrificing the main lesson. Because students had submitted their personal essays and thumbnail sketches to a Google Form the day before, all of the content was at our fingertips.
Student editors simply created a shareable Google Doc for the topic I assigned them, cut and pasted the information into the document, ran spell and grammar check, and then formatted the document appropriately!
Day 9: Creating a library display
During a free period, with the assistance of an art teacher, I created an informal display of the students’ writing. We used grey art panels to hang the writing, and large headers to help viewers understand the project and find the topics that appealed to them.
Without hesitation, I can say that I saw some of the best writing I’ve seen all year — from typically under-performing writers in particular — in this study. Maybe it was the length of the essay (short!) or the popularity of topics or the fact that students knew their writing would be published and showcased in the school library for all their friends to see–whatever it was, I’m so glad I found time in between larger studies to pursue the mini personal essay. Here are some of my favorite mini-essays that emerged from this study:
Guilt is the feeling of being eaten alive, but having no physical pain. You feel the darkness creep up in the peripherals of your mentality, letting it inch closer and closer until the hammer falls and you confess. Not only do you get forced into confession by the guilt, but confession doesn’t stop the waves of fog creeping in constantly, only stops it in its tracks –– it lies in waiting, ever so silently to rejoin with you in the future. –D.M.
Rejection is the feeling inside you when you didn’t make the team, or when you find out your friends made plans without you, or even the pain you feel when your crush says “no”. Rejection feels painful — like something inside of you crumpled up, died, and broke, but the pieces are too small for one person to fix by themselves. For me, rejection has always been in my life. Rejection happens to anyone pretty much every day. It can hurt people inside to a point in which they feel bad about themselves. And just because it hurts inside when it happens, it doesn’t mean we stop trying, because rejection gives us the strength to carry on and have the courage to take another hit if we have to. — L.E.
I’m a liar by trade––yes, I’m telling the truth. I probably lie around five times a day, but I’m not lying about big things––money laundering, murder, eating the last cookie, etc.––I’m just… telling white lies. I lie about the little things, what I did last weekend and who I was with, conversations I never had. Sometimes I think I might be a sociopath. Maybe I’ll end up being a criminal, a sick sadistic evil maniac, but those people are horrible, and I don’t think lying makes me a bad person. I think it makes me interesting. It makes me different and special, and I can be as special as I like with my little white lies. But lying takes a lot of practice. If I thought I was going to get caught when I lie, Lord knows I wouldn’t be lying about it. It takes practice, and I practice every day. It’s a new year, and I could wake up and change. Or make take a new step. A new resolution––to stop lying, live healthier, junk like that––but honestly, I think I’ll wait it out ‘til next year, and that’s the honest truth. — K.O.
Love is an essential part of life. It’s the reason people get up in the morning. Whether it’s a love for a person or a thing, it gives us a reason to live. If we didn’t have love, we would have no reason to do anything. The only reason a person does anything is for love. Their love for a person or a thing or even themselves. People say that people do things for fear and revenge, too, but those both have to do with love. You are only scared if you have something to lose — something that you love. And you want revenge because someone hurt someone or something you love.
Love makes people selfish. People want love for themselves so they do selfish things to get that love. It can bring out the worst in people. People will do terrible things in the name of love. But this doesn’t mean love is a bad thing. Love is a great thing. It’s what completes us. There is a Greek myth that says that in the beginning, people used to have two heads, four arms, and four legs. The gods split them apart into two separate beings. Each half spent the rest of their lives looking for their other half, their soulmate — looking for what would complete them. Love gives us purpose. We would have no reason to live without love. — L.K.
In what writing studies have your students’ passion and writing talent truly shined through? What are your students’ favorite things to write about? Leave a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett.
WRITING WITH MENTORS