One of my goals this year is to work towards essay as envisioned by Katherine Bomer in her book, The Journey is Everything. Week before last, we laid the groundwork by beginning the habit of “writing to think”, which I wrote about here. We had brainstormed a chart to launch this kind of writing:
and my students mostly used these ideas to wonder and write about. It was a great start, but I wanted my kids to reach into the wider world, I wanted to challenge them to think deeper about issues, and to think about their own perspectives on these issues. My sixth graders are conscious of the larger and more complicated world beyond their safe and lovely suburb, they are curious about what they see and hear about this world, and they want to know their place in it. Writing to think is one way to engage their imagination, to shift their focus a bit from their world to the bigger world.
Last week, in an effort to present slices of the bigger world for my students to consider and write about, I reframed our “writing to think” objectives a bit:
I shared a StoryCorps podcast I had just heard and been moved by. These were stories about belonging and trying to find one’s place, they were personal and yet they intersected with the bigger world of race, learning disabilities, and prejudice. These were stories, certainly, to think and write about:
https://storycorps.org/embed//I paused after each story (there were three), so that we could think, write, and share. I modeled my own writing thinking for the first one, so that my kids had a frame of reference for the kind of writing we were aiming for:
“I’m thinking about the courage it must have taken for a 17 year old to be a trail blazer for civil rights. His parents fought for his right to attend LSU and I’m, wondering about the resistance they must have struggled through from the white community and from the people at LSU, and I want to research this case to understand it better. How did they prepare A.P. for the prejudice he would face? And how does a parent even do that? I’m wondering what A.P. must think about the America he lives in today, so much of the promise of what his parents hoped for has been realized…and so much has not. What is L.S.U. like today in terms of integration and race relations?”
I wanted my kids to extrapolate beyond the personal stories of each of these individuals to the bigger issues they faced, and to write to think through those issues. Here’s what one student had to say about Eileen’s story:
“Eileen was not stupid, she had a learning problem. I’m wondering how come none of her teachers ever figured that out and tried to help her. I mean, that’s what teachers and school is for. I’m wondering what she could have done if they had figured out her problem, she could have maybe gone to college cause she seems really smart and hardworking actually. I’m wondering if she went to poor school, if that happens in poor schools that kids don’t get help. That’s just wrong. School is supposed to help every kid.”
As we shared our writing, I could see my students reaching for ideas beyond the personal and of the bigger world: education, disease, medicine, race, prejudice, inequality. They empathize, they want to know more, and they are beginning to see how writing allows a thoughtful exploration of ideas to begin. Somewhere in these explorations, I have a feeling, are topics they will feel moved to write essays about.
At the end of the podcast, the editors play voicemails they have received for previous broadcasts. We didn’t listen to these in class, but they made such a powerful impression on me that I intend to do so this Friday (our “writing to think” day), and to invite my students to leave messages for the podcast we will listen to. Students who wish to do so will write them out on index cards first, and then record their messages on my iphone so that I can call them in. It will be, I think, a powerful lesson in how to connect and be compassionate in the wider world.