9 Tips for Writing Your College Essay or Personal Statement

If you’re a high school senior, you might be getting ready to start applying to colleges and universities this fall. Most, though not all, schools ask that you compose and turn in an admissions essay (sometimes called a personal statement) with the rest of your application materials. For many students, this essay proves to be the most difficult element of their application process. What follows are some tips to make it a little easier–and to make your essay that much stronger.

1. Hook ’em!

Many students fall into the trap of starting their essay by simply rewording the prompt the college provides. For example, if the prompt asks: “What is one thing you want us to know about you?”, many students are going to start their essay like this: “One thing I want INSERT COLLEGE NAME to know about me is….” While this promises to answer the question, it’s boring. It lacks personality, color, creativity, and voice. The admissions officer reading your college essay is going to read hundreds of essays–many of which start just like that. You don’t want to bore your reader from the beginning, and you don’t want your essay to sound like everyone else’s. Make your essay stand out right from the get-go by engaging the reader’s attention with a hook–then reel the reader in by following that promising hook with an interesting essay.

Make your essay stand out right from the get-go by engaging the reader’s attention with a hook–then reel the reader in by following that promising hook with an interesting essay.

But…what’s a hook?

A hook is simply an attention-grabbing first sentence or two. It’s interesting and makes your reader want to keep reading (instead of making your reader want to yawn, roll her eyes, and say to herself, “Here we go again…”).

Here are a few tips for writing your hook:

  • Let your hook set the tone for the rest of your essay. If your essay will be funny, your hook should be funny. If your essay will be serious, your hook should be, too.
  • Your hook should relate directly to the rest of your essay. Don’t just write an interesting sentence or two and then follow it by either rewording the prompt, or writing an essay unrelated to your hook.
  • Write your hook in your own authentic voice, and continue in that voice for the entire essay.

2. It’s All About YOU

Remember, the main purpose of the personal statement is for the college to get to know you better. What kind of person are you? What are your skills and talents? What experiences have you had? Who are you? For this reason, make sure the focus of the essay is you, and use the first person (I, me, my, we, us, our). This advice may seem obvious, but there are two traps students fall into.

Trap No. 1: Writing about someone or something else

While you do have to answer the prompt, make sure you answer it in the context of your life and experience. For example, if your prompt asks about a famous figure from history you’d like to meet and why, your essay should focus more on why you want to meet that person than it should on that person himself or herself. Avoid writing a biography or an essay in praise of the person, and instead focus on why you admire them, how you aspire to embody their best traits, etc. This holds true for essays about your favorite place, your favorite word, etc. We refer to this as the 80:20 rule. Eight percent (or more!) of the essay should focus on you, while 20% (or less) can discuss the other person, place, word, etc.

Trap No. 2: Using the second person

Your college essay is about you–no one else, so use the pronouns that refer to you–“I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” “us,” and “our.” Avoid writing something like this: “You know when your mom calls you by your full name, you’re in trouble.” Instead, make it true to your experience–so we know it happened to you, and not just anyone: “I know when my mom calls me by my full name, I’m in trouble.”

3. Be Honest and Authentic

Like I mentioned above, the college wants to know about you–the real you, not just who you think they want you to be (besides–you might be wrong!). Don’t write what you think they want to read (again–you might be wrong). Be honest with who you are, the life you’ve lived, the experiences you’ve had, the dreams you dream. Be the real, authentic you. Write almost the same way you speak, for the most part–but use proper grammar, punctuation, etc. And while you might be tempted to use big words to make yourself sound smarter, don’t. Avoid using big words for the sake of using big words. They usually stick out like a sore thumb, and make your essay sound, well, weird. If you don’t know what a word means, don’t use it.

I once heard a college admissions officer give this advice: “The best essays make us laugh or make us cry. So, make ’em laugh or make ’em cry–but don’t try to be funny if you’re not.” Be true to yourself. If you’re not naturally funny, don’t try to write a funny essay. You want them laughing with you, not at you.

As a quick side note: You have to tell the truth in your college essay. It’s nonfiction. On the application, you will sign a statement that basically says everything in your application packet is true to the best of your knowledge. That holds true for your essay, too.

4. Show, Don’t Tell

Lots of students make the mistake of writing an “essay” that is really just a long list. It reads something like this: “I am a very hard-working student. If I need to get a good grade on an assignment, I will do whatever it takes. I always try my hardest. I love to play football, and work very hard at practice. I work hard both in the classroom and on the field.” And so on and so on. While those sentences tell us a lot of things, they don’t show us anything–it’s not substantiated. Instead of listing your traits, goals, dreams, etc., tell a story of a time that exemplifies the trait, goal, or dream you want the college to know about. For example, if you want the admissions office to understand you’re a hard worker, write about a time you were a hard worker–tell the story about the time that you came in for extra help after school for two weeks to understand chemical reactions, and still got your math and English homework done, and still took care of your little sister and puppy. If you want the college to know you love animals, don’t just tell them, “I love animals.” Use your essay to show the reader that love. Write a story about your time volunteering at a local animal shelter, or the time you rescued the injured turtle from the roadway, or the time you helped that little lost dog find his way home.

Instead of listing your traits, goals, dreams, etc., tell a story of a time that exemplifies the trait, goal, or dream you want the college to know about.

5. Tell a (True) Story

Think of your essay as a slice of life and use it to tell a story. It’s a snapshot from the photo album of your life. You should pick a singular experience that helps express whatever it is you want to express, as explained above.

6. Follow the Rules

Make sure your essay actually answers and addresses the prompt. Stick to the word limit, but not obsessively so. If the word limit is 500 words, it’s okay to be a little over or a little under–as long as each word is absolutely necessary. If the college says to put your full name in the upper left corner, do that. If the college says to include your social security number (SSN) at the bottom, do that. Make sure whatever formatting requirements the college lists, you follow. Also, if you plan to use the same essay for various colleges (which is permissible), make sure you modify the essay accordingly. A big mistake people make is to reuse an essay and forget to change the name of the college. For example, they might write: “I just know Virginia Tech is the college for me.” Then, they proceed to send that to both Virginia Tech and UVA. Oops…

7. Use a Strong, Varied Vocabulary

This advice actually comes verbatim from another, longer post I wrote a while back about common writing errors, but it holds true for your personal statement, so here it is:

Avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs.

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

8. Proofread

Really, this should go without saying, but I will say it anyway: Proofread. Proofread more than once. And then, proofread again. Personal statements are typically a mere 250-500 words. That’s not very long. If your short essay includes careless mistakes, it says one of two things about you.

  1. You honestly didn’t even know you made the mistake. You truly think you used the correct form of “there,” “their,” “they’re,” but you were wrong. Now, you look uneducated, or maybe even ignorant.
  2. You were simply too careless or rushed to bother reading over your essay.

