Creating a "This I Believe" essay
1 The Hook
I start by playing a few of the essays for the students so that they get a feel for the tone and length. I try to choose texts that are appropriate for their interests and that vary in their organizational pattern. Here are six that I've found to be effective in showing the range of responses in terms of form and content:
- "A Grown-Up Barbie" by Jane Hamill
- "Do What You Love" by Tony Hawk
- "Leaving Identity Issues to Other Folk" by Phyllis Allen
- "Be Cool to the Pizza Dude" by Sarah Adams
- "Always Go to the Funeral" by Dierdre Sullivan
- "That Old Piece of Cloth" by Frank Miller
As I play each, I have students make note of how each is organized (How does each start? Where is the thesis revealed? How does the author move between ideas?).
I usually split this up over two sessions, with the next step coming in as homework for the first night.
2 Collecting Data
For homework, students are asked to go to http://www.lifevaluesinventory.org/ and take their values survey. They are required to create an account, but I've never had any problems with this; neither have I received any spam from this site. The inventory can be a lengthy process if a student goes through all of it, but they should have a good idea of where their values lie based on the first section. Those that want to delve deeper can finish the process, which takes about a half-hour. I ask that they bring a print-out of their report for the next session.
I've tried a number of online values tests, and this one gives the best feedback. Do search for others yourself, as a better one may be out there somewhere.
At this stage, students are ready to start writing their essays. On the readwritethink website, they've got a basic Flash app called "Essay Map" that walks students through mapping out their composition. While most students at this level won't need such help, I've found that my struggling students benefit from having to plot out their ideas and, more importantly, their support for each point.
Whether they use the tool or not, students at this point create a draft of their "This I Believe" essay. I do impose a few conditions on their writing:
- Must be appropriate to the audience (in this case, the NPR crowd--educated, probably liberal) in content and tone.
- Must sound good when read aloud (pay attention to awkward phrasings and convoluted sentences).
- No more than a single-spaced page of text. It should go no more than four minutes when read aloud.
- Essays about God and Family are off limits--I've found that too many students replace a discussion of values with stories about people. Taking God and mom out of the picture makes them stretch a bit.
At this point, use whatever revising and editing process you're comfortable with. One potential danger here is that some students can explore some pretty heavy topics for this essay. If you do peer editing, I'd allow some the option of writing this one solo.
For this last step, you need to create an account with Voxopop and create a private group for each class. Be prepared to deal with tech issues, as their recording app can be tricky to set up. After I updated Java twice and switched to a different microphone, the site worked well. You'll need to have each student create an account and then invite them to your group. At that point, they can record their essay from any device, regardless of platform. In the end, you'll have a secure collection of oral essays online to share and compare.
I've also had a number of students submit their final written essays to the NPR site, and they've all been put into the archives. I don't know if that's because I've got awesome students or they're just not very selective. Either way, it's a great ego boost for the students.
Key Standards Supported
Reading Informational Text
Analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the structure an author uses in his or her exposition or argument, including whether the structure makes points clear, convincing, and engaging.
Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text.
Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1–3 above.)
Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience.
Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.