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My students are writing without structure! “What? Did I hear you correctly?” you might ask. But yes, you did. I am asking my students to leave the comfort zone of writing structure and go where their minds take them.

Beginning this week and continuing on through next week, I am asking my students to write a “This I Believe” essay. If you have never heard of “This I Believe,” then I suggest popping over to their website thisibelieve.org to read some of the essays that have been submitted there. At the high school I currently work at, part of the curriculum that was developed was for our students to write “This I Believe” essays in the senior-level English classes. These essays have students focus on a core value that helps to guide them through their everyday lives. The great thing about these essays is that someone could believe in Cookie Dough and its path to happiness or being able to get up when you’ve been knocked down.

What I love as a teacher, is that this writing piece allows the students to develop their voice in writing. I’ve been emphasizing to my students today that I want to hear them in the writing piece…I want to be able to read it and know that it was theirs. I definitely do not want to be reading 155 versions of the same paper. We have had discussions on how they can use “I” in their papers (and a huge shout-out to the blog “What’s Not Wrong?” for his post “Can We Use I In This?” a few weeks ago) and what their tone should be in their papers. We talked about “flavor” in writing, and when I was met with some puzzled looks…we talked about how writing can come across as bitter or even sweet.

But even more challenging than voice for my students has been the lack of a structure. Meaning, they want to know how long it should be, or how many paragraphs they should have. My students also have a choice about the topic that they can write about. As I mentioned earlier, if a student believes that cookie dough is the path to happiness, then by all means, write about it! If a student believes that naps are an essential act in life to be happy, then write about it! This forces the students to start thinking and writing outside of their comfort zone.

“Outside the comfort zone” – That is my goal and I want my students to grow and develop outside of what they are used to…writing isn’t always structured in its appearance, but it can still have structure in its purpose. I am looking forward to my topic conferences tomorrow with my students, and I can’t wait to read the results.