Obviously, you don’t want your prospective colleges to think you’re stupid or  careless, as those aren’t particularly desirable traits in prospective students.

Also, realize that the spell checker feature doesn’t catch everything–and neither do you. You can read your essay 28 times and still miss glaringly obvious mistakes. For this reason, in addition to doing your own proofreading, you should also ask a trusted adult to read over your essay. Better yet, ask two or three trusted adults. English teachers and guidance counselors are good people to start with.

9. But What Should I Write About?

Sometimes, college essay prompts are pretty specific, making it easy to decide what to write. Other times, they are painfully vague. Some prompts may be as open as: “Write a 400-word personal statement.” That’s it. Go.

If you’re struggling with what to write about, try these exercises:

  • Brainstorm topic ideas by listing your favorite memories, funny stories, favorite vacation spots, future dreams, and goals
  • Read back through old diary or journal entries
  • Look up writing prompts online.

Keep in mind as well that it’s not what you write about, but how you write about it. Your voice, vocabulary, use of literary devices, and ideas make the essay, much more so than the topic does. I once had a student write an essay about a ball of yarn, and because she wrote it so creatively and imaginatively, it was much more interesting to read than her classmates’ essays about, well, anything. Hers is the only essay I remember from that year, because it was so unique.

It’s not what you write about, but how you write about it.

 

 

 

 

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Writing Activities for Your Classroom

One reason I find my job as an English teacher meaningful is because I truly believe that a person’s ability to clearly communicate, both in person and in writing, is key to success in almost every field. Even a math major in college is going to have to write a handful of papers. Even a science major will be required to compose lab reports. My aunt, an interior design major who has successfully worked in that field for decades, wrote more papers than she ever imagined she would during her time studying the field in college.

Similarly, in their careers, most of my students are going to be asked to write at some point, whether it be e-mails, memos, letters, blog posts, social media updates, or newsletters. Very few professional jobs that don’t require a strong ability to communicate exist.  For this reason, my students and I complete what I am sure they feel is an exorbitant amount of writing. Below are some of the activities we (or at least I!) enjoy and find beneficial.

For Journals

Every Friday, my students spend ten minutes at the beginning of the class period composing an informal journal-writing assignment. I provide a prompt, but it is a suggestion; they can write about whatever they want. I read and respond to every student’s entry. While I do correct writing errors I might come across, mostly, my responses are personal in nature, and relate largely to the content. The Friday journal entries are an informal, fun way for my students to practice their writing without the pressure of a grade, and for us to get to know each other. Almost all my students enjoy writing in the Friday journals–and I enjoy reading them. Below are a few of my staple prompts.

Right Now I am…

Over the course of the last two years, I have participated in several Life in 10 Minutes workshops. Each session begins with a “Right now I am.” Essentially, writers/students write the phrase “Right now I am…” and roll with whatever comes next. It proves a good way to get any distractions, stressors, etc. off our minds so we can focus and be productive.

What I Wish My Teacher Knew About Me

I often use this prompt fairly early in the year as a way to learn important information about my students–information that could help me understand them better, teach them better, and motivate them better. I simply ask them to answer the question: “What do you wish your teachers knew about you?” I have learned which students’ parents are suffering from cancer, which students help financially support their families, which students believe they are visual learners, which students struggle with English but love science, etc. I believe this also fosters a sense of trust and openness between each individual student and me, and that helps build rapport in the class as a whole.

20 Questions

This prompt also provides a way for me to learn about my students–but also allows them to learn a bit about me. I instruct them to write 20 (school appropriate) questions for me to answer–but they must also provide their own answer. For example, they might set it up like this:

What’s your favorite color?

Me: Red

Mrs. Creasey:

They can also ask questions to which they would not yet have answers, and simply provide an explanation. For example:

Where did you go to college?

Me: I hope to apply to JMU, UVA, and GMU.

Mrs. Creasey:

In each case, when I read the journal entries, I answer all students’ questions and comment on some of their answers.

Evaluate this Course

Admittedly, this can be a scary one, because ‘ya can’t please ’em all,’ but despite the barrage of complaints and criticisms it can sometimes open you up to, it is more often extremely valuable and helpful. Near the middle of the course and sometimes again at the end of the course, I ask students to evaluate the class. I tell them to consider elements such as amount of homework, rigor, usefulness of various assignments, meaningfulness of various assignments, group work, projects, classroom atmosphere, etc. I also ask them to provide any suggestions they might have. Sometimes, they have really good ideas that I can incorporate for future students.

Advice for Future Students

One of our last journal topics of the year requests that students, having survived the semester, write a letter to future students giving them advice on how to succeed and get the most out of our class. I tell them ahead of time that I plan to anonymously incorporate their advice into a Power Point to show to the following year’s students during their first week of class (which I do). This can be a very enlightening entry to read, as it reveals what was most challenging, difficult, and meaningful to the students. Students also enjoy the authenticity of the assignment.

For Revising/Self-Awareness

Sometimes it seems students think every writer magically wrote the perfect draft the first-time around and never had to proofread, revise, or struggle. They fail to see that writing is often a messy process, and that just because you wrote something, doesn’t mean you’re done writing it. Often, there is a lot of rewriting to be done before a product can be called complete–or at least complete enough. Below are some activities to help students understand the value of the process, as well as how to engage in it.

W.O.W Writing

W.O.W is an acronym for “Watching Our Writing,” and it’s an activity designed to help students become more self-aware writers, as well as more adept revisers. You can tailor it to focus on any area(s) you wish, depending on the needs of your students. For example, maybe you are trying to teach them to replace adverbs with strong, precise verbs. Maybe you are trying to teach them to avoid to-be verbs in favor of more specific verbs. Maybe you want them to make sure they have included enough credible research in a paper, as shown in the sample chart I created and share below.

W.O.W Sheet for Research Paper

Writer’s Memo

A Writer’s Memo is an excellent way to help students identify their own purpose when they write, as well as to write deliberately and thoughtfully. When my honors students write their Gothic short stories (see below), they are instructed to attempt to emulate the works we read by either Poe, Faulkner, or Gilman, and to identify at least three Gothic elements they will incorporate into their story. In conjunction with writing this story, they are required to write a Writer’s Memo. In their memo, they have to explain, with textual support from their original stories, which author and work they emulated and in what ways, as well as what three Gothic elements they included and how. This forces them to thoughtfully engage with their own creative process, and analyze their own writing–not to mention hopefully write with a greater sense of purpose and direction.

Thank-You Letter

One way to teach the proper formatting of a letter, as well as to help students become more aware of the many people in your building who go above and beyond to help, is to assign them a thank-you letter. Each year before Thanksgiving, my students pick a teacher, coach, administrator, or other school employee to whom to write their letter. The day before our Thanksgiving break, they turn the letters in to me, and I deliver them to the designated recipients chosen by my students. The students appreciate the authenticity of this assignment (someone is actually going to read their writing other than me!), and I enjoy delivering the letters. This would also be well timed during Teacher Appreciation Week.

