Academic journal article English Journal

A Case for Teaching Biography-Driven Writing in ELA Classrooms

Academic journal article English Journal

A Case for Teaching Biography-Driven Writing in ELA Classrooms

Article excerpt

The year was 1999. I had graduated from a teacher education program where I was trained to teach writing in the style of Nancie Atwell, Linda Rief, and Donald Graves. It was the height of the writing process movement (Tobin and Newkirk). I was beginning my career as an English teacher at an urban high school in the northwest. At this time, biography-driven writing was, by no means, the only kind of writing taught in schools; however, it was an accepted piece of the formal ELA writing curriculum (Gillespie). My curriculum was no exception. That year, and the years that followed, I asked students to produce a diverse range of written genres, many of which invited them to write from their lived experiences, ideas, cultures, stories, and values.

In my early years of teaching, I was fortunate to serve as a host for the Writers in the Schools residency program sponsored by Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon. The program, like others across the country, employs local authors who teach semesterlong writing courses in area schools. Tracy Trefethen, a northwest essayist and poet, was assigned to one of my senior English classes during the spring semester of 1999. She taught a memoir essay workshop once a week and invited my students to write about journeys they had experienced in their young lives, either literal or metaphorical. When Tracy arrived in my classroom as an outside teacher-writer-author and presented my students with an unfamiliar written genre, the memoir essay, they took her invitation and ran with it.

In Tracy's workshop, students wrote about a range of experiences including living in poverty, immigrating to the United States, living with alcoholic parents, making choices about athletics, coping with divorce, traveling to do service work, learning English, and overcoming illness. One of my seniors, Adam, wrote a piece titled "The Lonesome Road" about his struggle with social isolation in middle and high school and how he had learned to cope with loneliness through books:

Every day you wake up and prepare for school. Every day, you vow that today will be different, today you'll make a connection with someone. But you get to school and nothing's changed. Nobody notices you. You sit in a corner and read your book, the book that has become a substitute for social interaction.

Through his essay, Adam shared a painful journey that, while challenging, had granted him the gift of empathy for others suffering from anxiety disorders. Another student, Megan, wrote about her journey coping with Crohn's disease:

Green isn't a very inviting color. You think this every time you go by the church, and you go by the church a lot because this might be your 45th appointment with Dr. Barclay. You have been coming here since the seventh grade, since they figured out that persistent stab in your stomach had a name, and that it wasn't just going to go away like you thought.

While some students found the memoir essay more meaningful than others, all completed the assignment for Tracy and shared a strong sense of voice, perspective, vulnerability, and confidence in their writing. They used the skills we had practiced in writing workshops earlier that year and the ones Tracy introduced on audience awareness, drawing from outside sources, conducting substantive and surface-level revision, making personal writing public-facing, and revising with peer-led review. As students wrote their memoir essays, they conducted research at the school library and drew from outside sources, such as photographs and saved artifacts, to tell their stories. The memoir workshop allowed students, like Adam and Megan, to grow as well-versed and well-practiced writers across varying genres and also to craft the diversity of their lived experiences to share with others within the realm of school. At this time, a memoir workshop did not represent a curricular outlier, nor an instructional risk. Biographydriven writing was a part of what my students had grown to understand it means to be a writer for school and the world. …

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