At the heart of social justice teaching is an effort to reorient the curriculum in large and small ways—by examining history from diverse perspectives, by bringing marginalized and silenced voices into the study of literature, and also by helping students rethink who belongs in college. So when my students bump up against their perception of who is “college material” and who isn’t, my job is to use the everyday details from their daily lives to teach them to see their brilliance and their capacity to learn.
Some of my junior and senior students count themselves out of college because they lack the typical credentials like high scores on SATs, a strong GPA, and advanced classes. The repeated litany from counselors and teachers of what it takes to succeed in college creates a hierarchy of experience that teaches some kids to dismiss or devalue the aspects of their own academic lives that don’t align with the common view of who should attend college.
At Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon, where I have worked in various capacities for four decades, life intrudes in many of the students’ school lives, interrupting their attendance as well as their ability to concentrate and deliver homework. One student’s family was evicted; they lived in a car, then a campground. Another student’s parents both lost their jobs, so he had to drop a couple of classes and start working at a fast-food restaurant to help his family.
But even students without these extreme circumstances have performed poorly in school for a myriad of other reasons: They didn’t see themselves in the curriculum, they were bored by content that didn’t seem relevant, they had other passions that they cared more about.
Before they write essays convincing admission officers to accept them into college, students need to uncover and believe in their own capacity, to understand that when they are guided by their interests and passions, they exhibit the kind of curiosity and attention to detail that leads to success. When they are in places that feel like home — the basketball court or the mock trial court, the dance or art studio, the poetry stage — they exhibit amazing ability to focus and persevere, to practice and rehearse, to harness their attention in ways that will serve them in college or any other pursuit. They need to be taught how their success in these areas can demonstrate their success in another. To help students story their lives so that scholarship committees can see the person behind the statistics, I introduce them to Andrew Kafoury, a Jefferson student who graduated many years ago. Andrew was an exceptionally talented actor whose grade point average didn’t match his stage presence, his nimble-witted brilliance during class discussions, or his ability to write across genres in ways that either convinced us or made us laugh.
During a unit on college application essays, Andrew wrote a passionate piece to win acceptance into a college known for its theater program. He used an unconventional approach: He structured his essay as a letter addressing the head of the program. He opened with a couple of paragraphs describing his first memory in the theater. Then, in a brief paragraph he listed what he wasn’t good at—the list was long. In the center of his essay, Andrew detailed the reasons he loved acting. These paragraphs created a verse poem with a specificity of language about theater that sweeps the reader up in his passion, his knowledge of the stage, his willingness to play any role. His essay ended with his current work and his future dreams (see Resource).
At first, I wasn’t sure if Andrew’s letter would work as a model for college essays because so many prompts today are bound to the common application. But students found ways to weave parts, if not all, of their essays into those prompts. I was also concerned that students’ love of basketball, softball, dance, or music wouldn’t translate into an essay that showcased their academic prowess. But from reading their papers, I discovered that a passion and the willingness to pursue it demonstrate a student’s perseverance and focus. Their essays reveal the dogged determination that gets them up for a 5 a.m. practice, makes them choose rehearsals over hanging out, teaches them how to harness time, and shows that sometimes hard work overcomes perceived lack of talent.
What Do You Love?
I break my own tradition of teaching essay writing by starting with the middle piece—in which Andrew talks about his passion for acting—before examining the whole essay. There is no set order for teaching or writing the essay, the paragraphs are moveable parts, but I love the wild ride of Andrew’s “I love theater” section, and I want students to capture their own passion. Here is the first of two paragraphs in that section:
I love acting. I love putting on costumes and becoming creatures I am not. I love my skin sweating as bright lights send heat soaking through my body. I love getting to know my cast, watching the drama behind the drama. I love the quick change, the blackout, the dry ice and stage combat. I love cranky stage managers and quiet co-stars. I love watching ego-stricken actors fall into decline while a new face emerges from the shadows. I love the monster special effects that steal the show and that oh-so-precious moment when you, the actor, send the audience head over heels with laughter. I love the call sheet with my name on it, and the director who calls to say I’m perfect for the part. I love the shows that I wish would go on forever and even the ones I can’t stand till they’re over.