For Comprehension, Connection, and Application

Three purposes writing can serve in the classroom, regardless of discipline, is checking for and supporting comprehension, fostering retention, and applying concepts learned. Below are some assignments that can help achieve those goals.

R.A.F.T writing

R.A.F.T is an acronym for Role Audience Format Type, and the activity can work well for any subject area or discipline. It allows students to engage with class material, exercise creatively, and show understanding (or lack thereof, letting you know what to remediate), as well as provides an outlet for supported peer evaluation. An example is below.

RAFT writing assignment

Gothic Short Stories

This assignment allows students to demonstrate an understanding of Gothic elements and the Gothic genre, an awareness of author’s style and technique, and their purpose as an author. It also allows them to write creatively, which most find enjoyable. After we read and study a poem and story by Poe, a story by Gilman, and a story by Faulkner, students are assigned to pick one of the pieces and authors we read to emulate in their own, original short story. They are to use some of the same Gothic elements, as well as some of the same literary techniques, but to craft their own original setting, plot, characters, and theme. The Writer’s Memo, explained above, works in conjunction with this assignment.

Vocabulary Stories

After assigning new vocabulary terms to study, assign students to write an original short story, mandating that they correctly use each of their new vocabulary words in the story.

Literature Portfolios

This assignment requires students to actively engage with their reading material, as well as to draw connections between assign texts and the world at large.

For the former goal, students must keep a Reader’s Journal that consists of the author’s use of motifs, symbolism, theme, and indirect characterization. They must also choose what they believe is a quintessential passage from the text and explain its literary significance.

For the latter goal, they must write four connection pieces over the course of the semester:

  • Connect to World
  • Connect to Art
  • Connect to Literature
  • Connect to Life.

The Connect to World assignment requires that they connect the assigned text to a current event, and explain the connection. Connect to Art requires students to explain how the assigned text connects to a work of art, which could be a painting, photograph, sculpture, statue, digital artwork, etc. Connect to Literature asks students to elaborate on a parallel they see between the assign text and another novel, or a memoir, autobiography, song, poem, biography, etc. Finally, Connect to Life asks students to relate the assigned reading to their own experiences.

For Creative Writing

In my twelve years of teaching high school English, one resounding request I hear from students is the desire to do more creative writing. Below are some ways to incorporate it (preferably after students are already comfortable with poetic devices).

Recipe Poetry

Recipe poetry is a great way to work on deciphering a nonfiction text, completing math (such as fractions), and thinking creatively. To see the step-by-step plans for teaching a recipe poetry lesson, click on “Recipe Poetry” above.

Ligne Donne and Kasen Renku

Writing ligne donne (shared line) poems and Kasen Renku poems are a great way to foster cooperative learning and get your entire class involved in the writing process. To see lesson plans for these poems, click “Ligne Donne and Kasen Renku” above.

Perspective Poem

For this assignment, students look at a photograph. Instruct them to pick one item in the photograph and write a poem from its perspective. Then, have students read their poems to each other and guess what item in the photograph the poem told from.

Story Circle

This is another great way to get the entire class involved in the writing process. Tell students to put their desks in a circle, and get out a piece of paper and a writing utensil. Instruct them all to write “It was a dark and stormy night” or “It was the first day of summer break” or some other opening line of your choice on the first line. Then, set the timer for five minutes and tell them to write until the timer goes off, when they must drop their pencils–even if they are mid-sentence. Tell them to pass their papers to the left. Give them a minute or two to read what the student before them wrote. Then, set the timer for five minutes, during which they should add to the story.  Continue this process for as many cycles as you left, warning students before the end so they know they need to write the ending. At the end, return the stories to the originator, and allow students to share with the class on a volunteer basis.

 

 

Readers vs. Monsters: Read Like a Writer

When I was working on my capstone project for my graduate degree back in 2013, my husband came home from work one day to find me surrounded by books, index cards, highlighters, and notebook paper. I was scribbling away–in pencil–in one of the books. My potty-mouthed, inked-up, motorcycle-riding husband was horrified.

“Are you writing in that book?”

I looked up from my pile of research materials. “Yeah,” I said matter-of-factly.

“You can’t write in books!”

IMG-2548 (1)
The note “animals don’t know they take ppl to hang,” hastily jotted down in my copy of The Crucible as I read with a group of students one day, ultimately inspired my sonnet, “Salem’s Indifferent Ox,” which will be honored with a second place award in the Nancy Byrd category of the Poetry Society of Virginia‘s Annual Awards Luncheon later this month.

At that point in his life, my husband had yet to read a single book all the way through, so I struggled to imagine the reason behind his disgust. That he, of all people, should care whether or not I wrote in my books was a bit perplexing. I shrugged. “I mean, I’ll erase it later–since they’re library books.”

“They’re library books?! You can’t write in library books!”

I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text.

But I can, and I do–all the time. I write in almost every book I read. You’ll never find me reading a book without a pen in my hand.

All of my books look like they’ve been through the wars. Their pages are dog-eared (I use bookmarks to mark my spot, but I dog-ear pages to mark spots I want to revisit). Their margins are full of scribbled questions, ideas, inspirations, criticisms, and exclamations. Words are underlined. Typos are corrected in blue or black pen. If they’re paperbacks, their spines are cracked and broken. They are well-loved, if not ratty.

I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.  It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath.

For years, I figured everyone read like this–pen in hand. How could it be otherwise? How could anyone resist scratching down an idea inspired by a passage, or underlining a particularly delicious turn of phrase? How could anyone not circle an unfamiliar word for later exploration? How could anyone read actively, critically, or analytically without writing in her books? Impossible.

It was only recently I found out I was wrong–and that a group of readers very unlike me exists. My fellow blogger, Charlene Jimenez, of Write. Revise. Repeat., is one of them. These readers refer to readers like me as “monsters.” Readers like me destroy our books as we devour them. We can’t help it; it’s how we read.

Image result for there are two people readers and monsters
If monsters only dog-ear pages, I am absolutely the most villainous ogre imaginable.

In addition, I actually enjoy reading books fellow monster-readers have written in. I like reading their notes almost as much as the book they pertain to. I feel like I am having a conversation not only with the author, narrator, and characters–but also a like-minded friend, one who writes in her books–just like I do. Sometimes I agree with the previous reader’s assessment; sometimes, I don’t. Oftentimes, I feel like I get a sense of who the person behind the notes is–her outlook on life, her general mood, her beliefs and questions and insecurities. I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.  It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath. While I agreed with very few of the marginal notes that graced the pages in a fading, gray pencil scrawl, I found them amusing–and they told me a lot about the previous reader.

IMG-2547
My copy of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is peppered with notes regarding things I want to make sure I address with my students–stylistic techniques, literary devices, etc.

Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. Not out of obstinacy or spite–but out of necessity. I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.

Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.

 

Lesson Plans: The Crucible, A Scavenger Hunt through Salem

I’ve been reading Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible with high school English students since I first began my teaching career in 2006. I’ve been teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for almost as long. A few years into my career, I went on a campaign to convince my family that we should spend part of our summer touring around Salem, Massachusetts. I wanted to experience first-hand the place I had been reading about since I myself sat in a high school English classroom studying these works, and I knew I could gather material that would enhance my teaching of the play, the two fascinating and terrifying time periods it explores (the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy Era),  and the novel. For reasons I don’t remember, the trip didn’t happen, and years went by–but this past summer, my aunt and uncle moved to Cape Cod, and when I visited them in June, they were kind enough to help make my years-long dream of visiting Salem a reality (though it meant about as much time in the car as it did on the streets of Salem!).

Witch House Purple Flowers
The Witch House is one of the many sites my students “visit” on their scavenger hunt of Salem through the halls of our high school.

After visiting, reading about, and photographing The Nathaniel Hawthorne Birthplace, The House of the Seven Gables, The Custom House, The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, The Old Burial Ground, The Witch House, and several other points of interest, I felt exhausted, educated, intrigued–and a little like there was still so much to see, and so little time! Still, I had gathered tons of interesting information to share with my students and satisfy (or pique!) my own curiosity, and I had taken dozens upon dozens of photographs to share with my classes come September.

But what to do with this information and these photographs? Sure, I could throw the photographs up on the screen and give my students the “My Day in Salem” lecture. I could put the photographs and information into a Power Point, Prezi, or Google Slides presentation. I could print them off and pass them around the room.

But none of this was good enough. None of it even approximated the real thing.

Victims' Memorial
The Witch Trials Memorial in Salem, Massachusetts

 

About a month went by, the photos still on my phone, the information still in my head, before I realized that what I really wanted to do was, well, take my students to Salem…

This, of course, was not as realistic as a “My Day in Salem” Power Point. But it would be  so much more effective!

So what if I mimicked the experience to the best of my ability…by turning the halls of our high school into the sidewalks and streets of Salem, Massachusetts? I typed an e-mail to my principal, and with her approval and support, set about creating my Salem Scavenger Hunt. With the help of my colleagues, the plan went smoothly this fall. So smoothly, in fact, that two of my colleagues created their own subject-specific scavenger hunts for their classes. This spring, with the help of Erin Ford, our school’s resident technology genius, I’m confident it will go even better. Erin has helped me incorporate technology like augmented reality to enhance the experience and further engage my students. Using the app HP Reality, formerly Aurasma, our scavenger hunt is going to come to life–to approximate an actual visit to Salem as closely as possible.

 

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Throughout our reading of the play and the novel, my students were still referring back to things they had learned in the scavenger hunt. It was far more effective than a lecture, worksheet, or presentation would have been. As much as possible, it brought the places, the people, and the time period alive for my students. The plans are below. I hope you and your students will get as much out of this as my students and I do!

Below is the original, more “analog” version of the scavenger hunt, which uses photos I printed and laminated from my trip.

A Visit to Salem Scavenger Hunt.docx

Thanks to Erin, you can find the technology-enhanced version below. It will require you to download the HP Reality app and set up your own augmented reality. You will still use the photos available in the analog version above, but when students use the app and hold their phone over specific photographs at each site, they will see videos, articles, etc. relevant to that site (once you have created your specific Aurasma).

Scavenger Hunt Rules

Following the technology-enhanced scavenger hunt, students are then asked to create a presentation using what they learned. They could also do this in the less technologically involved version, as well. Find a template here:

Travel Log

Regardless of whether you opt for the more analog version or the more technological version, you will need:

  • enough copies of the rules/worksheet packet for each student
  • colleagues willing to chaperone your students in the hallways
  • photographs of the sites, placed ahead of time at various locations around the school
  • enough copies of a map of your school, marked with the locations of the sites, for each student or each group of students.

My execution of this technology-enhanced version is slated for February, and I can hardly wait to see how it goes!

Witch House IV
The kitchen of the Witch House, where the trials initiated.

National Day on Writing: #WhyIWrite

Today is already a good day. It’s Friday. The sun is shining. My honors students are going to write their own Gothic stories, modeled after Poe, Faulkner, or Gilman, later on this morning. In addition to all this–it’s also National Day on Writing, sponsored by the Why I write IIINational Council of Teachers of English. All week long on my Instagram account, I’ve participated in their #whyIwrite campaign, posting one reason each day for, well, why I write. This blog post is the culmination of my daily musings on why I write.

Reason 1: I love to write.

This one is probably pretty obvious, but I figured I’d elaborate, anyway. I have been compelled to write since the day I was physically able. Boxes and boxes of journals, begun when I was in just third grade, occupy a significant amount of the storage space in the eaves of my attic. I love to write articles, diary entries, poems, stories, narrative Why I Writeessays, novels, blog posts. There isn’t much I don’t like to write. The feeling I experience when I know I have written something just the way it needed to be expressed is the same satisfaction produced by the sound of a softball smacking a glove in a perfect catch. That sense of achievement and precision is priceless.

In addition to the simple satisfaction writing provides for me, I find the act of writing therapeutic. Writing provides a physical, mental, and emotional means to let go. It allows me to process my emotions and thoughts, and offers a form of catharsis.

It also reaffirms for me my place in the world, and my identity as “writer.”

Finally, I find flow through writing. There is nothing quite like the sense that the piece I am writing–the very words pouring from my pen or fingertips–stems from some secret source I have magically tapped into. I am just the conduit. It is effortless. Finding myself in this state is truly a spiritual experience, one I have not achieved through any other activity.

The feeling I experience when I know I have written something just the way it needed to be expressed is the same satisfaction produced by the sound of a softball smacking a glove in a perfect catch.

Reason 2: I write to remember.

One of my favorite things about writing is going back, sometimes years later, to read things I have written. Many times, I find I wrote about things that, had I never written about them, I would have forgotten them. They never would have resurfaced in my mind. I love rediscovering scraps of experience that, without writing, would have been lost to my consciousness.

Reason 3: I write to be remembered.

Writing offers a form of immortality. It helps me preserve something of myself for future generations–for my nieces, for my nephews, maybe even for their children and their children’s children. Often, when I write something, particularly diary entries or personal narratives, I wonder who might read them decades down the road, and think about me–and know a little more about me, about herself, about the world as it was when I was here, for having read it.

Writing is a handshake, a hug, an invitation to empathy and understanding. It is one way to strengthen the bond of the human family.

Reason 4: I write to get perspective.

Writing helps me get my thoughts in order, helps me sort myself out.

Reason 5: I write to connect.

