Getting Started

This week my students are working on their Language Autobiographies (here are some past examples). The assignment (inspired by Marsha Pincus years ago,) requires them to use personal experience, written in the form of scenes of memory (thanks Jessi), to develop larger ideas about language in their lives or language in the world. It’s a challenging assignment that allows students to create some really powerful work.

The most interesting part of the process for me is when we make the switch from the whole class studying the same topic to each student beginning their own paper. I do a lot of planning in order to make this transition as smooth as possible but, inevitably, there is some struggle and certain students flounder around a lot longer than others before their papers start to take shape. Some of this undoubtedly has to do with individuality and the writing process. While my goal is to make this process as easy as possible for students I often find myself reminding students that writing is hard and that discomfort is not necessarily a bad part of the process (that one goes over real well with teenagers).

Here are some of my strategies to set the stage for successful papers where all students are deeply investigating issues that matter to them:

– Our studies are guided by meaningful essential questions that we have interrogated as a class. In this unit our questions are: What are the relationships between language, power, and identity? What does it take and what does it mean to achieve individuality within a larger system of conformity?

– Before they are asked to begin writing a formal paper, students have done a lot of informal, low-stakes writing that has helped them generate ideas. In this case we created a class dictionary where everyone contributed non-Standard English words that matter to them, and each student wrote two scenes in which they observed something interesting happening with language.

– We read a lot of model texts both for ideas and for style. In this unit we read Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, bell hooks, Gloria Azaldua, Richard Rodriguez, Amy Tan, and Maxine Hong Kingston. We also watched and discussed the wonderful film American Tongues.

– After having gone over the assignment and the rubric I have some students share their ideas for their papers out loud. I am constantly attempting to reinforce the idea of collaboration among us as writers and thinkers. When students hear someone else’s idea their own thinking is often sparked or enriched. I want my classroom to be a place where people are openly supporting each other’s thinking and growth and not attempting to compete against each other.

Even with all of the groundwork laid the first writing/outlining day does not (of course) go smoothly for all. I find myself actively moving around the room to students who seem lost or frustrated. I crouch down next to them and remind them of their earlier writing, I tell them to write on the topic for ten minutes straight and see what comes out, or I tell them to start writing the middle of their paper and figure out the beginning later. Ultimately I do my best to create a pathway for each student to be able to succeed but I have to leave openings for students to figure out what best works for them.

It’s hard to imagine how a one size fits all approach towards education could lead to the same quality of student work as an approach that supports, nurtures, and allows students to succeed as unique individuals.

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