Telling Stories, Building Community: “This I Believe” in the First-Year Writing and Communication Classroom

In the spring of 2011, Georgia Tech started a “This I Believe” project in partnership with the Writing and Communication Program. The campus reading series and student contest are unofficial off-shoots of a popular radio series, originally hosted by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s, and then resuscitated on NPR from 2005-2009. The radio essays are short and powerful personal essays about core beliefs, written by people from all walks of life.

“My grandmother had died, but here I was, eating a food made with love by her own hands. I believe in remembering. I believe in the taste of salted pickles.”

The genre enjoys great popularity with educators. In most classes I have taught at Tech, at least one student has written a “This I Believe” essay in high school. It is not hard to figure out why teachers find the assignment useful. Successful examples of the genre often share many traits of written communication in which most educators hope their students will become proficient. Strong essays have clear thesis statements, vivid details that support the main idea, careful editing, and respect for the needs of the listening audience. “This I Believe” essays are short, only 500 words or so. As early-semester assignments in the first-year communication classroom, the brief essays can help students learn several key effective communication practices that will help them in future rhetorical situations.

The essay also makes a great early assignment because students often enjoy it. I have found that students embrace the chance to express themselves creatively in ways that are not available in many of the core classes they are take as freshmen at Tech. They can talk about their lives and feelings—subjects that do not often come up in Chemical Principles I or Intro to Computing. The subjects of the essays are as unique as the writers themselves. My student finalists have written essays on topics as diverse as “I Believe in Salted Pickles,” “I Believe in Jackson Pollack,” and “I Believe a Football Player Can Choose to be a Cellist.” Each author has the chance to stamp the essay with his or her own personality, interests, and background.

“With social pressures added to the fact that my father, two uncles, and three cousins played professional football, I felt that I had to play football. But I was living a double life. I discovered the cello in tenth grade, and now it is what I do.”

Along with the freedom in subject matter (and the joys and terrors that can accompany such liberty) comes the comfort of the essay’s recognizable form. Listen to or read a few pieces, and you will see a pattern emerge. The essay traditionally begins with a short introduction that includes a declaration of belief. The idea is then backed up by a story. Description, details, and dialogue make the story come alive and help the audience live in the author’s shoes. The stories often feel intimate—like a close friend talking to you. The end of essay circles back to the beginning; the author restates the belief and expands on the main idea. This traditional narrative style (1. topic, 2. support, 3. conclusion) will likely seem quite familiar to most of our student authors. Adventurous students might choose to experiment stylistically. However, many students find comfort in following the traditional style with a recognizable sense of progression. With narrative structure somewhat pre-determined, students have the opportunity to focus on details and style that will make the essay memorable.

The essay makes an especially good first or early assignment in a first-year communication course because the author’s interaction with the audience is essential to the essay’s success. A “This I Believe” essay is effective when understanding has been built between author and audience, and when the audience is profoundly moved. In my classes, throughout all the stages of composition, students have peer review sessions for brainstorming and editing. I encourage students to be “greedy readers”—to ask their peers for more information about the events that are intriguing yet undeveloped.

“My family is now split between Atlanta, Spain and Venezuela, but we still have time to share ‘Sunday mornings’ often. Even when I feel like the loneliest person in the whole world, with just one comforting word from someone back home I feel protected again.”

Although not every story will be heart-wrenching or revealing, there are always a few very personal stories in every class. My students have shared stories on subjects as personal as the death of a sibling, family abuse, a friend’s suicide attempt, and divorce. When at least several students are brave enough to reveal personal details, trust is built among all the new classmates—most of whom are virtually strangers when they walk into the classroom. The final draft of the project is a formal presentation of the essay to the class. When students read their essays or present videos, Prezis, or PowerPoints, the authors experience the audience’s reaction. Peers may laugh, cry, or simply look interested. In the best situations, the students get the thrill of peer recognition. If, on the other hand, a performance falls short, the student may be inspired by the successful classmates to improve the quality of his or her work. Overall, peers get to know and feel more comfortable with each other throughout the class project.

In my class, students then submit the written essays to the “This I Believe” contest at Tech. Those students who have written about private experiences they are not yet comfortable sharing with an audience outside the classroom may choose to submit their work anonymously. Winning essays are posted on the “This I Believe” website, and the top four or five essays are presented by the students at a public reading. I give extra credit to the winners and also to those students who attend the reading. Both writers and audience members are vital to success of a literary work.