One of the most rewarding aspects of writing is when people tell me a piece I wrote resonated with them. People’s reactions to what I write about my family and marriage, the lessons I have learned through my mistakes or misconceptions, or the effect nature seems always to have on me are so touching–and encouraging. Writing is a way to reach out to humanity as whole, across oceans and mountains, to cry out into the abyss, “I am here! You are here! And we are not alone!” Writing is a handshake, a hug, an invitation to empathy and understanding. It is one way to strengthen the bond of the human family.

Why I Write II

 

 

 

S-Town from an English Teacher’s Perspective

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As my husband selflessly and singlehandedly drove us to Florida Wednesday, we listened to the podcast “S-Town” and I submitted several pieces of my writing to various contests and publications, as well as worked on some freelance projects.

Wednesday, my husband and I hit the road to visit family in Florida, and to help keep us awake and alert during our ten-hour stint on 95 South, we listened to the seven-chapter podcast, S-Town, by Serial and This American Life. It was thought-provoking, emotional, entertaining, and worthwhile. I laughed, cried, and marveled. It’s the kind of podcast that stays on your mind for days–probably weeks–popping up in your day-to-day when something seemingly inocuous inspires a memory of an emotion, thought, person, or question brought up in S-Town. It brings up big questions, like: What is fulfillment? How do different people achieve it? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How can people achieve meaning in their lives? Do familial relationships trump relationships with friends, though in some cases, the friends are closer than family? Should familial relationships be given legal priority in every case? I could compose an entire post consisting solely of questions S-Town makes me ask myself, but I’ll spare you (listen to it yourself, if you haven’t already, and find out what questions it brings up for you). Besides, this post isn’t actually about the effect S-Town had on me personally; it’s about the connections I can make between it and my career as a writer and English teacher (though to be honest, the personal musings are far deeper than the professional ones).

The Mad Hatter

As a child, I enjoyed the cartoon version of the story Alice in Wonderland. As an adult, in a children’s literature class for my graduate degree, I had to read the full-length book–and I enjoyed that, too. Like me, you’re probably familiar with the story and its characters, including the Mad Hatter. You might also have heard the term, “mad as a hatter.” In listening to S-Town, I learned where that phrase comes from: In the 1800s, hat-makers (hatters) used a dangerous chemical compound to turn fur into felt for hats. Inhaling these chemicals on a regular basis caused many of them to go crazy, and even die prematurely.

“A Rose for Emily” and “The Masque of the Red Death”

One of the short stories I read with my students during our Gothic literature unit is William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” one of John B. Mclemore‘s (only click that link if you don’t mind a spoiler alert) favorites. The theme song of the podcast, “A Rose for Emily” by the Zombies, which I’d never heard before, alludes to the story and helps elucidate the meaning of the title, and the story, to a degree. I’m currently working on the best way to use it to A) enhance my teaching of the story and B) boost my students’ understanding of the literary device, allusion. In addition, my honors students complete a Literature Portfolio project throughout the course of the semester, requiring them to write short essays (Connections Essays) connecting a work of art, a piece of music, a work of literature, or a current event to the work of literature we are reading in class. Connecting the song “A Rose for Emily” to the story by the same name would perfectly exemplify the expectations for this assignment, as would connecting the short story to S-Town itself.

On a similar note, another Gothic author mentioned in the podcast is Edgar Allan Poe. One of his stories my students and I read is “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the hourly striking of a large, black clock in a room of crimson and ebony provides a constant reminder to a group of revelers that their time is running out, and their hours are numbered. John B. Mclemore was an antiquarian horologist who built sun dials and restored old clocks. Herein lies more potential for a stellar Connections Essay.

Paradox

At the risk of spoiling everything for you, I will just say that S-Town also provides an excellent example of paradox: time as both a punishment and a gift. (In addition to spoiling things for you, I risk going way too far into my musings on the concept of a lifetime and time if I continue!)

New Words

At least three new words jumped out at me as we listened:

  1. proleptic
  2. mellifluous
  3. peregrinate.

Zora Neale Hurston

Although some might see the sometimes racist characters in S-Town as the farthest possible thing from anything relating to Zora Neale Hurston, two similarities stood out to me. First, Hurston lived part of her life in Eatonville, Florida, which the earliest residents helped build from the ground up. Janie, the protagonist in Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I read each year with my students), also lives in Eatonville, and is there for its incorporation, her husband having become the mayor and working hard to incorporate the town. John B. Mclemore played an integral role in the project of

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During our visit, I spent lots of time building Florida snowmen (sandmen) on the beach with my niece, who has taught me many valuable lessons and inspired many of my personal narratives, availabe at richmond.com.

putting Woodstock, Alabama (originally North Bibb), on the map as an actual town. Second, Hurston had a deep appreciation for folklore, and for spoken language and culture. While many African-American writers were attempting to create characters and narrators that sounded like, well, white characters, narrators, or writers, Hurston’s characters spoke in the vernacular of the people she knew, to the chagrin of many of her contemporaries, who perhaps saw her as proliferating negative racial stereotypes. Hurston, though, seemed to see herself as advocating for the beauty of these speech patterns, rhythms, and nuances. To learn more about this (and then some!), check out this audio guide by the National Endowment for the Arts. Like Hurston’s characters, the people in S-Town often speak in artful and unique phrases–without even realizing it; it seems to come naturally. They speak in clever metaphors without consciously crafting the comparisons, and use figurative language without even trying or, perhaps, realizing. Consider these two examples:

  1. “He may have had a little sugar in his tank” as a way of saying someone might be gay.
  2. “He’d drank enough Wild Turkey to make anyone gobble” as a way of saying he’d had enough alcohol to make absolutely anyone drunk.

These aren’t direct quotes, but they’re pretty close, and good examples of phrases that stood out me as particularly unique, amusing, or clever. Hurston’s characters, too, often express themselves in equally eloquent and creative terms.

Making Connections

One of the surest ways to support retention and critical thinking is helping students make connections between what they learn in the classroom, and the outside world. I found that as I listened to S-Town, I was experiencing what I hope my students experience when we read, discuss, and write: direct parallels between my own experience and education, and the real world.

 

The Value of Rereading

Just a few minutes ago, I finished reading my friend and fellow writer Charlene Jiminez’s blog post, “Finding the Universal Truth in your Work.” I found it so thought-provoking that I was inspired to share my thoughts (before I lose them).

Emotional Experiences and Life Experiences

As the title of her blog post makes plain, Charlene writes about universal truths in our own writing. When I was in AP English Literature as a high school senior, my teacher refused to use the word “theme,” instead demanding that we discuss universal truths. I embraced this idea. To me, it made the literature more relevant–more real. I wasn’t searching for some obscure (to teenage me) author’s message, which, I was sure, wasn’t really his message, anyway, but some critic-imposed theme originating in academia; I was looking for truth, a pursuit that seemed much more noble.