I begin by reading the two paragraphs of this section out loud to students. I ask them to think about what they learn about Andrew here. I get students into small groups and tell them to imagine that they are admissions officers for College of Santa Fe. “Why would you accept him or reject him from your college?
What does Andrew know about theater? What strengths does he show us about his character?” Students get the idea that his vocabulary is detailed. He knows how to write. Sometimes students argue about whether the repetition of I love is effective or overdone. Keishsa says, “He knows about kinds of plays, like where he says ‘classical and contemporary, tragedy and comedy, romance and swashbuckling.'”
Kalisha points out that he knows how plays work. “You can tell because he talks about memorizing lines, lights, call sheets, curtain calls.”
Daniel notes that Andrew is a team player. “He didn’t list all of the main characters he’s played. He makes it clear that he would take any role to be part of the play.” If a student doesn’t make this point, I do: “There’s no presentation of Andrew’s acting credits; instead he shows that his commitment to theater is bigger than getting the lead—it’s to making live theater happen.”
Salim raises his hand. “I’ve been taking this psychology class at the community college, and we learned about the hero’s journey. This essay reminds me of the hero’s journey. See how he tells the story of his journey to his passion? He starts out learning about theater at a young age and he pursues it, taking classes, getting in shows. Now he wants to study it in college.”
Lists Become Poetry
I ask students to create a list of things they love. “Get down as many items as you can—skateboarding, singing in the choir, playing basketball, fishing on the Wilson River.” I make my own list on the board: Hiking, teaching, reading, writing poetry, and gardening. I ask a few students to share.
After I walk around and see that most of them have 10 or more items on their list, I say, “Share your lists with a small group. If someone mentioned something that you forgot on your list, add it. Then choose one thing from your list to write about. If you discover you don’t have enough to write, go back to another item on your list.”
I return to the board. “One of the things you noticed in Andrew’s essay is that we could tell that he knew a lot about theater because he knew the vocabulary. I’m going to show you that I know a lot about hiking by listing nouns and verbs about my passion.” On the board, I have already listed names of trails my husband and I explore: Bear Valley, Sky Trail, Boynton Canyon, Wildwood, and Chimney Rock. I add names of parks, rivers, oceans, canyons, and the birds and trees we glimpse along the way. I list supplies—boots, water bottle, pack, lunch, chocolate. I ask students to help me. “What else do I need?” “Snacks, map, first aid kit, toilet paper.”
Then I add verbs: stumble, perch, thread. “Your verbs are where you can play around. I could just say walk or stumble and be done, but I want to expand that list by putting in more verbs. I don’t just walk. Sometimes we stop and sit, but there’s usually not a chair in the woods, so we perch on a rock or fallen log. I can use the word ‘thread’ to describe how we walk through trees.”
Students write their own lists of nouns and verbs. I encourage them to get at least 10 of each. Then I partner them up and tell them, “Listen to your partner. Add to their lists. Your job is to coach and challenge them to expand their lists.” We share a few of these back in the larger class.
We return to Andrew’s two “I love” paragraphs. I want students to notice how he uses lists, how he balances adjective and noun combinations. For example, one of my favorite sentences is “I love the quick change, the blackout, the dry ice and stage combat.” The adjective/ noun repetition provides a rhythm in the paragraph. We re-read the paragraphs. Later, we will dissect some of the sentences to see how they work, but, at this point, I want them to get the rhythm in their ear, to write with that music in their pens. Too much analysis of the construction too early keeps them from writing at breakneck speed on their own topic.
“You have everything you need to write this,” I tell them. “Look back to your lists and just keep rocking forward. Look back at Andrew’s if you get stuck. You might use longer and shorter sentences. I might start with a short sentence: ‘I love hiking.’ Then I might add a longer one: ‘I love the long hikes, the short hikes, the hilly hikes, the flat hikes, the circle, and the out-and-back hikes.'”
