End of the School Year Musings

This is a belated post. School has been over for a week now, so I have had time to regroup, finish some lingering projects, get ready for our summer adventure. But before I head out, I wanted to post these thoughts. I have posted before of how I love reading my students’ portfolios, love listening to their portfolio presentations when they often choose to read from their reflective cover letters. With each portfolio submission — the literary arts equivalent to an exam — we ask the students to reflect back on their learning throughout the semester or year and to discuss what they’ve learned — possibly the best way for kids to a) realize what it is they have learned; and b) in articulating it, begin to internalize their new knowledge. But perhaps even more important than both of these good outcomes is this: my students tell me how much they have learned about themselves. That, to me, is the real goal of education. And of course, something that cannot possibly be tested.

Here are some samples from my Creative Nonfiction I class — all sophomores. Listen to how self-aware, how smart they are!

“I’d say the most difficult thing about writing is being honest. Some people can just dish it all out, leaving all of their feelings into their writing. I’m working on that. I’m working on trusting myself enough to tell the story right, to not make myself sound any cooler or more troubled than I actually am.”‘

“I think I’ve definitely improved all around, but I’d have to give the most credit to my voice in pieces. I’ve noticed that in almost each and every piece I write, more and more people seem to comment on the voice…and I take great pride in that. I think I still lack to ability to find the heart of my pieces. Even if the heart seems to be there for me, my readers tend to have difficulty finding it. I think this has a direct correlation to my inability to write deep.”

“I learned that language is the key and fall back to objects because they will provide the memories and the stories. Pictures can lie even though they capture the truth in one moment. They still don’t tell how people change. I’ve also learned that finding yourself through nature and others is inevitable.”

“I’ve learned how to view myself and others deeper and in different ways than I ever thought I could.”

“I know I’ve progressed a lot this year as a writer. Honestly, it’s because I’ve become more opened to the idea of not thinking too much when I [compose] because it comes from the HEART, and the senses, come on, CSDs (my note: this stands for Concrete, significant details) always.” This writer goes on to say: “Nonfiction is a genre that has been shunned by unbelievers like me when really, it is basically as personal and as real as you can get with your writing, and isn’t that what our goal as writers is? To be 100% with what we put down on paper, because what we write can be all we have sometimes.”

“We’ve had a lot of great moments in this class! We’ve had some incredible readings that have left deep stains of resonance on me — “Good-bye to all That” and “Fourth State of Matter” were probably my favorites. THere’s just something about the way Joan Didion recalls her time in New York. She seems to feel like an alien in her city, her home. That’s what I’ve been really focusing on this year, I think: the idea of Home, where it is and what it is.”

“Creative nonfiction was something I had never done before and is something I never thought I would do. Opening up to people that I barely knew was something I never thought I’d be comfortable with, so I think my most valuable experience is that everyone was understanding through my pieces, in both listening and helping make them stronger.”

“I am going to take away so much from this class, not only pertaining to writing, but also to, well, life. I definitely found out more about myself this year and learned to not care what others think of me and to continue to strive to be fearless…I’ve learned more about the simple process of being and letting the world connect with myself and to just write.”

“I see nonfiction as a way to place myself in the universe. That’s the reason it’s so amazing, because with creativity, I can connect myself with earth’s elements and the cosmos. It’s easy to get caught up in how big and complex everything is around you. I used to think my time as a teenager was kind of like empty space, like I had to just go through the motions and do as I’m told till I can live my life as an adult. I think writing nonfiction made me realize that I, too, am here.”

Their favorite essays? Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” a perennial favorite, but then more surprising ones like Joan Didion’s “Good-bye to All That” (mentioned by a few of them), and Eula Biss’ “The Pain Scale,” Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Silent Dancing.” Two students mentioned Jennifer Price’s “A Brief Natural History of The Pink Flamingo” for these reasons: “…this piece has stuck with me. Maybe it’s because the title includes one of my favorite subjects — history. Or maybe it’s because Price chose to write about something [that seemed] so trivial rather than a pressing issue in society.” And, “One of the most important things to me is culture and protecting things that need to be protected. But along with that, it’s important to tell people what they need to know, to expose the things that need to exposed. That piece help me, because, in a way, it made me feel like I wasn’t the only one going crazy.”
One student said this about “Good-bye to All That” — “There was something about the way she made you feel like you were right there with her. Reading that, I could smell, hear, feel New York and it made me realize just how important the scene of a story is. Images are everything.”

About Eula Biss’ “The Pain Scale” (which several of them mentioned as their favorite): “Of all the pieces we read this year, I think that “The Pain Scale” by Eula Biss has been the most inspiring and most memorable. I loved how Ms. Biss literally compiled, like, 10 short essays into one giant one, and each of them were connected by the theme of describing each of the ten points on the pain scale. It was beautiful how she incorporated actual science and real medical talk with stories of her father and her own feelings. I hope one day I can write a perfect essay like that.”

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