Today’s guest post comes to us from one of our 100 Days of Summer Writing participants, Erin Palazzo. Erin is a high school English teacher in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. She loves helping teens fall in love with reading and develop confidence in writing through mentor texts and readers & writers workshops. Her students would also add that her interest in Henry David Thoreau saunters on the border between quirky and obsessed.
I’ve been teaching AP English Language to juniors for the last 9 years. One of the major requirements our department has for them is to work on personal narrative writing–more specifically, the college application essay–in the spring. Every year my group of confident, articulate analytical writers and argumentative champions freeze at this daunting task. They don’t know how to handle narrative writing, much less how to write about themselves. To help ease them into engaging vignettes that will capture their personalities and passions for strangers around the country to read, we work on a series of writing assignments that use mentor texts, images, and objects as a comfortable transition into personal narrative writing.
Writing #1: Dear Photograph
We start small. If my students seem especially apprehensive, we might begin with the classic “6 Word Memoirs” as a quick write to brainstorm a bunch of options for personal writing. We collect lists of inspiration points: significant people, places, vacations, events, hobbies, memories, pets, etc. Then we study a few reflections posted on Dear Photograph, pondering what type of photo makes a good candidate for this exercise as well as how the writers crafted their reflections. Students pick a photo of their own to complete a Dear Photograph reflection. If at all possible, they are to submit the “picture within the picture,” although if there are extenuating circumstances (such as a student who has moved from a different state recently), they are certainly allowed to just submit the original image. The assignment is a low-stakes entry point into writing about yourself, and the students usually enjoy sharing their photos and laughing about old hairstyles, clothes, cars, or room decor.
Writing #2: The Stranger in the Photo Is Me
Next, we continue with photography as our entry point with a writing assignment I received at my AP Summer Institute training by the esteemed late John Brassil. We read an article by the late great Don Murray, “The Stranger in the Photo Is Me.” Our class discussion focuses on stylistic techniques as well as the bigger moves of the piece. Students then select another photo from their past & complete a longer essay that asks them to use the memory or relationship or aspect of their lives as both a reflection and then a point of departure for some universal truth.
Writing #3: The Things I Carry
We end our warm-up writings with a shift from images to objects. I begin this class period by asking the students to take out a piece of paper and then to start making a list of all the things they carry with them on a typical school day. It could be the contents of their book bag, a purse, pockets…I tell them it doesn’t really matter. Once they start generating ideas, I take out my kitchen scale and allow them to come up and weigh the items to record their weight. Chapstick: 1 oz. iPhone: 6.3 oz. with case. APUSH notebook 3 lbs., 11 oz. We continue until everything is recorded & weighed (as much as possible–some of those textbooks are just too heavy to register on my kitchen scale). Then it gets real. I ask them to write down the intangible things they carry daily & assign each of them a weight. How much does your stress weight? Your parents’ expectations? Love? Hope? Anxiety? Support of your friends? Memories? After some time silently writing, I’ll read all or at least excerpts of chapter 1 of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. (Often, my students are going to go on to read the rest of this book as a separate assignment. If you don’t teach this book or want to cut it down for length and/or content, there is a “clean,” short excerpt of ch. 1 that appeared on Massachusetts’ MCAS exam a few years ago. I have a copy of it here, minus the test questions.) After discussing style, students are asked to take their lists and write their own “Things I Carry” piece. I leave this one the most open-ended of all the writing prompts; I simply ask them for about a page in writing. Some students write about one object (e.g. the house key that symbolizes both the freedom of the student’s economic situation & also the pressure to leave that house & be the first in her family to attend college). Other students write about a collection of objects (e.g. taking us through a school day, writing about the items specifically in a tennis bag). I’ve even had a few students choose to complete the assignment in poetry form (most notably, a poem entitled “Time Bombs” about a watch collection and the paradoxical slowing down and speeding up of time at this key point in her life). They are the most personal pieces the students write all year; they are often difficult pieces to read, filled with the realities of the stress, expectations, and academic workload they shoulder. However, they are also hopeful and inspirational, full of voice and passion. It is truly a culmination of a year of craft study and hard work and deep reflection.
Writing #4: Common App prompt
Finally, students pick and write a response to one of the Common Application writing prompts. Some of my students have already had an idea in mind or in the works; other students revise one of their previous pieces or pull from it for inspiration for this; still others work on a completely different topic or approach. I have a stack of exemplars for students to look through and a whole talk I give on how to pick a topic, how to take a common topic (such as camp counselor) and make it your own, and what topics or techniques to avoid. By now, the vast majority of my students feel comfortable writing about themselves and feel confident that they don’t have to have cured cancer or survived a natural disaster to have something interesting or meaningful to say. For the handful that don’t, we conference.
Wrapping It All Up
The unit is flexible in nature. There are years my students have all written and submitted all four of these writings. Many years we’re more pressed for time after the AP exam, and so we begin work on all of them or bring 2-3 of them to a completed first draft for conferencing and feedback before students select one piece to polish for a grade. And a few years I rolled out all the different writing types & had the students begin brainstorming each of them before choosing one to ultimately draft and bring through the writing process.
Narrative writing is the middle child of the high school English class. During junior and senior year it is often pushed aside to make room for the “more important” research papers and literary analysis papers that too often fill our grade books. The heightened pressure of this being a determining factor of college admittance makes the process all the more daunting. By selecting images and objects that are familiar and comfortable to the students, we can demystify the process of writing about ourselves and help our students find their voices for authentic self-expression.
How do you tackle college application essays or narrative writing in general? We’d love to hear about unique approaches or ideas for giving it a more prominent place at the writing table. Leave your ideas on our Facebook page or below!