Our ability to discern the universal truth in the writing of others directly correlates to the value we will or will not place on that writing. It directly affects our ability to understand a work of literature beyond its surface elements (characters, plot, setting–that sort of thing), and to instead see those elements as tools used to communicate a truth about the human condition. At the same time, as Charlene explains, while our ability to discern that universal truth does not depend on our having had the same life experiences as the writer or characters, it does depend on our having had the same emotional experiences.

Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature.

For example, the first time I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was unimpressed. Really. It was, as they say, “meh.” I was unmoved. It was my fourth year teaching. I had just been assigned the honors classes, and the book was to be the students’ summer reading assignment. I read the book from cover to cover–all the introductory material, all the acknowledgments, everything. I took notes in the margins. I read carefully. But I didn’t like it. It was a chore. A year or two later, we changed the summer reading book, and Their Eyes Were Watching God collected dust on the shelves of the English department work room for several years. Two years ago, though, we reintroduced it as part of the core curriculum for both the honors and academic level classes. Since several years had gone by since I’d read the book, I decided I’d better read it again. Sigh…

The second time around, I loved it. What had changed? It was the same book with the same introduction, the same acknowledgments, the same notes in my same handwriting. Certainly, the story hadn’t changed. The writing hadn’t changed. Even the universal truths hadn’t changed.

But I had.

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Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated ten years of marriage. Developments in our relationship over the years have affected my ability to better understand universal truths in books like Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

While I had not been married off by my grandmother to a man three times my age; while I had not run away with a man who swept me off my feet only to find myself stuck in a loveless marriage; while I had not nearly died in a hurricane or (spoiler alert!) shot my one true love in self-defense, I had a deeper capacity to understand the emotions these situations elicit because I had had my own life experiences that had deepened my understanding of what it means to be human–of love, loss, friendship, and self-actualization.

Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated a decade of marriage. The experiences we have shared  helped open me up to the truths expressed in Hurston’s novel. Our marriage, and the sense of love and commitment I feel for my husband, expanded my emotional capacity, and helped me feel what Janie feels, though our situations are very different.

I had a similar experience with one of my all-time favorite books, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. The first time I read it, I was an undergraduate at Michigan State. I. Loved. It. The complexity of the characters’ relationships, and of the characters themselves, fascinated me. It all seemed to so novel, so shocking, so eye-opening.

Several years later, having graduated and been in the working world for at least as much time as I’d spent in college, I reread it. I still loved it–I still refer to it as one of my favorite books–but my love wasn’t as enthusiastic the second time around. I was older. Maybe a little wiser. Maybe a little jaded. Whatever it was, somehow, the book’s impact wasn’t as powerful.

A book is never the same book twice, because you are never the same reader.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has also affected me very differently at various points in my (emotional) life. When I read it as a junior in high school, despite my teacher’s assertions that Daisy was shallow and flighty, I really admired her. I wanted to be like her, or, more accurately, I wanted to be loved like her. Now, 15 years later, I’m far more fascinated with Nick and Gatsby’s characters, and with ideas like personal responsibility (or lack thereof), the American dream and how far one is prepared to go-should go–to achieve it, what it means to be American and how this book fits with our national identity, among others.

What changed?

Only me.

Life experiences equip us with the emotional capacity to better understand universal truths expressed in literature. We don’t need to have had the exact same life experiences as the writer or characters, as long as we have had life experiences that allow us to have the same emotional experiences. You may never have lost your spouse to a car wreck, but you may have lost him to another woman, and thus experienced loss and grief (among other feelings, no doubt!). A book you may have genuinely related to as a teenager may seem trite when you reread it as an adult. Something you may not have grasped in a book when you were a bachelor may be crystal clear when you read the same book after you’ve been married for fifteen years and have two children. For these reasons, and others, rereading is valuable. A book is never the same book twice, because you’re never the same reader.

But I Already Know What Happens

I’ll admit it. Sometimes I dread rereading a book I’ve already read multiple times. Even if I’ve actually read it only once. Even if I really liked it. Even if it’s been years since I read it. I mean, I already know what happens.

But the fact is, I’m an English teacher, so sometimes (lots of times), I have to read the same book more than once. Besides the fact that reading the same book twice (or more than twice) can prove a different experience every time, every time I reread a book (and as an English teacher, I reread many books, many times), I find something new. Students sometimes marvel at the way I can read aloud and write notes in my book at the same time, without missing a word. Here’s the trick: When you know the story line and characters and setting–the basic stuff–your mind is free to notice deeper elements like motifs, author’s purpose, writing strategies–or even universal truths. The more times I have read a book, the more familiar I am with its fundamental parts. The more familiar I am with the fundamental parts, the more literary elements I am free to notice and attend to.

While you may know the plot like the back of your hand, and have certain sections of dialog memorized, rereading a book can still prove an enlightening and surprising experience. Instead of waiting for just what happens next, you’re waiting for what revelation dawns on you next. What will you notice about the author’s word choice or rhythm? What epiphany will you experience regarding theme or the use of setting? What literary devices have you somehow missed the first (and second) time you read the book? What cunning turn of phrase has escaped your notice–until the fifth reading of Huck Finn?

 

Still a Writer

As a high school teacher, I learn as much from my students as I teach them. For example, several weeks ago, when I was teaching my students about the root “therm,” I got an education on thermite, and the fact that it can burn underwater. More recently, I overheard one of my students, who is getting ready to apply for a specialty arts program, say something really simple, but really profound, to a classmate sitting in her little pod of student desks: “I really hope they [the judges/admissions committee] like my art and that I get in, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”

“I really hope they like my art, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still an artist.”

This statement resonated with me because, for the last few months, I have been sending query letters for my debut novel, Goodbye for Now, out into the ultra-competitive world of literary agents and publishers in the hopes of following the traditional route to seeing it published. So, far I have queried about fifteen agents (though it feels more like 1500)–some of whom have thanks-but-no-thanksed me the very day they received my query. I won’t lie and tell you that isn’t disheartening, because it is–it really, really is. But not disheartening enough to stop me. Not yet. I intend to query at least one agent a week for the entirety of 2017 before switching my tactic. If December 31, 2017, rolls around, and I still don’t have a single offer of representation, I will either reevaluate my query or attempt a new route altogether.

On those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: At the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer.

And on those days when maybe the rejection starts to get to me just a little, I will remember the words of my student, and I will remind myself: I really hope agents and publishers and readers like my book, but at the end of the day, regardless of the results, I am still a writer. That part of my identity is not reliant on the validation of the mainstream publishing world (though it would be nice, and it is my goal…), nor is it dependent on recognition from critics or reviewers (though that would be nice, too). It relies only on the fact that I continue to do one thing: write. And that, my friends, I most certainly will do.

Your identity as a writer does not rely on the validation of the mainstream publishing world, nor does it depend on recognition from critics or reviewers. It relies only on the fact that you continue to do one thing: write.

