My last post mentioned Pippin, and now I’m quoting Rodgers & Hammerstein; I had musical theater on my mind this summer because I knew my break would end with a “bucket list” vacation to Broadway, the four-plays-in-four-days kind of trip my Tony Awards-watching teenage self had always dreamed about. The trip was an absolute treat, and it also offered some inspiration for the school year ahead. Silence your cell phones and unwrap your candies: here comes a musical edition of “the first thing” that happens in my classroom.
“I’ve now become an expert on the subject I like most…getting to know you”
Our series this month asks “What is the first thing we want students to understand about writing?” Two of the first things I want my students–especially my freshmen–to understand are that I am excited to read their writing and I want to hear and help them develop their authentic voices. As Anna in The King and I reminds her students “if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught,” so I try to start the year by providing students with opportunities to teach me about themselves and their needs for the year ahead. These opportunities often come in the form of notebook (or index card) invitations. These invitations are doubly helpful for my freshmen classes, since the first major writing task of that curriculum is a personal narrative. As they introduce themselves to me and the rest of the class, students also begin to mine their lives for great moments to explore in longer narratives. What follows are some musical theater-inspired notebook invitations and writing exercises. Some of them are stage veterans while others are hopeful ingenues.
Invitation #1: Six-Word Memoirs
In addition to asking students to fill out some surveys about their reading interests and their classroom needs, one foolproof activity I use during the first week of school is the Six-Word Memoir, a wildly popular exercise from Smith magazine that I read about first in O magazine and learned how to refine thanks to a workshop with Kelly Gallagher and his book, Write Like This (in fact, a lot of what I do in the first few weeks is inspired by Gallagher’s chapter on “Express and Reflect” writing). Allison and Rebekah also share this exercise in Writing with Mentors. The task is pretty straightforward: tell the story of your life in six words. I start the activity by sharing a slideshow of six-word memoir mentor texts, including a few of my own. Smith‘s website has lots of past memoirs to explore, including a set of “Celebrity Sixes” that could be very inspirational for tentative writers. Both Amy Tan’s six-word memoir–“Former Boss: Writing’s your worst skill”–and Frank McCourt’s– “The miserable childhood leads to royalties”– capture the frustration students might feel when facing an empty page (or a difficult life) while planting seeds of hope. Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir– “Me see world! Me write stories!”–evokes Cookie Monster in her whimsical summary of her Eat, Pray, Love adventure. Though these memoirs examples are much shorter than the amazing letter collection Jay shared in his post, they, too help to establish the writing culture for my classroom.
Since this activity happens before we set up our writers’ notebooks (that’s for later in the first week or beginning of the second), I invite students to draft a few different memoirs on an index card or sheet of scratch paper before deciding on one to post on an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper. Inevitably, I learn a lot about my students in six words, and their memoir posters (which they decide to share or keep private) share everything from hobbies (“You can’t spell Courtney without “court”) to highlights (“Moved a lot; met a bunch”) to heartbreak (“Child of divorce; guess I’ll survive”). In the past, my classes have written six-word memoirs only once, but I think that this year I might try to visit the activity throughout the year or challenge students to write memoirs for characters when we finish a story or novel.
These six-word memoirs can also lead to longer narratives. Smith’s website for teen memoirs includes a feature called “Backstories Behind Six,” where memoir writers explain their six words. Perhaps students could use their six-word memoir as a title and expand upon the story in a personal narrative.
Invitation #2: Spit a verse, stage a scene, or plan a party–Hamilton-style
“I’m not throwing away my shot!”
One of the most powerful six-word memoirs of the moment forms the chorus of the “I want” song of Hamilton, the musical phenomenon that I miraculously managed to see last week without having to sell a limb for a ticket (and I realize that most of the time the phrase in the chorus is seven words, but humor me here!). In Hamilton: The Revolution (#Hamiltome!), Lin-Manuel Miranda says that the song “My Shot” took him nearly a year to write because he recognized how important it was for establishing Hamilton’s character and goals. In the same way that Karla uses the song “Alexander Hamilton” as a frame for writing about characters in literature that her class will study, I wonder if students could use “My Shot” as a frame for writing about their goals or their personalities.
Even a piece of “My Shot” could be effective. For example, students could rewrite the simile at the heart of the song. Instead of “And just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy, and hungry” they might write “And just like on Broadway/ the songs in my heart are gonna play” or “And just like the Packers/ I’ve got a million fans and backers” or “And just like my dance moves/I’m new, eclectic, and smooth” (clearly, I have a long way to go before I’m in contention for a Tony…). Writers interested in a bit more of a challenge could compose a verse like the one Miranda says he labored over longest and most reflects his connection to Hamilton. Here’s an excerpt from the “Hamiltome” with the verse and Miranda’s annotations:
When Hamilton sings these lines in the show, the other characters freeze in a tableau that revolves on the stage’s turntable. What moments from their lives would students freeze and examine from all angles? When would they stop their narratives to explain their motivations? I spent July as a faculty member in the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, where our goal is to have students put Shakespeare’s language on its feet; could staging a favorite moment from the summer, an important milestone, or a big dream help students write about it? I’m not sure, but I intend to find out this fall.
