To prepare students for today's essay assignment, I ask them to list three [appropriate] words which describe them. I, for example, might share that I am dedicated because I spend a lot of time on activities that matter to me, like my job and my horses. I could also say that I'm busy because I DO spend so much time on things that matter to me.
I hear plenty of laughter as students settle to the task; their friends offer humorous suggestions as they grapple with this existential question. As it turns out, it's not so easy to define oneself. Responses range from athletic and hard-working to nerdy and lazy; some even continue to stare at a blank page (they will need help in the next section of our lesson).
I introduce our first expository essay as a chance for my junior students to get a head start on senior activities--college applications and scholarship applications. Students will examine themselves and choose the best evidence and details to convey who they are. Several years ago, I explain, the deadline for our local scholarship applications was pushed back over a month. Why, I ask.
"No one applied?" Exactly. The senior class that year did not apply for scholarships; as it turned out, they did not want to write the required essays for the applications. Again, I ask why.
"It's not fun?" To many, that's true.
"It's not easy?" Indeed, it is not. I ask a rhetorical question, how easy was it to define yourself with three words just now? Heads nod; they understand it is not easy. I explain that I do not want to see this class lose out on college and scholarship opportunities because of the challenge of essay writing. Today's essay will be one they can refine next year for just about any application essay. They will be writing about themselves.
I pull up the expository essay overview PowerPoint from our previous lesson and skip to slides 8-10, going over the requirements and possible structures of the essay.The first and only question I hear?
"Will these be shared with the class?" I've heard this before; the thought of sharing one's true thoughts about oneself terrifies my students. No, I say, these will be between you and me only, though keep in mind the intended use next year. Relief rolls through the room like a cool breeze in summer.
Then, it's time to work. I give students the rest of the class to outline their essays.
Silence descends on the class; this is a challenging task. For some students, too challenging. They are realizing some hard truths about themselves:
Other students scribble furiously on their outlines; a glimpse over their shoulders reveals details outlines with extra paragraphs beginning to emerge in the margins. These students have A LOT to say about who they are, and more importantly, why.
At the end of the hour, outlines drop into the box as students head out the door. Some students flip their papers face down, eyes averted; I wonder what I will read. Others smile wide, happy with their self reflections. One thing is for sure, I'm in for an interesting round of feedback.
This is no assignment for a teacher afraid to confront the horrors of students' lives.
If you have created a culture of trust in your classroom, if your students feel respected by you and safe with you, you will hear their darkest secrets. Abuse, hunger, rape--I've read it all in these self-reflective essays, and both my students and I then deal with the consequences, from a new, stronger bond between us to phone calls and meetings with child protective services.
Does this mean that these self-reflective essays shouldn't happen? Absolutely not. When students trust you with their darkest secrets, they also trust you to help them--and so often, they desperately need that help. They need a shoulder to lean on, an adult to tell them it will be okay, someone to just KNOW what happened. For their sake, it is worth the burden YOU will carry as a teacher.
So teacher beware, you'll learn more than you expected. You'll carry more than you expected. Just remember, student growth takes all shape and forms, and the emotional growth can be greatest of all.