by Alison Heron-Hruby, based on a study conducted by Annamary Consalvo, Ann David, Katrina Jansky, Alison Heron-Hruby, Marie LeJeune, and Amy Vetter
When I (Alison) first decided to be a writer at the age of ten, it was because I loved Judy Blume novels. I wanted to create stories just like hers. Since then, I have acquired a long list of writers I admire and try to emulate, and I encourage the teacher-writers in my English methods courses to use the work of authors they value as a model when composing their own drafts.
But what about other forms of inspiration, beyond the epitome of published authors? When interviewing high school students for a study on teen writers, my co-researchers and I discovered that some young people consider family members to be important inspirations or subjects for their writing lives. Many of the students interviewed in rural Kentucky reside with, or in proximity to, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, so it is not surprising that they mentioned family when talking about what and how they write. In this post, we offer possibilities for involving students’ family lives in classroom writing endeavors, based on what the student-writers from Kentucky said during the interviews.
Writing Family History
“Okay, so in English class every Friday she puts up a prompt and I have to write about it. And it was ‘One time I used to go to bed early and now _______.’ And I wrote about like my life, how the struggles that I go through like my dad leaving, that was a huge thing for me. And one time when I used to go to bed early but now I stay up and I think about everything. I take care of my sister. I be the dad of the house, you know? And I wrote it because one day I want my sister to be able to read everything. I keep it for her.” – Chloe, Grade 10 [all student names are pseudonyms]
Chloe indicates that young people might enjoy being memory keepers for siblings and future family members, and teachers can build on this compelling possibility. For example, students could use the below linked resources from Family Tree magazine and FamilySearch.org to build family history records together. They could then share these documents in class and with their communities, perhaps during a school literacy night or as an exhibition in a local library.
Family Tree magazine and FamilySearch.org both provide resources on how to construct multimodal family records. Specifically, Family Tree provides us with several different genres in which family records can be kept. for exploring the various forms in which family records come: memoir, fictional narrative, personal narrative, letters, diaries, and genealogical fiction. The blog at FamilySearch.org offers a guide that students could use in order to choose a form that collects or displays family records. The guide also offers assistance in finding themes among family artifacts and in making family records an enjoyable read for others.
Memoir and Diverse Genres
“Okay, so my grandma passed away during the summer and I wrote a poem about it because she was a really big influence on me and I really miss her.” – Beth, Grade 10
“In sixth grade I wrote a personal narrative about how I lost my Pawpaw and it we because we had to do a project on it and I chose about my Papaw because I felt really close to him and he was like my best friend before I lost him, so I wrote about him.” – Katie, Grade 10
We can honor students’ varied ways of including family in their writing by offering diverse genre opportunities. Katie and Beth mentioned poetry and personal narrative as two possibilities. By encouraging the use of different genres, teachers can open ample avenues for student expression. In her essay on writing memoir, author Jill Bialosky explains how she used what she knew about writing poetry to compose a memoir. Students could write poetry about a person in their family and then use the poem as inspiration for a prose narrative, studying how the tools of poetry are useful to writers in numerous ways. This way, they could learn which genres they prefer as writers and even learn how genres complement each other while writing about something important to them.
This lesson from readwritethink.org provides excellent resources for helping students gather stories from family members that they can then use as material for memoir writing. This issue of English Journal contains articles on how to teach several different forms for composing poems. Sample poems that include memory as a motif, such as Memoir by Vijay Seshadri, could serve as mentor texts.
Both Beth and Katie indicate above that they used creative writing as a way to render family members dear to them; by studying memory as a motif in other writers’ work, students can expand their knowledge of how memory functions as a trope in creative work. In the case of Seshadri’s poem, students could learn how a writer both renders memory and represents how difficult memory is to render, both emotionally and technically. Teachers could ask students to think of a memory that is both every-day and poignant and how they might, too, use vivid-contrast imagery to capture that tension.
Sent and Unsent Missives
“I wrote a letter to my uncle down in Atlanta. And we kind of write back and forth, kind of like pen pals. But me and him talk about life and like some tips on life as well. And kind of help each other out. And I ask him questions. He answers. He asks me questions. And I sometimes tend to get like personal with those.” –Max, Grade 10
“I was thinking about my dad when I wrote [this story]. He’s a drug addict and he hasn’t recovered and I don’t see that he ever will. It made me think of him and many other people in my family. The ones who are functioning adults in society you get how and ones who aren’t.” – Jocelyn, Grade 10
Finally, teachers might have students write letters to family members (such as Anne Elrod Whitney describes here regarding her children’s summer writing activities) as a material alternative to texts and social media posts, as well as as a way to familiarize students with more formal modes of correspondence. Letters are something students can treasure, either as a keepsake of correspondence or as a tool of private expression. For example, they could compile a collection of notable letters from their lives,. The blog Letters of Note is one example of how students might curate letters digitally.
Another option is to write what author Maria Konnikova calls the “angry unset letter,” which is used to turn pent up emotion into a written product. This missive gives the composer an opportunity to vent his or her feelings (which we see Chloe do earlier in this post) without exacerbating a disagreement or unnecessarily damaging a delicate relationship. Konnikova explains that Abraham Lincoln used such letters to fend off impulsivity in confronting his opponents. Since letters are valuable primary documents for historians, family letter writing could also serve as an exciting way for social studies and language arts teachers to collaborate, perhaps as part of a project that documents local culture. A past Writers Who Care post contains striking examples of students sharing history with family members.
The Importance of Purposeful, Culturally Relevant Writing in School
Marcelle Haddix, writer and director of the WritingOurLives youth writing project,has worked with many youth who feel like inept writers during school but who write with passion and purpose outside of school settings. She reminds us that particular contexts and purposes for writing are vital to the writing lives of young people and recommends that teachers ensure that students have opportunities to write “in multiple ways, for multiple purposes, and in multiple genres” (11). The writing experiences of the teens I interviewed suggest that having students write about, with, or for their families is one way to work towards this goal.
One concern shared by many teachers is that teens sometimes write about painful family issues which they might not want to share with teachers or fellow students. When I told my oldest high-school-aged child about some of the ideas below, they immediately warned me that their friends, many of whom have difficult home lives, would not want to share in class what is going on at home. They also told me that some of their friends had included details about their home lives in school writing assignments, only to be told by a teacher that what they wrote was “too dark” and not appropriate to share with the class.
However, not every piece of writing that a student does needs to be shared widely or at all. The very benefit of having time to write during school, as part of seeing oneself as a productive, satisfied writer in school settings, is important. Occasionally, our student-writers may compose about their familial relationships and experiences just for themselves during classroom writing time, and perhaps those writings can be seeds for writings they develop for additional audiences.
Alison Heron-Hruby is assistant professor and program coordinator of English education at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. Her research focuses on the role of literature-based discussions, shared reading, and youth culture in secondary English language arts classrooms.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.