This weekend I spent three days in Richmond, Virginia in my first ever experience as a keynote speaker. It was delightful to get to meet so many wonderful educators and hear about their work. As I watched two young teachers spending all their free time at the conference planning a Halloween escape room to engage their 8th graders, I was reminded for the millionth time how much I believe in teachers. How much I wish our system believed in each teacher and put their work and their artistry above scripts, standardized tests, and purchased programs.
I found myself itching to write a manifesto about this, and it reminded me of the This I Believe essays I wrote years ago with my students in Bulgaria. So today, I want to share this writing project with you, and show you the simple steps you can take to launch a high-engagement personal writing project that culminates in a public performance of student work. This was one of my favorite writing units that I’ve ever done, and it’s an ideal way to help juniors and seniors with college essays too. So let’s get into it.
I love so many things about NPR, but their This I Believe radio series is right up there in the top tier. In this series, NPR invited people to write short essays explaining a dearly held belief, using specific, detailed stories to give evidence for their belief.
These beliefs varied hugely, and were not always the big picture idealized beliefs you might expect. “Be Cool to the Pizza Dude” and “Find a Good Frog” (written by a 9th grader) are both featured on the This I Believe project website, which has extended the project into the present.
So how does this all translate into the classroom? Funny you should ask.
Setting up the Project
You can begin by playing a few of the recorded essays from the site and talking about what makes the pieces so colorful and fun to read or hear. Explain that you’ll be doing a lot of writing and discussion about what matters to your students prior to writing essays of their own and eventually performing them in a live radio-style show.
Then you can move into reflective prompts from the free NPR curriculum set or prompts of your own devising to get students to think about their own strong beliefs, discuss them in small groups or with partners, and begin different types of reflective and personal narrative writing.
For example, you might:
- Ask students to journal on prompts like: What advice about life do you think you would give to your own children, based on your experiences so far? What’s one experience you’ve had that changed the way you look at the world? Who do you most admire and why? What’s your motto? What’s something you’ve learned from your family over the years? Have you ever read a book, heard a song, or watched a movie that made you think about life differently? Why?
- Invite students to participate in small group discussions around prompts like: What’s your favorite quotation and why? What do you wish everyone in the world would agree on and do? What’s unfair in the world and what could be done about it?
- Try a #makewriting project in which students first build the answer to the question “what do you care most about?” using loose parts, then reflect on what they’ve made and why they care so much about it.
- Ask students to find a photograph from their phones that shows an important moment in their lives. Have them talk to a partner about the image and why that moment felt important, and what it shows about what they care about.
- Play “The Truth about Me” as a class
- Read a short piece of memoir and try a six-word memoir project, then dive into some aspect of the six-word memoir in search of a key belief, either in writing or with small groups or partners
Once you have spent several days thinking and talking about beliefs as well as building community, share the This I Believe essay guidelines with your students and let them begin drafting final essays.
Prepping for the Performance Event
Along the way, students can choose a committee to join to help prepare for the final performance event.
I divided students into the following committees, based on their interests:
- P.R. (these folks worked on programs, inviting guests, and capturing photos and ideas from the event to share out afterwards)
- Event Planning (these folks worked on food and drinks, designing the space, and decorating it)
- M.C. /Tech (these folks figured out lights and speakers and made sure we had a working microphone, then they supplied either an M.C. or cohosts for the show to welcome everyone and close the show)
The Big Day
On the day of our final performances, we gathered with our guests in the main entryway of our building, where seating, fun decor, a mic, and food were ready to go. The students performed their pieces (or in many cases, performed others’ pieces so they felt more comfortable in front of the crowd) as the class and guests watched and cheered them on. The M.C.s hosted the event, the P.R. committee took photos, and the event planning group made sure there were some treats on hand and cleaned up after the shows.
To help keep kids focused during the event, I recommend you either have them vote for their top three essays (with reasons to back up their choices) or fill out several compliment cards you can hand out later to the writers. This is a nice reminder to pay attention without feeling onerous, since it just contributes to a culture of appreciation for what their peers are doing.
You don’t really need to grade the performances, though you could make it a nominal grade if you’re worried some kids won’t take it seriously. You’ll get the actual essays that you can read and comment on afterwards. Mostly, it’s a fun day to celebrate the work of the students and build a community as everyone shares beliefs that really matter to them – some funny, some serious.
I encouraged the students to send their work in to the This I Believe project, and two were published online. Unfortunately, the website is no longer accepting work, but you might consider encouraging students to send them to the local newspaper or the school newspaper, or you could put up your own This I Believe blog at your school and publish all the essays there, or even publish the essays into a binder in the library that kids can continue to add to year after year. This will turn into a great resource as the project continues.
These essays can also make quality springboards for the college essay process. This personal and reflective writing is an ideal beginning to thinking about how to represent themselves to their future colleges.
As I said earlier, I started to think back on this project after my weekend at VATE, so here’s the This I Believe essay I’ve been pondering myself since then…
by Betsy Potash