Well, it's official. The seniors are gone, their final exam, quarter, and yearly averages are entered, and in four days they'll have graduated.
This year I taught two classes with seniors. One was World Literature (all 12th graders), the other was Journalism (a mix of 11th and 12th).
For my Journalism final exam, I had students read two newspaper columns from The Daily Collegian, the independent student newspaper of The University of Massachusetts Amherst, where a number of my students are planning to go next year.
After reading the columns, they were asked to write a pastiche, imitating one of the writers' styles in an original, 600-word "senior sendoff." I asked them to include at least five specific memories or places of significance from their time in high school, and bring them to life using vivid and descriptive words and analogies.
A number of them were quite good. Here are a few excerpts:
"Now the end of fun as we know it is approaching. If this were an NBA basketball game, there would be 15 seconds left on the shot clock and Michael Jordan would have the ball. If this were a NASCAR race we would be on our 99th out of 100 laps, turning the corner on the straightaway, sitting shotty next to Jeff Gordon. If this were a bag of chips you would have one more nacho, and you wouldn't know whether to eat it real fast, or savor it in the moment."
Another student reminisces on high school gatherings... "Dances no longer consist of boys on one side and girls on the other, with "DJ Louie" in the middle playing songs like "Casey & Jojo." No. Now you have coalition and prom, which are always introduced with the "alcohol awareness" meetings and the rumors of Breathalyzers, and the people on the dance floor are so intertwined that you can no longer tell who is a girl or a guy."
Another looks back at her time as an athlete... "Walking into the gym, memories of the 6th man play back. Our loud obnoxious cheers make me laugh. Memories of Jim's belly slide in the tiger suit remind me that it's time to get used to a new mascot, new school colors, and new teams. No more Superbowl champs, no more lacrosse, no more night games, no more prep rallies."
And finally, one student reminisced on family struggles and the tragic death of one of his friends his junior year... "I think true depression is not when you're just sad and crying all the time. I think rock bottom is when you start feeling the apathy - that abyss that you don't even feel like pulling yourself out of. That's pretty much how I felt back then."
I was impressed with what the students came up with. It was true, honest, well-written for the most part, and more importantly, it was real. It wasn't a predetermined, premeditated, cold, analytical five-paragraph blah-blah essay. It was their memories and high school experiences conveyed through words, recorded for posterity. It was dramatic, engaging, and fun to read. It was meaningful. I often wonder why it seems that we, as English teachers, don't assign enough of these authentic, worthwhile assessments.
Bruce Schauble, who pens a rich and insightful blog on teaching, reading, and writing (Throughlines), writes about this in a post he calls Teaching the Ape to Write. I also recommend checking out Essaying the Essay. In this piece, he argues - in part - that teachers actually do students a disservice by forcing them to adhere to the notion that "every essay must must be built around a stated or implied thesis."
Regardless of your personal pedagogical philosophy, it's worth the read.