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“In the world we live in, I think it is very important to have some basic knowledge about everything. I think that no matter what profession you are in, you should know your science, know how businesses and financial institutions work, and know your history and government.”

I hope that many Brittain Fellows will consider including a “This I Believe” unit in their classes this year. The artifact encourages immersion in a genre, personal written expression, collaboration with peers, revision, awareness of one’s audience, and poise in public presentations. The artifact can be adapted in many ways to fulfill the Writing and Communication Program’s emphasis on multimodal communication. In recent years, a number of Brittain Fellows have used the campus contest as inspiration for diverse types of multimodal assignments. The resources at the end of this post offer a sampling of students’ multimodal projects.

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My Outline for the “This I Believe” Unit:

  1. Introduce the history of “This I Believe” (http://thisibelieve.org/about/). Play audio recordings of several NPR essays, which are read by the authors themselves. (The written text is also available for those who would like to follow the essay by reading.) I like to present: “Cutting Our Grandmothers’ Saris,” by Priya Chandrasekaran; “Call Your Mother,” by Suzanne Biemiller; and “The Beatles Live On,” by Macklin Levine. These three essays have intriguing hooks, rich details and dialogue, surprising twists of narrative, and meaningful conclusions that are heartfelt while avoiding sugary sentimentality. The essay by Macklin Levine is especially humbling since it is written by a twelve-year-old. After hearing her carefully constructed and emotional essay, any college freshman would feel embarrassed to say, “I can’t do this.” After students hear the essays, students nominate their favorite essay and explain why the piece appeals to them.
  2. Present several essays written by Tech students. The website, http://www.thisibelieve.gatech.edu/, includes a number of winning essays. In addition to the written essays, several finalists were videotaped during the public readings. The videos are great teaching tools because the students demonstrate different performance styles (humble, nervous, engaging, humorous, etc.). I typically present Michael Braun’s moving speech about a terminally ill high school classmate, “I Believe in the Beauty of Life;” and Jay Danner’s amusing essay about spontaneity, “I Believe in Sidewalk Waltzes.”
  3. Invite former student finalists visit the class to read their essays to a new crop of peers. Seeing a Georgia Tech student perform an essay live reminds the class of the real human being behind the essay. Also, hearing these works reinforces the traits often found in a winning essay: originality, style, vivid description, dialogue, and epiphany.
  4. Present the directions for the project: “For this artifact, your task is to write a ‘This I Believe’ essay. Your essay will be approximately 500 words. The essay should tell a story that relates to the formation of your core beliefs and the guiding principles by which you live. You will present your ‘This I Believe’ essay to the class in a form of your choice. For example, you may give a speech or show a PowerPoint or video. Presentations must not exceed five minutes.”
  5. Students write proposals to share with their peers in the next class. In the beginning of the semester, students create groups of about four to five people. These “communication support teams” meet for projects throughout the semester. The “This I Believe” essay project, which is personal in nature, helps groups form a bond early in the semester.
  6. Students write and revise their essays with the help of their small groups. If time permits, I hold a conference with each small group in which students guide the discussion about revision.
  7. Students present their essays to their small groups for feedback. For traditional speeches (the presentation format most students choose), students practice their oral presentations in a classroom, where the presenter is at the front of the room and the group mates are in the back. Group mates should give suggestions on volume, speed, body language, etc.
  8. Plan two or three presentation days for students to deliver their final artifacts. All students are given a peer review sheet. They write confidential reviews and score each presentation on a scale of 1 to 10. On their blogs, each student’s homework that night is to write an extended review of their favorite presentation. After everyone has presented, students vote for their favorite work on their peer evaluation sheets. I give the “People’s Choice Award” (one bonus point on the final grade in the class) to the student who receives the most votes.

 

Resources:

Links to works by my students:

I Believe in Asking for Forgiveness” (Video Essay)

I Believe in Salted Pickles” (Written Essay)

I Believe in Sunday Mornings” (Written Essay)

 

Links to works by Dr. Mirja Lobnik’s students:

I Believe Humankind’s Biggest Flaw Is Its Self-centeredness” (Video Essay)

I Believe in Having Basic Knowledge About Everything” (Video Essay)

 

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