 

Eight Reasons to Earn your MFA or MALS

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The maple featured above was my Climbing Tree during my time at Michigan State University. Though my four years as an undergraduate student were some of the best and most formative of my life, after I graduated, I could not imagine going back to school for a graduate degree.

After I graduated from Michigan State University and began my teaching career in 2006, I could not imagine a single circumstance that would induce me to go back to school, especially while working full-time, but in 2009, I found myself itching to be a student again. I had noticed that since entering “the real world,” I was significantly less prolific in terms of the writing I was churning out, which had dwindled to the occasional diary entry. Before my entrance into the world of adulthood, I could usually fill an entire diary in a matter of just a few months, and would fill notebook after notebook with essays, poems, and stories. What had happened to me? Could I even call myself a writer anymore? I didn’t know. But I did know this: I missed writing, and I wanted to do it again. So I did what any rational person would: Put together a comprehensive writing portfolio and apply for admission to a master’s program for creative writing. I knew that with my demanding schedule, just wanting to write more would not result in actually writing more. But if I were part of a master’s program, and my grade depended on my carving out time for writing, and my reimbursement (a perk at work) for the costly classes depended on my grade, I would write. No matter how little time I had, I would write.

Before my entrance into the world of adulthood, I could usually fill an entire diary in a matter of just a few months, and would fill notebook after notebook with essays, poems, and stories. What had happened to me? Could I even call myself a writer anymore? I didn’t know. But I did know this: I missed writing, and I wanted to do it again.

My participation in a master’s degree program did indeed increase my writing motivation, inspiration, and productivity. It also benefited me in many other ways. If you are considering earning your MFA (Master of Fine Arts) or MALS (Master of Liberal Studies) in creative writing, I highly recommend it for the reasons that follow.

1. Exposure to Literature

Through the assigned readings in various graduate classes, you will be exposed to writers and literature you might not be inclined to pick up on your own, and you will grow as a writer and a reader from exposure to and study of every single one of them. I was enthralled with and enlightened by Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, for example, and to this day would likely not have read a single page of it had it not been for the capstone project I completed in my degree program, which centered on the emotional truth as evidenced by both O’Brien’s and Ernest Hemingway’s works. I can guarantee I would not have read nearly as much flash fiction or prose poetry, and I certainly wouldn’t have attempted to write any. I owe those experiences and more to my graduate degree program.

Assigned readings in various graduate classes will expose you to writers and literature you might not pick up on your own, and you will grow as a writer and a reader from this exposure.

2. Exploration of Craft

During my time in my degree program, I wrote so many pieces I never would have written in so many genres I never would have tried. A graduate degree in creative writing will require you to write in various genres; utilize a myriad of techniques employed by some of the greats; apply literary devices you might not have thought to use; and study devices, writers, and perspectives. For example, you might have a tendency, however unconscious, to write predominantly in first-person. An assignment in a class might require you to explore writing in second- or third-person. Similarly, you might write mainly personal

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Although earning my graduate degree while working full-time often meant I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water, it was worth the effort! (Above, Sadie swims in the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 2013–the year I completed my degree.)

narrative essays, but your degree program is inevitably going to expand your grasp of the craft as it demands you experiment with fictional short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, etc. Working towards a master’s degree in creative writing will open you up to types of writing you may not have even considered before–or been aware of.

During  my degree program, I wrote so many pieces I never would have written in so many genres I never would have tried.

3. Community Building

One of the most beneficial aspects of a degree program in writing is the supportive network the experience can help create. I began my program in 2009 and completed it in 2013, and now, as many as seven years later, I still communicate with several of my former classmates, even having recently embarked upon the creation of a blogging network with one of them.

4. Teaching Opportunities

Most community colleges, colleges, and universities require their instructors to hold at least a master’s degree. In the world of writing instruction, a master’s degree and published works can sometimes be enough to at least get you noticed.

5. Increased Pay

If you don’t desire to teach at the college level, but do want to teach secondary school, for example, a master’s degree in a field related to your subject area equals a pay raise at most public schools. As an English teacher, I was granted a partial pay increase after I had completed a certain number of credits in my program, and was given the remainder of the increase after I earned the degree, which also qualified me to teach a college level dual enrollment composition class consisting of motivated and intelligent college-bound high school students.

I looked forward to my writing homework each day after work much the way one looks forward to feeling the warmth of the sun on one’s skin after a cold winter. It was a welcomed escape, a peaceful release. And because it was, indeed, also homework, no one–including myself–could argue that it wasn’t important–that I was “only writing.”

6. Resume Building

Although no agent or publishing house is going to require you to hold a master’s degree before they will consider working with you or reading your work, it does lend you credibility on your resume and in your query letter. One element of a query letter is accolades–published works, involvement in writing organizations, writing awards and recognition, etc. A master’s degree in writing is something else that bodes well for you here. It shows you take your craft seriously, are dedicated to your writing, and have a solid background in the field.

7. Craft Improvement

This one is probably a bit obvious: The more you write, the better you write. For this reason, enrolling in a master’s program in creative writing will no doubt help you improve your craft. You will have the benefit of feedback from published authors, fellow students, seasoned writing instructors, etc. Not only will you be writing on a regular basis, but you will be revising and polishing your writing on a regular basis, becoming more self-aware as a writer and as a reader.

The more you write, the better you write–and a master’s program that requires you to write can’t hurt your cause.

8. Mandatory Writing Time

I mentioned above that my initial motivation for applying for admission to a master’s program in creative writing was to make sure I would build time into my schedule to write. It worked. During my four years studying creative writing, I was prolific. How could I not be, with writing assignments due seemingly constantly and reading assignments inspiring me with each page? But the process wasn’t arduous. No, quite the opposite. I looked forward to my writing homework each day after work much the way one looks forward to feeling the warmth of the sun on one’s skin after a cold winter. It was a welcomed escape, a peaceful release. And because it was, indeed, also homework, no one–including myself–could argue that it wasn’t important–that I was “only writing.”

If you don’t have the desire to enroll in a degree program, but still need help finding time to write, check this out. 

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While I may have sometimes felt like I was drowning during my degree program, I felt like this when I finished: content, proud, and accomplished–and ready for a little rest, not to mention (more) writing! (Above, Jack smiles at me, happy to be spending some time in the sun on the back deck.)

Censorship of “Sexually Explicit” Content in Classic Works of Literature

For the last three days, the school where I teach has been closed due to snow. While I have indeed gone sledding, made snow angels, napped, taken my dogs for snowy walks, and even taken two snowy runs, I have also spent the last three days crafting a letter to the Virginia Department of Education regarding an insidious policy up for discussion later this month–a policy similar to legislation already vetoed by our governor, but that pro-censorship groups are attempting to push through the VDOE as a sort of backdoor approach. Below, read my take on the issue, and if you live in Virginia, please join me in writing to:

Emily Webb, Director for Board Relations

P.O. Box 2120

Richmond, VA 23218-2120.