In the song “Aaron Burr, Sir,” which leads into “My Shot,” Hamilton’s friends have verses that lend themselves to playful parodies, too:
As Miranda notes, John Laurens’s first line “I’m John Laurens in the place to be,” is a “love letter to classic hip-hop” with a rhythm and a frame students could replicate with their own introductory verses.
“Aaron Burr, Sir” and “My Shot” also play the classic party game of fantasy dinner party. As Miranda explains in the Hamiltome, Hamilton biographer (and historical consultant for Hamilton) Ron Chernow balked at the idea of Hamilton, Laurens, Hercules Mulligan, and the Marquis de Lafayette meeting in a tavern before the Revolutionary War (the meeting never actually happened), but Miranda needed the moment for dramatic purposes. Who might students assemble for an improbable, fictional joining of worlds? Who is their greatest ally and competitor, their “Aaron Burr”? If they could assemble friends from any parts of their lives, who would be part of their ultimate posse? Why? How have those groups of friends and mentors helped students achieve what they want? Any explanation of their choices could lead to some stories worth telling in a personal narrative. (And what a bonus if students could annotate their texts the way Miranda annotates the Hamiltome, too!)
Invitation #3: Share a preference or a pet peeve like the characters of Something Rotten
“I hate Shakespeare, but when I sit and really contemplate Shakespeare… I mostly hate the way he makes me feel about me…”
“I Want” songs like My Shot” are typical or Broadway musicals, but they come in all shapes and sizes. For example, Nick Bottom, a playwright and the lead character in the Shakespeare parody musical Something Rotten, expresses what he wants by telling us what he hates (namely, Shakespeare, the “rock star” of the Renaissance). That song makes me think about two great notebook invitations: Kelly Gallagher’s suggestion to have students write about pet peeves in Write Like This and an adaptable poem that Allison shared in the Mentor Text Dropbox, “What I Like and Don’t Like” by Philip Schultz. Both prompts invite students to explore their preferences and the reasons for those preferences, many of which might have roots in an important moment for their past. There are stories lurking behind those likes and dislikes. For example, in Something Rotten, Nick Bottom really hates Shakespeare because he wants all that Shakespeare has. (And I always eat ice cream in a dish because of a melodramatic experience at a Dairy Queen, but that’s a story for another day…)
Invitation #4: Write a “Dear Me” letter or a recipe for a personal pie a la Waitress
“She is gone, but she used to be mine…”
Unlike Nick Bottom in Something Rotten and the titular character in Hamilton, the main character in Broadway’s Waitress, Jenna Hunterson, can’t quite identify what she wants. As she admits in the opening song, “Don’t know what I wish I had, but there’s no time now for thinkin’ things like that,” and she cannot get what she wants until she reckons with what she has lost in the show’s incredibly powerful 11 o’clock number, “She Used to Be Mine.” Jenna’s litany of opposing traits in the chorus of that song (“She’s imperfect/ But she tries/ She is good/ But she lies…She is messy/But she’s kind…She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie”) provides a great frame for student writing. Could students make a list of their contradictions like Jenna does? What’s “mixed up and baked” in the beautiful pie of their personalities?
Sara Bareilles, one of my favorite songwriters, wrote the score for Waitress, and she shares the creative process behind “She Used to Be Mine” in her book of essays, Sounds Like Me. Another of Bareilles’s essays in that collection has inspired me to expand the parameters for my students’ personal narrative assignment. In her essay about the song “Beautiful Girl” Bareilles writes a series of letters to her younger self. Each of Bareilles’s letters repeats a chorus of sorts–“You are beautiful”– because those words are still difficult for Bareilles to believe (similarly, Waitress’s Jenna reveals her deepest secrets and hurts in letters to her unborn child). The moments described in Bareilles’s letters are painful, joyful, confusing, and always times when she felt vulnerable; they are moments students might recognize in their own lives.
While reading Bareilles’s letters, I thought about about another issue of O magazine that featured celebrities letters to their younger selves and Dear Me, a collection of celebrities’ letters to their sixteen-year-old selves. Bareilles’s form isn’t new, but the effect of the series of letters-to-self is powerful. Together, Bareilles’s letters tell the story of how a song–and Bareilles herself–came to be. Why not have students write an epistolary personal narrative? Students sometimes struggle with sharing the “why” of their personal narratives, the reasons that make the story worth telling. It might feel unnatural or too moralistic to share why a story matters at its conclusion, but giving “older and wiser” students a chance to counsel their younger selves throughout the telling might help them clearly explain why a moment–or a series of moments–mattered.
The Final Curtain
Like our other contributors, I am really grateful for this opportunity to think about “the first thing” that happens in my classroom: introductions–to the teacher, to each other, and to ourselves. In writing this post and reflecting on that all-too-familiar topic of “how I spent my summer vacation,” I have been able to imagine new notebook invitations and new parameters for old activities. I hope these ideas will be valuable and adaptable for you, too.
What will your first notebook invitations be? How do you invite students to introduce themselves to you and to each other? How do you introduce yourself to your class? Have any theatrical experiences shaped writing activities in your classroom? I would love to hear about your extensions, adaptations, and re-imaginations of these notebook time invitations in the comments below or a tweet to @msjochman.