"As a teacher, I find that usingpersonal pieces gives my students a voice and allows them to openly express themselves on paper," Sue Flaherty told Education World. "The Write Your Own Life activity, for example, confirmed what I already knew; that students might be hesitant to vocally share their vulnerabilities but, through writing, they can expose themselves freely and safely without reservations."
Flaherty, who completed her degree and entered the classroom later in life, currently works as a substitute teacher in Peru, Illinois. A recent long-term stint in a sixth grade language arts classroom at Kennedy Elementary School in Spring Valley, Illinois, provided a unique opportunity for her to use an essay she had discovered in college, Write Your Own Life by David A. Berman (from A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul: More Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit). "I printed the essay and set it aside, knowing I would want to use it some day in my own classroom," Flaherty explained.
So, when the opportunity finally came to introduce the "Write Your Own Life" activity, Flaherty was ready. First, she had students clear their desks and draw a pen from a bag. "An imprinting business had provided me with overruns of pens in a wide range of assorted styles," she explained. "Smiles and chuckles were everywhere," she recalled. "Surprisingly, the students were excited to see one another's pens. I reminded them, however, of the promise they had made before starting the activity to set the pens on their desks and not try to use them or see if they would write.
"I explained that their minds would control their pens, and that serious concentration was needed. The students were hooked and anxious to get started."
Flaherty then read the story and presented students with the following challenge: "I am a genie who has given you the gift of life. Your life was about to be taken from you when, at the last moment, I spared you. Now, you are free to be who you were at the time I saved you, or to become a new person. Based on what you already know about yourself, the short story I read to you, and what you plan to become or do with the rest of your life, write and tell me what your future holds."
No one complained about having to write! The students were very open and honest in their compositions, and Flaherty felt that the spontaneity of the assignment contributed to its success -- there was no time to consider and hold back. One student wrote about her desire for her mother to return to her family, another shared that she would prefer to be back at her former school and not such an "outcast" among her peers, and one boy who often acted out admitted that he would like to make wiser choices.
"I realized that even though they were only sixth graders, some of the students already had had to deal with much baggage in their short lives," said Flaherty. "We as teachers need to constantly be aware of that fact."
Article by Cara Bafile
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