From the Classroom: Finding “Moments Worth Writing About”
by Tricia Ebarvia
It’s just after 7:20 a.m. and my students are settling into their seats. Although it’s early, this class is usually lively, with students generally willing to try out whatever their English teacher has planned for them that day. This morning, I pass out cream-colored quarter sheets of paper and several tape dispensers. I go over the lesson plan to the sound of pages flipping, synchronized to the squeaky pulling and staccatoed tearing of tape. Into their notebook, students tape the following Willa Cather quotation:
“Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
Today is Day 1 in a brief unit on the personal history essay. I decided to call this next essay a personal history rather than the more familiar term memoir for a few reasons. One, the term memoir feels a little intimidating to me; the term has always implied a confessional quality to it, like a great secret is about to be shared, a great burden lifted. For better or worse, memoirs feel too big a task, too much to ask.
So instead, I like the term personal history. It feels more open to those small, everyday moments that only upon reflection—by looking back and connecting the dots—do you appreciate their significance. The other reason I prefer the term personal history is because it’s the term that The New Yorker uses for its collection of essays of this genre. One day, as I was browsing the magazine’s digital archives, I came across their official description for their Personal History collection:
Writers reflect on the intimate moments and events that shaped their lives—I enjoy the simplicity of this description. It feels inviting and manageable, deceivingly so. After all, as most writers can attest, mining our past experiences can often lead to unexpected paths.
When students are asked to choose a meaningful experience, they can sometimes struggle with determining what makes something “meaningful.” They think that only the relatively big moments of their relatively brief lives are worth writing about—moving away, a death in the family, volunteer work that changed their lives. While these are certainly worth writing about, not all students have these types of experiences. Or even if they do, these experiences aren’t necessarily the ones that are most meaningful to them. Instead, it’s the small, everyday moments of their lives that most deeply shape who they are.
Unfortunately, these are also the moments that are underestimated, overlooked. When I give students the Willa Cather quote to tape into their notebooks, I do so to remind them that they have had already many rich experiences—many moments worth writing about. The key is to dig a little deeper in our writing to unearth them.
Moments Worth Writing About
Lately, I found myself using the phrase—”moments worth writing about”—whenever my students write, as they search for topics and generate ideas. But I’ve also used it when they read, too. As they read, I ask students to pay attention to those moments in the text—whether it’s fiction or non-fiction—that stand out to them, that call to them in a way that makes these moments “worth writing about.” A “moment worth writing about” is a moment that makes a reader stop and wonder, a moment that needs to be “figured out,” a moment that confuses or surprises. A “moment worth writing about” could be an epiphany a character experiences, a dramatic plot twist in a story, rich and vivid description, or even just a word or phrase that draws their attention. I like the simplicity of asking students to find “moments worth writing about”—whether those moments are from a text or from their own lives.
As with all our writing endeavors, I try to expose students to rich and diverse mentor texts for inspiration. In this personal history unit, my students and I read together 3-4 shared texts. We discuss the texts: in particular, we identify what the writers do in each essay to make them successful pieces of writing. This year, I asked students to look at our mentor texts specifically through the lens of the Six Traits: How does the writer convey their ideas? How does the writer organize them? Where can we hear, sense the writer’s voice? What words work and why? Can we hear the rhythm of the sentences? How does the writer use conventions for clarity?
As Atwell reminds us, one of the goals of these shared reading experiences with students is to ultimately handover the responsibility of learning to them. That said, after we look at these core texts, I give students a choice of several additional essays to choose from. They work in small groups and together, they decide what to read and come to class each day ready to discuss with one another. After a week or so, my students have read more than half a dozen mentor texts.
Four Ways In
Of course, just reading examples of personal history essays will not necessarily be enough to help students move from thinking about their personal histories to writing them. Along the way, students also write personal responses to each of the mentor texts in their writer’s notebooks. The mentor texts touch on many experiences familiar to students: Sedaris’ story of his cruel French teacher reminds students of their own classroom memories, while Brooks’ reflection on his first experience at a Springsteen concert evokes similar musical moments.
But even these reflections may not be enough. So I also used the following four techniques to get students moving. (I use these writing exercises at the same time we’re studying the mentor texts listed above.)
Questions for Memoirists
I take a page right out of Atwell’s Lessons that Change Writers and pass out another quarter sheet for students to tape into their notebooks. This time, it’s Atwell’s list of “Questions for Memoirists.” As you can imagine, this quarter sheet includes a list of questions designed to get students thinking about meaningful experiences in their lives. For example—What’s an incident that shows what my family and I are like? What’s a time or place I laughed a lot? A time or place I was perfectly happy?
I spend the first few minutes of several class periods asking students to choose questions from this list and freewrite. For some students, this list of questions might be enough to pinpoint that “moment worth writing about,” especially when they have several days to explore.
Picture Book Read-aloud: Roxaboxen
After a few days of working through the “Questions for Memoirists,” I tell students that it’s time for story time and pull out Alice McLerran’s picture book, Roxaboxen.