Better yet, if you are free at 9:00 on the morning of Thursday, January 26, attend the public hearing on this issue.

Dear Ms. Webb:

I am writing to make you aware of my strong opposition to policies reminiscent of House Bill 516, wisely vetoed by Governor McAuliffe, and currently up for discussion by the Virginia Department of Education, specifically the potential requirement that schools “provide policies on the use of sexually explicit instructional materials to parents or guardians with the copy of the syllabus for each high school course and to include a notice to parents identifying any sexually explicit materials that may be included in the course, the textbook, or any supplemental instructional materials.” While I will be unable to attend the public hearing on this matter, as I, like many of my equally concerned fellow educators, will be on the frontlines in the classroom with my students that morning, it is very important to me that my voice on this matter be heard.

Let us give our students the opportunity to learn about, discuss, and study the effects of the darkness and the light in a safe, nurturing space where they can learn how to handle them in a healthy, productive manner. Do not let them leave the public school system without the tools needed to cope with what lies beyond the doors of their high school.

Though the language reproduced above seems innocent enough, it could very easily act as a catalyst for future censorship that would prove detrimental to our schools. I have been in the classroom for eleven years, and hold a Master’s degree—during the earning of which I wrote a lengthy, research-based paper on the problem of unwarranted censorship (as most censorship is). The regulations and policies that will be discussed on January 26 border on dangerous and senseless censorship (as most censorship is) that in no way helps, and in fact hinders, the intellectual, emotional, and moral progress of our young people. Censoring the literature they read based on minimal “sexually explicit” or otherwise “offensive” content or language—that may appear on merely one page of a much larger work—unnecessarily shelters students from reality and does not help prepare them to function as well-rounded, productive adults in the real world. Furthermore, the interpretation of “sexually explicit” is far too broad and subjective to be of any real value, and would allow for many relevant, artistic, classic, and important works to be excluded from a child’s education.

Censorship stems from fear, and is rarely anything more than a bid for control. Tell me–what are we afraid of, and what are we trying to control? The answer to the first question is perhaps less insidious than the answer to the second.

The intellectual development of our students lies primarily in their ability to think critically. One of the most effective means of teaching children how to think for themselves is to present them with various viewpoints, circumstances, situations, cultures, and people different from their own and from themselves—to help them learn to ask the right questions, see problems from various perspectives, and consider other points of view. Based on the policy under consideration, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men would likely be considered for banning based merely on the brief mentions of cat houses and the fact that Lennie’s innocent petting of a dress was once mistaken for attempted rape. Many years, this is the only book some of my weaker students actually read—and love. Their focus does not rest on the cat houses or the non-rape; it rests on the characters, the emotions, the situations. They love to discuss the ideas of companionship versus loneliness, tolerance of “the other,” friendship, and sacrifice that the book brings up. The infinitesimal role of sex in this novella does not distract or demoralize them; instead, books like this encourage students to think about multiple perspectives, and expose them to time periods in which they can never live, places they may never visit, and people they are likely never to meet.

Only open, uncensored access to literature and information can help combat the creeping cloud of thought control I see on the horizon. We can take a step into its shadow by allowing these policies to move forward, or a step into the sunshine of enlightenment by adopting more progressive and productive policies regarding the literature read in our classrooms.

Books like this broaden their understanding of the world, and the human condition—thus helping to make them into more adept thinkers, able to consider different ideas and viewpoints, as well as to ask meaningful, insightful questions. What a shame it would be to deprive students of that opportunity simply because a cat house or glove filled with Vaseline is mentioned in passing once or twice in the course of the story.
In addition to helping children develop intellectually, reading books that this policy would likely deem inappropriate, such as The Great Gatsby for its (extremely subtly implied) sexual content, helps students develop emotionally. Reading books that contain challenging content matter exposes children to topics they will encounter in their adult lives, and gives them a safe, nurturing, and neutral place to discuss these topics before they must handle them on their own in the real world. Giving students the capacity to imagine what it would feel like to be in the multiple moral dilemmas Nick Carraway faces or to be so lovesick so as to engage in criminal activity just to get the girl, as is the case with Jay Gatsby, gives them an emotional foundation on which to stand when they themselves face real-life difficult decisions and moral dilemmas. In addition, asking them to put themselves into the shoes of various characters in these novels helps them develop the ability to sympathize and empathize, thus fostering in them a sense of compassion and emotional intelligence that I would rather nurture with “provocative” literature than stunt with senseless censorship.

I can think of very few instances in history when censorship has ever been looked on in a positive light or yielded positive results. In fact, quite the opposite: Censorship stems from fear, and is rarely anything more than a bid for control. Tell me–what are we afraid of, and what are we trying to control? The answer to the first question is perhaps less insidious than the answer to the second.

Literature mirrors life, and life is as full of gender discrimination, sexism, lust, and other depravities as it is of gentleness, love, acceptance, justice, and goodness. How can we teach true self-sacrifice without also teaching its opposite, selfishness? How can we teach the value of true loyalty without also teaching infidelity?

As a final point, I will simply say that if every work of literature that contains a scene, a sentence, or a situation that someone somewhere in the state might construe as “sexually explicit” were removed from the classroom, I cannot imagine what would remain at the secondary level. I would be hard-pressed to find a single novel that is devoid of any hint of sex. Literature mirrors life, and life is as full of gender discrimination, sexism, lust, and other depravities as it is of gentleness, love, acceptance, justice, and goodness. How can we teach true self-sacrifice without also teaching its opposite, selfishness? How can we teach the value of true loyalty without also teaching infidelity? Students need the emotional intelligence, the moral basis, and the critical thinking skills to face all of these issues and more. Let us give our students the opportunity to learn about, discuss, and study the effects of the darkness and the light in a safe, nurturing space where they can learn how to handle them in a healthy, productive manner. Do not let them leave the public school system without the tools needed to cope with what lies beyond the doors of their high school. If we do, we—and they–will certainly have more to fear than the mature content—expressed in prose so poetic, I would grieve to see my students deprived of it–of Their Eyes Were Watching God or Romeo and Juliet. We do our students no favors, no kindness, by shielding them from real life issues and experiences presented in works like these.

I ask you not only as an experienced educator, but also as a devoted aunt, a writer, and a concerned community member to please block these pro-censorship policies that will only foster the preponderance of ignorance and bigotry trying to take hold in our world. Now, more than ever, a student’s ability to think for himself or herself is critical, and limiting a student’s access to literature in any way only limits his or her capacity for compassion and critical thinking. Only open, uncensored access to literature and information can help combat the creeping cloud of thought control I see on the horizon. We can take a step into its shadow by allowing these policies to move forward, or a step into the sunshine of enlightenment by adopting more progressive and productive policies regarding the literature read in our classrooms.

Sincerely,

Amanda S. Creasey