I show them how a couple of other former students entered this section. Desiree DuBoise wrote about slam poetry:
I love spoken word. I love hearing the words of others dance in the air and get stuck in my brain like sweet molasses. I love the feeling of a stage beneath my feet and a mic that captures the verses that flow from my lips and projects them to the hungry ears of the audience. I love a pen in my hand flying across paper as if my fingers had wings. I love scribbling out and rewriting. I love my quickening heart.
Nakeisha Gardner also followed Andrew’s lead, but she played with sentence structure in ways that I admire:
I love softball. I love bloody palms and aching joints. I love cheering on my teammates when we are up to bat. I love the stench of Icy Hot crowding the van. I love how two braids signify our strength. I love running the same drills over and over until our calves are the size of the Superdome in Louisiana. I love pulling off in darkness, anticipating a new landscape, starting my day with unexpected beauty: frost-covered dirt fields, shimmering dew over the grass and missing bases, or a galaxy of colorful mitts behind the dugout.
Students write for 10 to 20 minutes. Sometimes I kneel next to them and get them moving again by suggesting a line or looking at their list and pulling words they haven’t used to launch them again. Their goal is to write two paragraphs.
Students have written about their love of dance, art, creating animated cartoons, making beats, playing sports, solving math problems, horseback riding, rock climbing, cutting hair. My great-niece wrote about baking cupcakes. With enough push and time, all students will find something to write about. Partly this is the art of teaching—the pause, the wait, the time to reflect, the examples of classmates. I don’t let them give up.
Not long after I turn them loose to write their lists, some heads hit the desk, others want a bathroom break—time-honored ways that students demonstrate frustration. Tanya, for example, says, “I have no passion. These kids all have passion about something. I don’t dance or play sports. I have terrible grades. I have terrible test scores.”
“Let’s start with this: What are you good at? What do you enjoy?” With Tanya, this leads to a discussion about providing childcare for her younger siblings, a list of ways that she entertains and protects them while helping her mother. For another student it is her connection to her heritage through dancing.
I discover that Marie wants to be a police officer. I ask her “Why?” She tells me she likes to help people. “OK, that’s where you start. Let’s make a list of people you have helped. What have you figured out? We’ll go from there. How do you take what you learned from your passion and land it back in a college essay? What did you learn from this that you take with you, that will demonstrate how the skills you learned from your passion make you a college candidate?”
Once most of the pens have come to a halt, I ask a few students to read their pieces to the class, so we can see and hear these paragraphs take shape. This quick read-around gives the students who aren’t quite sure how to proceed more models, and the readers get to hear where their paragraphs sing and where they sag. This is round one of the essay writing, and typically the drafts are overblown and wordy at this stage. We work on paring them down later.
Raising the Bones of the Essay
After students write their “I love” paragraphs, we return to Andrew’s essay and read the entire piece. I ask them to make notes in the margin. “What does each paragraph do? Why is it there? What is its function? How does it help build the essay?” This examination of a model, which we affectionately call “raising the bones” in the Oregon Writing Project, is a method I use with poetry, narratives, and essays. I use it with students in my high school classes as well as teachers in my Writing for Publication class. Although I don’t believe in formulas to teach writing, I do believe in teaching students how to examine good writing to figure out why a piece works and what they can learn from that model to take back to their own writing.
For example, Andrew uses a scene to open his essay, a memory of his first encounter with live theater:
When I was 6 years old, I walked into the Firehouse Theater in downtown Portland and saw a world unlike any I’d seen before: monstrous toadstools, milky thick fog, boiling cauldrons, bright lights and faces. The faces sprouted out of the trunks of molded gray trees in monstrously horrifying expressions. It was as if they were the faces of men waking from dreams, only to find themselves locked in a block of solid wood, desperately trying to scream, “Oh, my God, let me out!”
