Originally published March 16, 2016 ©Edutopia | The George Lucas Educational Foundation
One of my students wrote a 150-word personal essay. It was heartfelt. It was raw. It was also a Facebook status.
So I’m a little confused. That’s because this student—let’s call her Lisa—often struggles to complete most of the writing I assign in seventh grade language arts. Regardless of the topic or the discourse of writing, Lisa fights to come up with the ideas, let alone the words, to complete the assignments. On several occasions this year, she has visited my classroom during study hall for one-on-one help with her assignments.
In fact, just two weeks ago, I asked my students to write the first draft of a personal narrative essay. For writing ideas, I included several prompts from which they could choose, and if they didn’t like any of the prompts, they could create their own. Lisa has yet to turn this assignment in, yet she did . . . on her own . . . unprompted . . . write this Facebook status, an extremely personal—albeit brief—essay that expresses her belief in the importance of friendship, her deep concerns about our society’s preoccupation with physical perfection, and the dangers of self-destructive behaviors.
Her status is actually a solid start to a keenly insightful personal essay or memoir. The status is clearly and succinctly written and grammatically clean. I sense the voice of the writer bubbling to the surface through her carefully chosen words. It has an existential, reflective quality that we often discount, dismiss, or “test out of” our kids today.
So what happened? What possessed Lisa to write in her free time . . . over spring break, no less?! Answer: the “authenticity” of the experience. She knew she had an audience. She knew her work would be read and pondered, and that it would elicit “reactions.” She knew it might make a difference, it might matter.
Current writing pedagogy advocates that teachers provide authentic writing experiences to increase student engagement and motivation. As a fifth-year rookie teacher, I try to involve my students in similar experiences as much as I can, and I’m gradually getting better at providing more and more of these opportunities. For example, I post their writing in the room and hallway, and I’ve begun to post their writing in a blog on my classroom website. One student will have an article published soon in a local newspaper. We enter contests. Now, Lisa’s status has shown me that social media can offer authenticity as well.
Yes, many (myself included) consider social media a diversion that primarily engages young people in abbreviated, often pointless, conversation. Much of what one sees while scrolling Facebook, especially among young people, is brief, inconsequential texting. But occasionally, you find a gem of a status like Lisa’s that surprises you. Cling to these authentic experiences, incorporate them into a lesson, or otherwise use them to show hesitant writers that their thinking on social media can be consequential and have greater purpose.
Lisa’s personal essay, as it reads now as her Facebook status, doesn’t contain a narrative, a story . . . yet. But it does contain the impetus, the spark necessary to ignite the story that is already there in her memory and is waiting to be told. When she weaves that story into her status, she’ll have a personal essay bonfire that will illuminate the writer she is becoming. And she’ll have one fewer missing assignment on the list.