Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bear Witness

Everyone has a story.

Everyone loves to hear a good story.

In teaching, simply telling a student what she needs to know is probably the worst instructional methodology. The best method is to put the student in a position to learn by doing. A good way to facilitate this kind of learning is by helping students find a story to tell. I want my students to learn the craft of stringing together words to form coherent sentences, paragraphs, and essays. I want them to learn to write by writing, by telling stories. To that end, I have been using two websites for inspiration for my students.

In the 1950s, journalist Edward R. Murrow created a radio program that broadcast essays by prominent Americans and ordinary citizens alike. He called the program This I Believe, and featured voices as diverse as Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller, and Harry Truman. The only requirement was that the essayists be able “to distill into a few minutes the guiding principles by which they lived.”

National Public Radio revived the series in 2005 with a specific idea in mind, according to producer Dan Gediman. “The goal is not to persuade Americans to agree on the same beliefs. Rather, the hope is to encourage people to begin the much more difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from their own.” The resulting online archive is a treasure featuring thousands of essays.

I print out several of the roughly 500 word essays for my students. Then I play the audio files in class featuring the authors’ voices reading their pieces. The essays usually evoke strong emotions in the students, and they listen with rapt attention. After hearing several selections, I have the students write their own versions. Inevitably, the results are heartfelt, intense, and profound. Like the originals, my students’ work can be sad, humorous, philosophical, religious, and surprising. When final drafts are in, I have several read them aloud for the class.

NPR has a website devoted to the series complete with teaching materials, information about the series and its predecessor, and the archive of submissions by people from all walks of life. It is well worth spending the time to explore this valuable resource.

The other excellent catalyst to inspire young writers is The New York Times project called One In 8 Million. This site is a collection of fifty-four pieces published in 2009. Each is a photo essay in black and white, a series of slides accompanied by the subject’s own voice explaining his or her life in New York City. The profiled people are average citizens, sometimes doing something as ordinary as walking the streets of Manhattan, or sometimes doing something more eccentric, like the jury clerk who must say “Good morning” two hundred times a day and sound convincing.

I approach this writing exercise in two ways. I always begin by pulling up the site on my overhead projector linked to the computer and playing several selections. From there, I can have students go and interview someone about his job or favorite activity. I ask the students to take a single photograph of the person using a creative approach that goes beyond a simple head shot.

The other option is to have the students do a series of photographs and make an audio recording of the interview. I add to the project a brief 500 word essay from the student explaining why she chose that particular person to profile. Then we have a day in class when we play the slide shows and audio files. Each photo essay is introduced by the writer with the brief essay.

The students are very creative with the photography, and that is the most surprising part of the project for me. The slick black and white photos on the website are done by professionals, but many of my students can do excellent work even with a simple cell phone camera.

In the future, I would like to expand the project from still photography and audio to a full-blown digital short film. Of course, this project offers opportunities for students to use several skills necessary for visual composition utilizing words and pictures.

Whatever methods a writing teacher employs to inspire students, the journalistic idea that “There are eight million stories in the Naked City,” should instill in young writers the idea that even the most ordinary person can have an extraordinary story. It is amazing what students can do when they catch the wind in their sails and set off to tell the story of a person’s life.

In the film, The Legend of 1900, Max the trumpet player and narrator says “You’re never really done for, as long as you’ve got a good story and someone to tell it to.” This is sage advice. I know the importance of mechanics and syntax, but if I can get my students fired up about the story, inspire them to seek out and write about other lives, I will broaden their perspectives and help them discover the world for themselves. They will learn to write by writing and telling stories. Education does not get much better than that.


  1. I wish I had had a teacher like you when I was going to school.

  2. Thank you, Annie. I, in turn, feel indebted to my teachers who inspired me when I was in their classes, and continue to inspire my work today as a teacher.

    Take care


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