Standing directly opposite the gloomy shapes stood the pleasant sight of chairs. Red, bouncy chairs that my buttocks slipped right into when I sat down. They stretched 10 rows back. Sitting in these chairs were people I’d never seen before all gathered for one purpose: They were going to watch the same performance of Annabelle Broom, the Unhappy Witch I was. After the play started, I stared at the shapes on the other chairs. As the audience laughed at overplayed punch lines, I thought about the jokes I knew. When they gasped at ferocious battle scenes, I remembered the monsters I slew. Finally, when the applause went shooting towards the performers, I recalled my father clapping at my Stan Laurel impersonation. Here I was, thinking about all those crazy places my imagination and I had traveled together, and I knew, from that point in my life, theater would dominate my life.
That was when I was 6.
I ask students to think about what kinds of scenes they might use in their essays. Together we create a list: a scene of their first memory with their passion, a scene of themselves in action, a scene of a victory or a failure.
Desiree chooses a poetry slam, Michael selects a winning shot in a basketball playoff, Thomas picks his Smith Rock climb, Daniel settles on filming the Jefferson Dancers perform at the Newmark Theater. “Write it like a movie,” I urge. “Let us see it, hear it, smell it. Put us in the blocks with you at the track meet; bring us backstage before your performance.” And, of course, students discover all kinds of ways to make this their own.
James Wooten’s scene describes how procrastination led to his current passion of creating animation:
I remember having to write an essay in the 6th grade on how something specific has changed since its initial inventing. I had such a hard time choosing a topic that I gave up completely and decided to watch the Boomerang section of Cartoon Network, which showed nothing but old cartoons or cartoons that had been cancelled but were still amazing. As I watched, I began to notice cartoons dating way back to 1969, and I remember thinking to myself: “Holy crap, this looks amazing for something that was done over 40 years ago.” I accidentally changed the channel to the current Cartoon Network, and I noticed a huge difference in the animation. As time went and shows came on and went off, I saw there were differences in styles as well. I watched any form of animation that I could—from Cartoon Network to Boomerang to Disney to Nick Jr. to movies. I stared at the screen, rewound, stared some more, rewound, and stared yet again. The little details people had put in, no matter how small, intrigued me. Details like a wisp of smoke that slowly dissipates as it ascends into the air. Details such as the fur on an animal blowing in the wind.
After students write their scenes, we share again, learning from each other, noticing what is working in Uriah’s or Salim’s draft that students might add to their own essays. James’ scene helped us see him at work, focused on the study of animation. Edith’s scene made us see and smell the dance studio.
For the final part of the essay, we circle back to Andrew’s essay, but also push beyond it. Andrew wanted to perform at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival as a life goal. For some students, their life goal might align with their passion, for others, their current passion is a platform that teaches them about how to push through hard times, to focus attention. I ask: “What do you learn from soccer? How is it a metaphor for life? What has playing music taught you? What do you take with you from the gym floor into the classroom or life? In this section you want to make the connection for college folks about how your passion makes you a candidate for their school.”
I admit that I frowned when Melanie wanted to write about baking cupcakes. How does this connect to college? But she made the link:
What I viewed as just a hobby has taught me so much more than I expected. I know there is always a way to finish strong. I may be out of an ingredient, but sometimes using coconut milk instead of heavy cream turns out better than the original recipe. Baking taught me patience—from waiting for the cakes to cool off enough to frost to not opening the oven every two minutes because they are NOT DONE YET. Baking has taught me not to give up. If I added too much salt because tbsp looks pretty similar to tsp when I’m in a rush, it’s OK to throw it away—take a deep breath and begin again with a clear mind. Baking taught me that the ingredients need to be exact if I want every atom to collide just right at 350 degrees, and that timers are a baker’s best friend, and that two minutes too long results in a sad, dry cake. Baking showed me that curiosity leads to a delicious espresso cupcake, and that if I have an interest I should pursue it because that is how I become great at it. I’ve learned that sometimes when you’re doing what you love, you get frustrated and want to give up, but if you keep pushing forward, it makes it even sweeter when you finally succeed.
I don’t believe that college is necessary for success or happiness or to change the world, but I don’t want the hierarchy of schools to dictate who should and shouldn’t attend college. By teaching students to value their own lives and experiences, we help them reflect on the kinds of skills and intelligence they bring to the world.