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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Beautiful, moving, and heart-breaking.

For their final exam, my students are writing personal narratives.

The stories I am seeing are beautiful, moving, and heart-breaking.

That is partly my fault.

I chose the prompts.

But I still wasn't prepared for the results.

The three prompts all relate to the novel Speak, at least in theme.

One was a personal narrative about what you have learned this year that you wish you had known before starting high school. It is an advice sort of essay.

The second asked students to write a personal narrative about bullying. It could be from the perspective of victim, perpetrator, or witness.

Finally, students had the option to write their reading of the book as a personal narrative chronicling their reactions and/or growth throughout the novel.

I knew I would get a few stinkers.

And I did.

The kid who writes about how she knew everything before starting high school and everyone should try to be just like her.

The kid who passively relates mundane and obviously fabricated stories about bullying littered with platitudes he learned at school.

The kid who hated the novel and without flair, writes about all the reasons the book is stupid.

What I wasn't expecting?

How few stinkers there were.

Though many are in dire need of revision and/or editing, the vast majority of the essays I am receiving are powerful.

Most kids chose the first prompt.

It seemed like the easiest, and most personal, to them.

But the advice they are giving and the stories they are, just wow...

I am not seeing trivial tidbits like how to navigate the school or open your locker.

I am not seeing negative nastiness like it all sucks and is boring and teachers are mean, evil creatures.

Instead, I am seeing well-balanced and thoughtful, even insightful, responses.

There are numerous stories about the value of friendship, the viciousness of gossip, the mercurial nature of relationships.

Students are expressing chagrin at how naive they were about how to manage themselves: you really do need to stay organized and use your time well.

The importance of grades is a recurring theme, but most are moving beyond the superficial "Your grades matter now so keep them up."

My favorite thus far: the movies lie about what high school is like. This young man has constructed his essay around this concept.

Each paragraph explores his expectations based on a particular movie and then provides an anecdote disproving those expectations.

It is clever.

It is heartening to think that maybe my students have learned some things this year.

And maybe they have even learned to use their personal experiences in their writing to share their growth.

Only a handful of students chose the third prompt.

But most of those are touching.

A couple of girls parallel the pain, isolation, and growth of the main character to their own lives.

They investigate how Melinda's experiences helped them gain perspective and maybe let go of some petty jealousies or self-hatred.

I love those stories, even though they are sad, because they always end like the novel: with hope, vindication, and promise.

My favorite response to this prompt: an exploration of what real-world, larger than our personal experiences, social justice issues we should be studying in place of what the novel offers.

This kid is a thinker (and a stinker sometimes), and he wants us to solve the world's problems, which is a pretty cool stance to take.

By far, though, the stories that impact me the most are those that address bullying.

It is heart-wrenching to read how traumatic the experiences of some students have been.

The kid who says "I will punch somebody if they keep calling me gorilla or monkey face. But I don't care what people think, except maybe I kind of do."

Her obvious struggle between anger, hurt, and self-assurance makes me both sad for her (kids are so nasty sometimes) and proud of her (she is learning to value herself).

Or how about the absolutely crushing story of a child who was a silent witness and consequently lost his best friend to drug abuse, suicide attempts, and mental health issues.

Or the gut-wrenching self-loathing of the boy who now realizes what a horrible, despicable bully he used to be...and maybe still is, because he is not sure how to change.

Or the subtle, yet painful, bullying that goes on among girls who slight and belittle each other every day.

Or, the most heart-wrenching of all, the victim who had been worn down to a depressed shell of his
former self, and now is recovering, but still can't seem to make friends.

I keep reading and commenting and trying not to cry.

Ultimately, though, I am really glad that the personal narratives my students are writing have power.

If they can write in a way that conveys beauty, evokes strong feeling, or stirs empathy, well that is a pretty good thing for this English teacher...

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