While preparing to teach my annual unit on memoir writing, I thought about the predictable papers I'd soon be reading again. Every year, most of my middle school students' memoirs just scratch the surface of tales of family vacations and personal injuries. They blandly recount a day's events without delving into the heart of the experience.
Students so often view these papers as tasks that need to be completed; they ask, "How long does it have to be? How many paragraphs?" Essentially, they are asking: "What do I need to do to get an A?" Instead, I want them to share their in-the-moment thinking—the sensory details that will resonate with readers. But try as I might, I've had trouble getting them to take risks.
When we take risks as writers, we stumble into territories we might not have otherwise explored. We share our thinking about relatable personal experiences and communicate emotions that are universal—frustration, joy, pain. Memoir allows students to connect with their readers on a different level than much of the other writing they do in class.
In years past, I had tried to convince myself that it was simply their age, that they weren't ready for that kind of vulnerability. What I'd soon learn, however, was that it was me who was holding back. In order for my students to move from task completion to engagement, I would need to demonstrate risk-taking.
Highlighting a quote from Robert Frost to guide my students' writing—"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader"—was not enough. Neither was sharing exemplars from previous years.
I believe in using mentor texts—models of good writing—but I'd been using them in a limited way. All of the examples I had shown had been written by strangers. Maybe my students needed to hear a memoir written by someone from our immediate school community.
So, I wrote about the one thing that makes me tear up every time I think, speak, or write about it: the premature birth of my son.
I'd considered sharing this memoir in past years, but resisted. I told myself the topic was too serious, and I worried that I might touch a nerve with a student whose family may have experienced a similar event—one that didn't turn out as well as mine. I told myself that they were only 13, and that my perspective would be too far removed from the world of a teenager. These, I now realize, were excuses. The real reason I resisted was because I was scared to be vulnerable in front of my class. I didn't know if I could share the story without crying.
But I realized that I had to show my students I was willing to do what I was asking of them. I decided to dive in.
I wrote about my first-born entering the world two months ahead of schedule. I shared the fact that I drove—paralyzed with fear—for two hours behind an ambulance that carried my wife to a better hospital than the one in our hometown. I painted the image of nurses and doctors surrounding my four-pound son, scooping him up and racing out of the birthing room, my wife and I watching them go, not knowing what to expect. And I wrote about being able to breathe again, when we were told he would be okay, that he just needed time.
I wrote about bringing him home, holding his foot against the palm of my hand, his toes not reaching the base of my fingers. Then I flashed ahead to when he was 6 years old, racing across the soccer field, confidently dribbling the ball around much bigger children. I tried to convey that impossible-to-describe love that a parent has for their child, the kind that makes us feel as though our heart is walking around outside our bodies.
I read my essay to the class. My voice cracked, and I had to pause often. When I finished, they were silent. Some of them clapped, others just stared. They asked questions, and many wanted to share personal stories of their own in that moment. I had them share a teaser, asking them to save the entire story for their memoir project.
We revisited my essay, and I asked for specific lines that stood out, that provoked an emotional reaction. I asked them to share the types of emotion they experienced throughout the essay, and they came up with fear, anxiety, and joy. They learned that a memoir can span the range of emotions, and that something that might, at first, seem like a "sad story" could turn out to include just as much "happy" as "sad."
After our lengthy discussion, one girl asked, "Can we please write now?"
My story not only served as an example for my students, it did something far more powerful: It showed that good stories, the kind people want to read, make us feel something. They might make us laugh or look over our shoulder in fear. They might make us wipe our eyes or phone a long-forgotten friend. This kind of writing requires honesty and vulnerability. Not easy things for any of us, but especially tough for middle schoolers. However, I learned that students that age are capable of profound writing.
The papers produced during the memoir unit that year were far superior to any I'd read before. They were more personal, vivid, and engaging. Surprisingly, students were also willing to share their stories with classmates. One of my students wrote about the loss of her father. Another wrote about how difficult it was to see his older brother go off to college. My students connected to the emotions in their classmates' stories. They were genuinely surprised at the power of their own words.
My takeaway from this experience was profound: I had not been teaching to my potential. My unwillingness to share, to write from the heart, to be vulnerable was ultimately holding my students back. And when I finally took the leap, they followed.
David Rockower is a teacher and freelance writer. He has published articles in The Washington Post, Education Week, and is a regular columnist in State College magazine. With a sports-obsessed 13-year-old son, a spirited 12-year-old daughter and a goldendoodle who looks like a muppet, he has a lot to write about.