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Students Teach Students: Using Student Essays To Build Coping Skills and Self-Esteem

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Essays written by teens about issues that teens face might help build students' self-esteem and their ability to "triumph over trouble."

Dealing with death. Depression. Self-esteem. Moving to a new school. Drug dependency. Peer pressure. The immigrant experience. Body image. Alcohol abuse. Pregnancy. Family problems. Failure. Racism.

Teens tell how they deal with those and other challenges in their own words in the book From Darkness to Light: Teens Write About How They Triumphed Over Trouble. The book offers more than 60 inspiring essays written by teens.

But the stories tell much, much more about teens -- about their resiliency and about their abilities to overcome obstacles.

ESSAYS PROVOKE CLASSROOM DISCUSSION

Any of the essays in From Darkness to Light, published by Fairview Press, might be used in the classroom to motivate thought-provoking discussions about issues that many teens confront. Teachers might use the essays to spur discussion about why some teens seem to have the ability to face and overcome life's major hurdles -- and why others don't.. Discussions can help teens identify their own strengths, help them develop resiliency -- the ability to bounce back, and inspire them work toward their goals and dreams.

The two essays that follow don't deal with any of the thorny hot-button issues that many of the teen's essays in From Darkness to Light deal with -- issues such as teen suicide, physical abuse, or death of a sibling. Rather, these two essays offer up two optimistic stories with fairly universal themes; we read of one teen's personal view of failure (and related issues of peer pressure and body image) and another's story of coming to terms her disability.

WHAT DOES "RESILIENCY" MEAN?

The following questions can be used as a warm-up to reading the two essays. The questions might be used with an entire class or as a small-group discussion activity.

  • Ask students to define resiliency. What are other words or phrases that mean resiliency?
  • Ask students to discuss whether they believe people are born resilient or if resiliency is a skill or trait one can develop?
  • Ask students to discuss whether they consider resiliency to be a desirable characteristic. Why or why not?
  • Ask students if they consider themselves to be resilient. Ask them to rate themselves on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 indicates no resiliency and 10 indicates very resilient.
  • Ask students What or who contributes to someone's ability to be resilient? (Brainstorm and list.)
  • Ask students what they think enables people to be resilient.
  • Are there role models or people who contribute to someone's ability to be resilient?
  • Are there people in your life who you consider resilient who might be inspirational to you?

ESSAY #1: "GETTING STARTED"

Warm-up activity. How important is attitude when trying to succeed? Can you have fun at a sport or a game even if you're not very good at it? Is there more or different pressure on boys when it comes to playing sports?

Self-report. Ask students to write or tell their responses to these questions:

  • If you're not good at something, but you enjoy it, do you continue with it or do you quit?
  • What do you tell yourself it you're not good at something?
  • How competitive are you?

Read the essay. Click here for the text of the essay "Getting Started."

Action steps. After students read the essay, invite them to write or discuss their thoughts about these questions:

  • Do you think you have an accurate picture of your strengths and limitations?
  • List five skills you have.
  • What's one thing you'd like to do but aren't very good at? List three steps you could take that would bring you closer to being better at it.
  • Describe what an optimist is. Are you an optimist?

ESSAY #2: "LIFE WITH A DISABILITY"

Warm-up activity. Read the definition of disability in the dictionary. Is it described in a positive, negative, or neutral way? How do you feel when you see someone in a wheelchair? What kinds of assumptions or judgements do you make about that person? If you had a friend in a wheelchair, would they be able to enter your house? List places that you can think of that aren't "handicap accessible."

Self-report. Ask students to write or tell their responses to these questions:

  • What are some things you would have to stop doing if your were in a wheelchair today?
  • What are some places you couldn't go to today?
  • How would being in a wheelchair affect your attitude?
  • How about your self-esteem?

Read the essay. Click here for the text of the essay "Life With a Disability," by Amber Junker.

Action steps. After students read the essay, invite them to write or discuss (as a class, or in small groups) their thoughts about these questions:

  • What are some things that would change about you if you were in a wheelchair today?
  • Could you be happy in a wheelchair?
  • What is a disability that would be most difficult for you?
  • Would your friends change? Why or why not?

Finally, the essays in From Darkness to Light might motivate students to think and to write about obstacles and challenges they've faced.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1997, 2005 Education World

10/20/1997
Updated 07/19/2005