Tag Archives: Writing Without Teachers

Writing Without Teachers, College Essay Edition.

I took a page from my earlier reading of Writing Without Teachers for this one. I mean that literally — I dug out the photocopies I made in the fall, when we were doing messy personal narrative essays responding to “The Things They Carried,” — only this time it was in preparation for college application essays.

I’ve got some great slideshows and prompts for getting their brains started on writing a good college essay, but I wanted to shift gears a little bit with the final product. I will read mediocre essays, but I certainly don’t want admissions committees reading the stuff that students turn into me when they haven’t done their best work. This needed to be an all-or-nothing deal, one where students got down and dirty with the writing process until something really great came forth.

In the spirit of that process, my instructions to them are messier but also simpler than usual:

On Monday, 5/6 you need to bring a complete draft of your college essay to class.

That draft may be messy, and disorganized, and too long — but it needs to feel complete. An incomplete paper will make class on Monday very difficult for you.

Once you have conferenced in class, I will then set you up with an appointment with an outside expert editor. This might be in person or via e-mail.

Once you send your draft to your editor, you are on their schedule — so the final deadline for this assignment is several weeks away, and you will have to maintain communication with them and then revise on your own.

Here’s the checklist for what you will be turning in as your final product:

  • Complete draft on Monday 5/6
  • Copy of the draft edited by your expert editor (don’t delete the comments!)
  • Revised essay which reflect editor’s comments to the fullest
  • Separate written reflection describing how your writing changed — what were you trying to say at the beginning, and how has the message changed? How has your writing changed?

This assignment will also be graded differently from typical high school writing assignments — there is no such thing as “not good enough” or “just-so-so-because-I-slacked” for your college application essay. There’s either excellent, or not ready to be turned in yet.

This assignment is worth 25 points total — and will be marked either “credit” or “missing” in the grade book.

When you have accomplished all of the items on the list (to a level that satisfies Ms. Pahomov when she looks it over) then it will be marked credit.

If you do not achieve all the items on the list by Monday, 5/20, it will be marked “missing” (0/25) until you successfully turn it all in, at which point it will be marked “credit.”

I feel like this is a classic “try to make the grade book as though it’s not there” move. I hope it works.

Oh, and those outside expert editors? All people from my PWN — professional writerly network.

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Truth and Storytelling: Two Final Essays

My example of a journal brainstorm: "Draw the relationship between the self and the changing world."

My example of a journal brainstorm: “Draw the relationship between the self and the changing world.”

I started this series two months ago, but here’s the final project that goes with the Things They Carried: Truth and Storytelling Unit.

Your benchmark task is to answer the essential question:

What is the relationship between the self and the changing world?

(Sub questions: How does the self react to and deal with change? How does the world in turn react when a person changes? How does this cycle work? What is notable about it?)

You will do this by writing an essay that is both analytical and narrative.

The analytical portion of you essay will identify a major lesson O’Brien gives us about the self in the changing world. You must analyze how he conveys this message in his book. Once this formal analysis is complete, you must then apply your understanding from the book it to your own beliefs and experiences, and then write a personal essay around that theme. (This section can resemble one of the stories in the book.)

The analytical section really just reinforces the writing skills we’ve been working on all quarter with the 2Fers — and students see this. The narrative assignment, though, really blows things wide open. I emphasize that, while you can focus on death or trauma (and many students do), there are so many lessons embedded in the book about the self in the face of x y or z change. I also rely on lessons from Peter Elbow to get these ideas really flowing from students — not always easy after a few months of mostly analytical composition.

Students write about the acute anxiety of transferring schools, or refusing to watch a loved one die in the hospital; to be intensely attached to every item in a care package sent to summer camp, or to have an anger that they bank down inside them, only to have it seep out at unexpected moments.

I love this project, and it’s a fitting end to a unit where we have explored the purpose of storytelling in their lives. (At this point they usually get over the fact that Tim O’Brien was “lying” with his book of fiction.)