Helping Students Know That Their Stories Do Matter

I’ve recently been working with my high school juniors on how to write a personal statement for educational or career-related opportunities. In the next year or so, they will all have to choose a path. That might entail college and scholarship applications. It might involve cover letters for career opportunities. It might mean joining another kind of program or apprenticeship. Regardless of a student’s aspirations, being able to write about one’s self is an important skill to open all kinds of doors. The stories that reveal the qualifications and experience that they bring into potential opportunities are stories they need to be able to tell. So we begin to practice now. And I start seeing a pattern that I often see whenever personal writing pops up in the classroom.

The confident students forge straight ahead, eager to envision their futures and tell the story of their potential. Many others approach with reticence, but slowly work their way through with the help of mentor texts, modeling, and one-on-one instruction. I’m not worried about those kids–they will all be fine. I worry about the ones who freeze–the ones who look at this assignment and refuse to put words to the page. These are the students who say things like, “I can’t do this. I can’t write.” Or “Nothing about my life is interesting.” Or the worst one (which I still get every year): “I really don’t have any positive traits. There’s nothing good about me.”

Moments like this touch something that a standardized test can never measure–the inextricable link between personal writing and self-concept. These are the students who, somewhere along the way, started believing that their stories don’t matter. Maybe it’s because of some aspect of who they are. Maybe it’s because of something they are struggling with. Maybe it’s because they don’t believe that anyone will listen to what they have to say. These students are often evasive or belligerent. But they are so important.

We cannot allow kids like this to give up. We need to show them that someone is listening. Every student’s story matters, and helping them learn to tell it, if you ask me, is possibly the most important aspect of my job as a teacher of writing.

So how do we do this? It’s a problem I’m still working on, one that I certainly haven’t completely solved. However, I’ve got a start, and as I’ve been applying this method this past week, I thought it might be helpful to share. Here are some things that I rely on to lift these students up and show them that their stories matter!

1. Double-check your teaching for culturally responsive practices. Culturally responsive pedagogy is too complex for me to explain in depth here, but it is something that every teacher should be familiar with. At the most basic level, remind yourself that the reason a student may be struggling may have something to do with a lack of inclusion or understanding related to their home culture, language, or socio-economic status. For teaching something like the personal statement, think about the various versions of success that can be presented in the written examples that you provide to them. Are all students presented with an example that they can relate to? Or does a homogenous definition of success end up excluding students of certain backgrounds, sending the message that this kind of writing doesn’t include people who look, speak, or live like they do?

2. Find something in common, and model from there. Talk to your students who won’t write. Divert the conversation away from the writing task and toward what they care about. What do they do with their spare time? Where have they lived? Where do they work? What are they most proud of? Who do they love? I talk with my students about these things, sometimes writing down brief notes on our conversations to hand back to them. Often, that organically provides a starting point–maybe a student suddenly realizes that she emulates her mother’s determination, or that she can really talk to lots of different types of people with ease… those are wonderful, marketable traits that are great to write about. Point that out! Help them see the good that you see. So much the better if you as the teacher can find something similar in your own life and say, “Hey, that’s kind of like me! So here’s how I would set this piece of writing up if I were doing it…” Show them how to put it down, and it quickly becomes less scary.

3. Minimize pressure — Just talk, then just write… Do everything you can in your classroom culture to emphasize that writing is messy, experimental play that can be twisted and flipped and cut and expanded at will. Even something as high stakes as a personal statement starts as a draft. Spend less time saying things that send the message of “You will fail in the future if you don’t do this well.” Spend more time saying, “Write a half of a notebook page about what’s most important in your life. Don’t think about making it good. It’s ok if it’s terrible. It just needs to be on the page.” Initial writing should be able to just blurt out onto a highly destructible piece of paper. Once there’s a draft, that polished essay is within sight. Then it’s time to teach revision!

…But that’s for another post. 🙂  Happy teaching!

P.s. An extra tip from my colleague Mrs. F.  For students who still get stuck on that first line, try giving them a sentence starter to get the pen moving. (Ex. “I feel good when I’m skateboarding because _____.” Sometimes that’s all they need.)

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