If you’re reading this, it is probably because you are interested in hearing someone else’s story. The guidelines for submitting articles to My View say the popularity of this column comes from “writers’ willingness to reveal something of themselves and their lives (not merely what they think, but what they do and are).” People have always loved to read and hear other people’s stories. They can make us laugh or cry, or they can teach us by example of what to do in certain situations, but my favorite type of story is the cautionary tale – a story about what not to do.
Why do college applications have essays that ask about potential students’ lives, views, insights and lessons? Well, besides being a writing sample, it also gives candidates a chance to show who they are and what they value. Many people look the same on paper – similar classes, grades and activities. It is the essay that makes individuals stand apart and shows college admissions officers why this person is a good match for their programs. It gives the applicants a voice. A voice in writing conveys the personality and character of the writer, and colleges can deny or accept a candidate on the basis of his or her essay – it can be that important.
I have always enjoyed reading my students’ narrative essays. Not the type that tells a make-believe story, but a personal account. It is the absolute best way to get to know my students, and by sharing my writing, they get to know me as well. I used to assign a narrative at the end of the year – usually the topic was about something important that happened in the students’ life or a lesson learned. Then the students had the opportunity to read their essay out loud to the class. It was so popular that students would ask to get out of their classes to hear other students’ essays and to share their own. Everyone loved to hear about the popular wrestler who lost an important match because he was too cocky, and the girl who disappointed her parents because of her fear and reluctance of swimming with dolphins, and the excitement and pride of a hunter’s first turkey. There were few dry eyes as one student recalled the last time she saw her father alive.
This year, I have not assigned any narrative essays, or taught how to write an interesting one. The Common Core de-emphasizes narrative writing, especially for the upper grades. It is not valued as an important skill that colleges, despite the application essays, or employers want or need. The standards for Common Core do allow for some narrative writing, but it is limited and linked to literature. Self-expression is now considered frivolous.
I am missing my usual routine now that my school has adopted scripted teaching modules. Around this time of year, students would write about what they are thankful for (and without using the phrase, “because he/she is there for me”). This is the one assignment that my students never seemed to complain about writing. Many students would even read their essay at their Thanksgiving dinner tables – or a proud parent would.
There is a quote by Flannery O’Connor that says, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” There is value in being able to express yourself and tell your own story. Writing is a way to be able to work through, defend, clarify, explain and make meaning of your thoughts. By not giving students an opportunity to write creatively and to tell their stories, we are taking away their voice.