Published Online: January 29, 2013

First Person

Bringing Students to Life With Memoir Writing

Eminent scholar Walter Ong said writing "is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. … Writing heightens consciousness as nothing else does." As a writing teacher, this axiom inspires and challenges me. What an incredible opportunity I have to facilitate a life-altering experience for my students, especially for those whose personal and academic growth has been somehow stunted.

This opportunity is powerfully illustrated in the 2009 movie "Precious." Based on the novel Push by Sapphire, the movie tells the story of an illiterate, overweight black teenage girl named Precious whose life is pure misery. Brutalized and sexually abused by her mother and father, Precious is invisible to the rest of the world. After a second pregnancy, she is taken out of the regular public school and sent to an alternative school, the last stop en route to oblivion. As it turns out, that dilapidated alternative classroom offers the only sliver of hope in the story, as the idealistic writing teacher struggles to bring a ragtag group of society's castoffs into literacy. For each student, that classroom is a last chance to make it in life. And miracles happen there. Writing brings those women back from the dead. In a safe place, they literally write themselves into existence.

This story resonated deeply with me as a writing teacher because bringing students to life through writing is my favorite part of what I do. Though the circumstances in my classroom are not nearly as dramatic as those in Precious', I relish the opportunity every semester to take a group of fresh faces on a journey of meaning-making through writing. As a rule, the most meaningful writing my students do is memoir writing. "Precious" illustrates the power of memoir: Putting a narrative frame on our past—especially our struggles—promotes perspective and self-awareness that are otherwise out of reach for most people.

Though few students are suffering the level of destruction and misery Precious knew, most of them are struggling to make sense of their lives. Sure, this has always been true, but from my point-of-view, it gets truer each year. Those diagnosing the state of our education system and offering remedies must factor in the level of aimlessness, neglect, and violence—and the corresponding illiteracy—experienced by so many of our struggling students. As Professor Barry Sanders put it in A is for Ox, "The problem is not that young people have a difficult time becoming literate. They have a difficult time becoming literate when things fall apart—the connections to family, the connection to voice, the connection to play."

Transformational Storytelling

K-12 public school teachers already know this. These heroes, stationed in every community, hold together our social fabric. Stories abound of teachers quietly going the extra mile to make sure a child has school supplies, shoes, or clothing. An elementary art teacher I know was working with two different families who lost everything in house fires last year. She petitioned her social network for clothing and furnishings. That kind of caring from teachers is common, and teachers often do even more.

More than his or her colleagues, the writing teacher is able to go beyond simple human caring, empowering students to stand on their own two feet, realize their rhetorical potential, and write their stories. Many writing teachers, including me, believe the best place for students to start is writing about their own lives. After all, storytelling—relating one's personal experiences to another—is the primary method by which people construct meaning in their lives. As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has said, "the unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest." Throughout human history, we've crafted stories in an effort to understand our existence, whether at a local or universal level. Evidence abounds that helping students hammer out their stories can be transformational. Indeed, "Precious" is but one of many books and films telling similar stories about the power of personal writing. The movie "Freedom Writers," based on the collection of stories written by Erin Gruwell's students, has been an inspiration to many writing teachers. More recently, "To Be Heard" documented the life-changing impact on Bronx high school students of a program called Power Writers.

When I give my first-semester students the opportunity to tell their stories, the words come gushing out. Last semester I heard about the heartbreak of a student sitting in her car in an empty parking lot, waiting for her absent father. He did not show up—then or ever. There was the story of a 10-year-old boy whose punishment for bad grades was dancing around in his sister's panties and bra, then getting "whooped." Something inside him broke while his mom and stepdad mocked him and howled in laughter. And I read the story of the teenage girl who left home to live with her boyfriend at the age of 16. It turned out to be a bad decision, but she was too proud to tell her friends or family that she was going to bed hungry every night. No one noticed as she lost 30 pounds and her hair and skin became brittle.

Every semester, I hear numerous stories of loss, neglect, abuse, even rape. These untold stories are looking for a witness. Given permission and a listening ear, students' painful stories pour out like blood from a nasty gash. And when these students' voices are heard, they are empowered; some even say they find healing.

Addressing the 'Whole Person'

Yes, the primary objective of our education system is to pass on knowledge and values while developing cognitive and social skills, but to think those goals can be reached without addressing students' interior confusion is unrealistic. Thankfully, work is being done today (particularly by school counselors) to address students' self-concept and their need to process personal challenges. Education at its best addresses the whole person, and no discipline is able to confront the whole person like writing.

Teaching is exhausting and can be a grind, especially when it involves grading mounds of papers. This is certainly true for me. However, every semester a student or two come to life so beautifully that it fills the grind with grace. The girl who left her parent's home at 16 was that student this semester. In her end-of-semester reflection, she wrote:

"I gained confidence in my writing and in myself. I released things extremely difficult in a beautiful story that I feel confident in sharing now. I gained new perspectives and clarity. I feel ready to take the next step in my learning."

Incorporating personal writing in students' education may seem like a waste of time to those who emphasize acquiring skills and mastering content, but countless writing teachers at every level have seen otherwise. We've seen the uninterested student come to life telling his or her story; we've seen the insecure, stammering child become a self-assured, rhetorically aware powerhouse; and we’ve seen a classroom of strangers become a community of writers. Yes, personal writing is messy business, but in this teacher's opinion, it's worth the risk.

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