As I mentioned last week, my students and I have been writing college application essays. Yes, I said my students and I. For years, I’ve had a practice that whenever my students do a writing project, I do it, too. From the front of my class, or my shared Zoom screen, I work through the whole process in front of them. I show them my planning and my drafting. I let them see my struggle and my shitty first drafts*. When it’s time for peer review, I read my essay aloud and allow them to give me feedback, and then I revise based on their suggestions. I do this because I want them to see that writing is a process that can be done in community; I want them to see the transformation.
Early last week, we examined sample college essays and looked at a variety of prompts posted on college web sites and the common app. These prompts are intended to spark writing that will reveal something personal about the student. I coach my students to identify a strength such as dedication, creativity, or a strong work ethic, and to write a “highlight tape” that shows a moment or several moments in which that strength was on display.
This is all very conceptual, so I model. Last week, as my students and I walked through the prewriting process, we navigated to a list of prompts, and I showed them the one from the Common App that I chose as my starting point:
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
I chose this prompt, I told them, because one of my strengths is the ability to bounce back from difficulty. I am resilient. To show my students how I decide on what to write about, I think aloud, like this: “Hmmm…when was there a time in my life that I bounced back from difficulty? What example could I write about that would show someone who doesn’t know me that I am resilient? I know — I could write about the time that I had to stop teaching due to illness and how it took me six years to get back to the classroom. Yeah, I think I can share enough details about that.”
As I walked through this process, I displayed my planning on the screen while my students filled out a Google document for their planning. We walked through the process together.
The next step was to write a rough draft and bring it to class for peer review. I showed them how to get started then sent them on their way. The next class, I read my draft out loud, then asked them these questions: What did you see? What did you learn about me? What should I delete? What should I add? What made sense? What didn’t?
They told me that they could see me when I left teaching and then when I was home in bed. They told me I was determined, and they remembered that my goal was to show that I was resilient. They wanted me to add more about how I felt now that I was teaching again. I thanked them for their input and then sent them to breakout rooms to repeat this process in small groups, reading their essays to one another.
They reluctantly went. Some shared their drafts, some felt their writing was “too personal” to share. Some showed up in my office hours later in the day — would I help them? They didn’t think they were doing it right.
One by one, they told me their personal stories of difficulty, of lessons learned, and of personal growth. One by one, I cheered them, assured them they were on the right track, and encouraged them to lean into the process.
Tomorrow, when we meet again, I plan to read them my revised draft, with their suggestions, to show them what the process looks like, to share a part of myself, which might prompt them to share a part of themselves with me.
Here’s what I’ll read:
On the last day of school. I took the items from my desk, placed them in a box, and carried them to my car. I left all my books on the shelves for the teacher who was taking my place. I wouldn’t be back the next year; I was going home to rest.
I’d been teaching in that school for almost ten years. For many of those years, I joined the cross country team after school, changing into shorts and running shoes to run 4, 5, or 6 miles. After that, I would hustle home, make dinner for my family, do dishes and laundry, grade papers, and get ready for the next day. Day after day after day.
Then, I started noticing pain and fatigue. I couldn’t easily walk =when I first stood up from my chair — my joints felt like they were moving through setting concrete. I was so tired at the end of the school day that I often couldn’t remember driving myself home.
I was exhausted all the time, and my joints ached. Just a few years earlier I had finished a half-marathon in under two hours, and suddenly I was finding it difficult to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom. Each step felt like I was walking on broken glass. I went to doctor after doctor and was finally told that I had an autoimmune disease — I would have it for the rest of my life.
What? I would always feel this tired? I would always be this achey? How would I be able to continue teaching?
A year later, I finally admitted it was time to step away. My teaching was suffering, and I spent all my time away from the classroom resting. Something had to change.
On my doctor’s suggestion, I would take six months, at least, to rest. It would be the first time since I was in high school that I didn’t have a job or children to take care of. What was I going to do with my days? I couldn’t go on long runs like I used to. I couldn’t write lesson plans or grade papers. I knew I was going to be bored, so I started writing.
I opened my laptop and started telling my story. I wrote about that last day of school, about how sick I was, and about how I was spending my days — putting together puzzles, reading books, watching too much Netflix, going for walks, and cooking.
I wrote every day, and I spent lots of time going to doctors and learning to care for myself through yoga, walking, and changing my diet. After those first six months, I began experimenting with work, teaching a class or two at a university and tutoring. I found I was gaining strength and learning to manage the pain.
Then, last spring, almost six years after I packed up my desk and left teaching, I was working at an agency when Covid-19 showed up and revealed our world’s brokenness — racism, inequity, hatred, violence. As protests occurred across the country, I watched from the comfort of my couch and shouted, “Something’s got to change!’ Then, I remembered how much change can happen inside of a high school classroom.
Maybe I was ready. Maybe I should try again.
And a few months later, I am sitting at my computer meeting with high school students every day, students who know a thing or two about bouncing back from difficulty. They are working through a pandemic and building strength for whatever comes next.
It took me six YEARS to find my way back to the classroom and to this group of students — I’m pretty sure we were meant to be together.
After I read my rough draft last week and asked my students, What did you see? one of my students typed in the chat, “I see a miracle.”
I see one, too, dear. I see one, too.
A lot of change can happen inside of a classroom — I am seeing it already.
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.Romans 12:2
*Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, one of my all time favorite books on writing.