Impactful Essays and Jellyfish
My students work hard. They have seven classes that are each chock full of assignments, projects, and essays. They juggle time consuming extracurriculars like band, dance, Scholar’s Bowl, soccer, basketball, and many others on top of doing their darnedest to get what they need to done for school. So, when I assign my kids work to do, I know it needs to be worthwhile. They don’t have time for crosswords or word searches, worksheets that I won’t read, or tests that aren’t accurate to their learning. Their time is more valuable than that. And frankly--so is mine.
Every time my students write an essay, I write one alongside them. To be fair, this started out as an endeavor because it is currently my first year of teaching and I need examples essays. Additionally, I’ve read enough books by Kelly Gallagher to know that showing your students your own struggle with the writing process is a legitimate teaching practice. But it’s also because it keeps me in check. I’m much less likely to assign an awful essay topic or give my kids an unreasonable amount of writing requirements if I’m doing it, too.
Recently my kids have been writing their own This I Believe essays. We’ve started the graphic organizer, rough drafts are next week, and later they’ll record them for a class podcast. If you’re unfamiliar with the This I Believe essay, it originates from a nonprofit organization that is inspired by a 1950’s radio program. People with a variety of different backgrounds wrote 350-500 word essays about a single core belief, complete with personal stories about how they realized or were reaffirmed in their belief. There are a variety of beliefs that are discussed, like: “Always Go to the Funeral” or “Be Cool to the Pizza Dude.”
When I asked for example essays from a fellow 9th grade English teacher, she gave me three of her favorite ones. During my first teaching hour of the day, I opened up the three podcasts and chose one to play. I read the name of the student who recorded the podcast essay aloud, and asked my students, “Does anyone know this young woman? Has she graduated?” After a pregnant pause, a young man in my classroom answered me:
“She’s dead, Ms. Marshbank. She was sick.”
“What?” I replied, shocked.
“My brother knew her, though,” someone else rang out. “She was nice.”
I asked them if they still wanted to listen to it, knowing the subject was hard, and that this was bound to be an intensely sad essay. They did. And so we listened. This young woman spoke of happiness, of hope, and of her inoperable brain tumor. Her belief? Miracles can happen. At the end of the podcast, the classroom was at a standstill. There was a feeling about the room that this essay had become more than just words on paper.
This young woman had suddenly taught me exactly why this essay was meaningful. I had suspected it before, even preached it unabashedly to my students, but in that moment, twenty students and I simultaneously came to the same conclusion: This essay had impact.
All this to say, when I assign students essays, I do it alongside them. Originally, because I needed examples, but now because I’ve had a young woman show me it’s importance. In my future years as a teacher, I hope to write a new essay with every one of my students' writing units. Here is the first of many This I Believe essays:
Be the Jellyfish
An umbrella can be many things. It can provide shelter in rain, be an elaborate fashion accessory, or help you fly across 1950’s London in style (but only if you’re Mary Poppins). For me, an umbrella is a symbol of a time when I went outside my comfort zone and became a jellyfish.
When I was little, my biggest aspiration in life was to be a singer. Unfortunately for me, I was horrific at singing. My singing voice was like a mixture of a mortally wounded walrus and a grinding engine. Despite this, my senior year of college I began to take singing lessons, with the intent of auditioning for the local community theater’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
After months of voice lessons, the day of my audition had arrived. I sat outside the red-brick theater in my car contemplating my choices. Hours ago, my vocal coach assured me I was quote “probably okay enough to have a shot,” but I still thought seriously about driving away. I could lie, tell my friends and family I tried my best, but didn’t make it. But I remembered the work my vocal coach had put into my struggling singing voice, the support my family had for me, and I finally decided my commitment to this audition was bigger than myself. Resolved, I entered the theater where I sang, danced, and acted as best as I could.
A month of rehearsals later, I stood on stage, waiting for curtain on opening night. I held a large plastic umbrella, covered in flashing Christmas lights, with holographic streamers hanging down on all sides. Miraculously, I had made it into the cast of The Little Mermaid musical. The director had looked past my train wreck of a voice and seen into the depths of my soul. He knew who I was. I was Jellyfish #3, and I was proud.
I’ve always been a reserved sort of person. Trying out for a musical was exactly the opposite of my comfort zone. My average evening is the kind that involves books, warm blankets, and cuddling with my dogs. When my students ask me to tell them the absolute craziest things that I did in college, my response is, “I skipped class once, and I wasn’t even sick.” It was nerve wracking to walk into the audition on that fateful day. I wasn’t sure I would make it. Looking back, I guess the worst thing that would have happened is that I wouldn’t have--and that would have been okay, too.
I believe that everyone should push themselves to try new things. Even though being a jellyfish wasn’t something that I would normally do, it is now one of my most cherished memories. It is incredibly easy to push off new experiences. There are a thousand reasons to say, “Not today” or “Maybe next time.” At some point, there won’t be a next time. You have to be the jellyfish whenever you get the chance.
While the kids are really getting into the nitty gritty of this project, I am saddened to let you know that the This I Believe website is no longer accepting essay submissions for their podcast/website. This is unfortunate. I know for a fact that my kids write better material when they know that someone outside of the classroom could or will read their work. Even just submitting their essay into the abyss of an online submission form, with the barest hope that they might be chosen for the podcast or for something motivates them way more than I ever could on my own. I sent a message with the This I Believe contact box, and I’m hopeful it will have an impact. From frequenting the website, it seems that they are concerned about their budget--which I appreciate as a concern. However, I still wrote the request. If you, too, would like to send an email requesting they reopen their submissions, check out this link here.