I love the story of Roxaboxen. In McLerran’s book, neighborhood children gather together to create their own little “town”—one made from collected rocks, abandoned boxes, and their imaginations. As McLerran writes, “a town of Roxaboxen began to grow, traced in stones,” and soon, the children added stores like a bakery where “pies and cakes and bread baked warm in the sun.”
Roxaboxen is a wonderful text to read with high school students because somewhere, in most of their childhoods, students have their own Roxaboxen. After I read aloud the text, I give students time to reflect on the memories and moments that the story evokes. When students share out, their talk is animated, lively—so many of them have stories of beloved adventures in made-up worlds, worlds they hadn’t thought about perhaps in many years.
I also love using Roxaboxen because there are also so many wonderful mentor sentences found throughout the story. Look, for example, at the specificity in the following sentence.
Frances moved to one of them and built herself a new house outlined in desert glass, bits of amber, amethyst, and sea-green: a house of jewels.
I use Roxaboxen as an opportunity to talk about purposeful punctuation—the use of colons, em-dashes, semi-colons, and parenthesis to add clarity and showcase voice. For example:
When Marian dug up a tin box filled with round black pebbles, everyone knew what it was: it was buried treasure.
Marian was mayor, of course; that was just the way she was.
Everybody kept trying them both. (In Roxaboxen you can eat all the ice cream you want.)
Because I had already done several lessons on purposeful punctuation using Noah Lukeman’s Dash of Style, studying sentences like these in Roxaboxen makes for a wonderful review.
I’m generally of the mindset that it’s better to provide students with as many ways in to potential writing topics as possible—to uncover those “writing territories,” to quote Nancie Atwell (again).
For this last “way in,” I ask students to go back through their writer’s notebooks and search for their list of “Things I Know About” or “Things that Make Me Who I Am” from earlier in the year. I ask them to choose a few things from these lists and then turn to a blank page in their writer’s notebooks. On the board, I draw a graph with an X and Y axis.
I label the graph, “Teaching,” and then I say to students, “As you know, teaching is something that I know a little about. Here, I’m going to graph my teaching life.” I label the X axis for time: “I’m going to start my graph at the year 2000, because that’s the year I did my student teaching.” I end the X axis with 2016.
“I’m going to use the Y axis,” I continue, “to measure the quality of my teaching—how awesome or meh I think I was as a teacher over the years.” I label the highest point on the Y axis “awesome,” and the lowest point, “Meh.” (To be funny, I once extended the line below the X axis into negative territory and labeled the end point, “What am I doing?”.)
I then think aloud as I plot points on my graph and connect them to make a line. As I plot away, I say things like, “I was mostly trying to survive as a first year teacher, so I’d rate myself close to the “meh.” I then add another point and say, “I remember that I had a really great second year of teaching because I could fix everything that had gone wrong the year before.” A few years later along the X axis, I add a much higher point and say, “I remember trying out blogging for the first time with my students this year and it went really well. My students produced some of the best writing I’d ever seen up to that point.” And so on. To the right, you can see a version of my teaching—as well as a parenting—line graph from my notebook.
I talk through these “life graphs” and explain to students that we can find some “moments worth writing about” by looking at the way the line moves up and down. “Look,” I tell them, “for the plot points that are both high and low. Ask yourself, what happened here? It’s at those plot points—those moments—that can provide the richest material to write about.” I also point out that when you do several of these life graphs that you can start to see patterns or correlations. For example, I joke that the minute my third son was born in 2010 that the overall quality of my parenting declined. I point out that my teaching life graph is a bumpy one, which is to be expected, but that the overall trend is upward. One student points out, “It looks like the better you got at teaching, the worse you got at parenting.” I had to laugh.
As I walk around the room to watch students creating their own life graphs, I see that their faces are focused, intent. I see life graphs for the following: relationship with my parents, self-confidence, playing tennis, artistic life, friendships, and so on.
A few days later during our writing conference, I ask a student what he’s going to write for his personal history essay.
“I think I’m going to write about some of my experiences in middle school,” he replies.
“What made you decide on that?” I ask.
“Actually, I got the idea from the life graph we did in class. I did a graph on ‘self-confidence,’ and I noticed that I had a huge decline during middle school.” He smiles. “So I think that’s something worth writing about.”
Right now, my students are in the drafting-revising stage of their personal history essays. I can’t wait to read them. My hope is that by offering as many ways into the writing process—multiple and varied invitations—that they can find those moments that speak to them.
Do you have any favorite ways to invite students into personal essay writing? How do you help students find “moments worth writing about”? Feel free to share in the comments below.
Update: This post originally contained an activity that used a piece of writing that has been removed because I can no longer recommend its use in the classroom.
Tricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature and AP English Language & Composition at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. This year, she continues her quest to inspire a love for reading in her students by integrating more independent reading and free choice. She admits that her heart skips a beat whenever she sees a student with a book in his hand she’s recommended. She can also be found on Twitter @triciaebarvia or on her website at triciaebarvia.org.
