I always teach this unit assuming that students have no idea what a personal essay really is.
The goal of today’s lesson is to introduce the personal essay and get students started with some very informal pre-writing.
Start the class by showing at least five prompts from which students can choose to write two free writes or quick writes. If you are teaching to juniors in the Spring or seniors in the fall, they might appreciate writing an essay that will specifically apply to the common application prompts which you can find online with a simple search. The prompts have changed slightly over the past few years, so make sure to find the current list.
Otherwise, you could try any of the following prompts:
Describe a time when you let someone down
Describe yourself sucking at something
Describe a time when you took a risk
Describe a time when you realized something about yourself
Describe a time when you made a fool of yourself
Describe a place where you feel perfectly content
Describe a time when you were confused
Describe how you used to be (before you changed in some way)
Make sure that students understand that they are not writing an essay or choosing a topic even they are just scribbling a half-page free write on the topic. If they think that they are starting an essay they will most likely freeze or write incredibly stifled prose.
Also make sure that students complete at least two free writes. Even though they are completely one hundred percent positive that they know the perfect prompt for their essay, make sure that they complete at least a half-page on two prompts. There are a few reasons why I do this. I have seen many students end up choosing the second prompt which they only wrote “because you made me.”
Also, like the freewrite, this is a way to free them up a little, take off the pressure, and as a result, create better writing.
Give students around fifteen minutes or so to finish the free writes.
Hand out copies of “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan. Not only is this a very short essay that is accessible to almost any level reader, it is also in many ways a perfect personal essay. After reading the essay out loud in class, discuss the following questions with the class:
What is a personal essay? How is it different from other writing that you do?
Answers should include most of the following: it is a story about yourself; it is a narrative; it doesn’t have topic sentences or a thesis statement; it’s a true story; there is a point to it; it’s about something that you learned or a time you changed; it’s about an important event in your life.
For homework, students will be playing “Two Truths and a Lie”; they should write three paragraph-length stories, two true and one that has been made up. Instruct them that they should attempt to make the truths sound like lies and the lies sound like truths, however they want to do that.