I have had the privilege of working with many brilliant educators as coworkers, collaborators, and friends throughout my career, and this year is no exception to that trend. I love it when another teacher has a beautiful, ingenious teaching idea that inspires my work in my own classroom. Sometimes the creativity and innovation of other teachers is so utterly cool that I want to shout it from the rooftops, and that’s what I’m going to do digitally here. Without further ado, listen and learn from the words of my colleague, sometimes movie star, and today’s guest writer, Joe Belknap.

This American Life

Okay. So here’s the deal. I have two confessions. Ready?

Confession #1: I am a writing teacher who is still very much trying to understand what it means to be an effective writing teacher.

Confession #2: I kind of want to be Ira Glass, host of This American Life.

Whew! You know what? Confession is cathartic. I. Feel. Good. Let’s examine these revelations more closely, beginning with what we know about effective writing instruction.

We know that writing instruction is most effective when it’s taught as a process, when powerful mentor texts are examined in such a way that help students understand and emulate the moves a writer makes. Writers make choices, and we want to empower students to understand the purpose and power behind those choices so that they, too, can make effective choices in their own writing in order to discover or create meaning and to be heard.

“Text,” traditionally, is defined as words on the page, but this definition is too simplistic, too confined. I prefer Ms. Amy Harter’s definition, which is, in short, somethingthat can be read, pondered or interpreted.

Finally, if you’re a fan of Ira Glass, then you’re already familiar with the storytelling power of his radio show, This American Life. If you’re not familiar (And you really should be. Seriously. Stop reading this, go to their website, and binge listen to as many episodes as possible.), it’s a program that connects disparate stories–true stories of everyday people, usually, but short fiction and spoken word find their way into episodes also–to a single theme, all of which illuminate some truth about the human experience. As host, Ira Glass is so very attentive and insightful and sincere.

So here’s where my confessions intersected last year when putting together curriculum for my Creative Writing class: why not use This American Life as a mentor text? 

Using This American Life as a mentor text in my Creative Writing classes has been popular with my students. They deserve to laugh, love, learn, and be moved by the collected stories that have been compiled into episodes over the years. While listening to the episodes, my students have kept one central question in mind: What moves are the This American Life journalists, interviewers, authors, and sound engineers making in order to construct effective, memorable episodes?

As a final project, then, my students act as writers, field journalists, and engineers to create and combine their own stories in the style of This American Life. In the process they can’t help but learn about themselves and the world around them. They use digital voice recorders to collect interviews, natural sounds, and narration. They use Audacity, a free audio editing software program, to upload audio and edit their episodes. They work collaboratively to discover connections and meaning in their episodes and, I hope, in their lives.

Before embarking on this project, I created my own one act episode as a model for my students. It’s entitled “High School Relationships,” and it’s a story of awkward encounters in high school dating. You can listen to it here.

My students are currently finishing their episodes, and the work they’ve done is just so impressive. One girl elected to dedicate her entire episode to “What Happens in the Hallways,” which has proven to be both hilarious and interesting. One young man, a senior, is chronicling the amount of change that occurs over the four years spent in high school. “Who were you then, and who are you know?” he asks his peers and, inadvertently, himself.

Which leads me to one final confession: this is the best part of teaching. When student engagement, choice, and creativity collide, students construct amazing pieces of work. I become a facilitator, answering questions, offering guidance, but I also get to step back and witness them create.

Write on!

Joe Belknap 

P.s. Love this idea as much as I do? Questions or Comments for Joe can be left in the comments here, or you can find him at Joe.Belknap@pwssd.k12.wi.us