I find myself getting stuck using the same ways to generate ideas before a writing piece. Your post offered really fun, new ideas! I love your line graph idea, Tricia! I have used timelines before, focusing on a topic like friendship, basketball teams, etc. but I have never seen someone use a line graph to help generate ideas for a written piece. Really cool idea! I definitely see myself trying out this strategy with my elementary school students.
Also- I read Roxaboxen, too! I love that you use it with high schoolers. I use it with my students when we are learning how to write in a nature journal. This is such a fun text!
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Thank you! Roxaboxen has become one of my favorites… I love how a beautiful and well-written picture books can be shared K-12. I hope the timeline activity works for your kids – I think it was definitely helpful for some of my students in generating ideas. Thanks again!
“Moments Worth Writing About” is such a clever way to bring attention to student creativity and authenticity in the English classroom. From my own personal experience as a student, I have come to the realization that I enjoy writing what is most familiar to me, and what better way to do so than to write about what is personal to me. Because some students may not feel comfortable sharing, I would agree that some sort of structure or outline be given. One suggestion would be to ask all students a simple question, such as a favorite childhood memory, allowing the brainstorming process to flow and flourish. Furthermore, providing students with a task will allow students to gather thoughts that they may not have originally felt comfortable sharing. As my current professor at West Chester University asserts to her students, I will also claim: only share what you are comfortable sharing.
The skills that students will learn through authentic writing will greatly benefit them as students and future professionals. In fact, some students may even find their niche, and realize that creative and personal writing is something they seek comfort in. Students may begin to become more aware of their experiences, feel the importance to write about specific events, and come to realize the “everyday moments of their lives that most deeply shape who they are.”
Thank you so much for sharing. I look forward to brainstorming more activities that allow students to explore themselves as authentic writers.
BSEd English Literatures
West Chester University
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Thanks so much for your thoughts, Jesse. I think one of things we don’t pay as much attention to as teachers is having students write to make meaning of their worlds and themselves. We may focus on learning how to write and less time on writing to learn. Yet learning about ourselves—and the habit of self-reflection that writing nurtures—is incredibly valuable. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.
As a soon to be English educator, I have been logging as many ideas as possible about activities to use in the classroom. I have been thinking a lot about the writing process, especially the pre-writing stage. With my experience in classrooms so far, I have noticed that students often feel they have little to nothing important to say, which is not true! I love the different ways that you approach the students’ brainstorming to show them that they produced “moments worth writing about” on their own. Hopefully, they will transfer this practice of brainstorming and the pre-writing process to other styles of writing with which they struggle to think of something “important” to say. This may help students to understand that they are not expected to get their ideas, organization, and overall effectiveness of writing perfect on the first try.
I also love the authenticity your writer’s notebook. I love the idea of allowing students to tape in different pieces of writing on which they can reflect and use to incite ideas. This reminds me of an artist’s sketchbook. It allows the students to feel that they can simply get their ideas out into their notebooks without making their writing perfect, such as a personal journal. It lowers their anxiety about the pressures of writing and makes them more comfortable with exploring ideas and adding in their own voice. Thank you for your great ideas and contribution!
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Thank you, Ana. I’m glad that you found this post helpful! Yes, pre-writing is such an important part of writing; in some ways, it’s the most important part. 🙂
I love how you can bring separate, meaningful strands together into one writing experience. What is demonstrates, to me, is that you are indeed a writer and a reader–a reflective practitioner–and just an incredible model for your kids and PAWLP colleagues.
I know some education students and future teachers follow this blog… You can’t get where Tricia is just with time. Time and experience are not enough! Be writers. Be readers. Be reflective souls. From day one. (I think I’m going to blog about this blog, Tricia! Lol)
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Thanks, friend! I would actually like to write more (I have about 15 drafts saved in my blog queue!). I admire your ability to reflect/write on a regular basis. When I take the time to write for Pawlp, it really helps me clarify and think through what’s been going on in my classroom.
So many great suggestions here, Tricia. By giving your students so many ways to think about their life experiences you have helped them unearth many memories and feelings. No one in your class could possibly say “I don’t know what to write about!”
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Thank you, Rose! Yes, many students found that they had several ideas to choose from!
Tricia, there are so many great ideas and much food for thought in this post! I especially like the ‘Four Ways In’ section — ‘Write Like Lena Dunham’ is powerful, and so accessible and adaptable. Working with teachers, I have also found that some think an event or moment must be clearly momentous to all, rather than just to them. Like you, I have found that the writers’ notebook (lists, timelines, maps, etc.) and mentor texts are enormously helpful. Talking through a few potential ideas from the notebook with a partner helps too, in determining which one the writer has the most passion about and/or which one seemed most interesting to the reader…
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Thank you, Janice! That Lena Dunham essay is wonderful – talk about a great opening paragraph! I would highly recommend reading the rest of it. And I agree with your point about talk. Talk can be a powerful way for students to “prewrite” by working through their ideas.
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