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Article Reviews: Tara Parker-Pope’s “Writing Your Way to Happiness” & “Creating a New Mission Statement”
Article Reviews: Tara Parker-Pope’s
Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times articles, “Writing Your Way to Happiness” and “Creating a New Mission Statement,” are a pair of terrific explorations into the power of personal/expressive writing to help you do everything from gain a more positive outlook to boosting your memory to exercising more to getting better grades. Even Parker-Pope acknowledges that this might sound a bit like pie in the sky self-help nonsense, but it’s grounded in some pretty impressive research.
Let’s start things off with, “Writing Your Way to Happiness”—a fascinating piece with deeply encouraging conclusions. Here’s the long and the short of it: If you’re willing to take the time—say, maybe 15 minutes a day—to keep a journal or diary where you actively focus on and (re)edit your own personal narrative, you will not only (hopefully) find that your positivity and personal responsibility improves on the page, but also throughout the rest of your life.
I know this is certainly true for myself. Whenever I’m stuck on a problem or a negative streak or begin feeling overwhelmed, I almost always find that spending time writing (venting) in my diary is just what I need to pull me out of my funk.
According to Parker-Pope,
Studies have shown that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory.
The results of these studies—hailing from institutions like Duke and Stanford—show both short-term and long-term benefits to expressive writing. Parker-Pope illustrates several examples of these positive results throughout her article, but I’ll just offer one of them here as illustration:
…researchers focused on African-American students who were struggling to adjust to college. Some of the students were asked to create an essay or video talking about college life to be seen by future students. The study found that the students who took part in the writing or video received better grades in the ensuing months than those in a control group.
The important part here, as this example suggests, is not necessarily the artistic medium—it could be writing, video, or perhaps even other art forms—but the focus on self-reflection and the crafting (and editing) of an honest personal narrative.
And this leads nicely into Parker-Pope’s other recent (slightly older) article, “Creating a New Mission Statement.” “By creating a mission statement,” Parker-Pope explains—by engaging in thoughtful sessions of expressive writing—“people can begin to identify the underlying causes of [their] behaviors, as well as what truly motivates them to make changes.”
So, where to begin? If free-form brainstorming and diary-writing intimidates you or simply isn’t your “thing”—never fear! Parker-Pope is ready and comin’ to your rescue, offering the following questions as a solid starting place:
- How do you want to be remembered?
- How do you want people to describe you?
- Who do you want to be?
- Who or what matters most to you?
- What are your deepest values?
- How would you define success in your life?
- What makes your life really worth living?
Then, she explains, once you’ve got a few of these questions answered (or at least well-brainstormed and doodled out), take what you’ve got and try to mold it into a more cohesive mission statement or personal narrative. This isn’t something you’ll ever need to share with anyone else, but still, it should be something honest, full, and thoughtful. Rather than write about how you want to lose weight, Parker-Pope suggests, trying focusing instead “on a set of guiding principles that capture how you want to live your life.”
To get started making substantive changes in life, sometimes all it takes is dedicating the time to substantive self-reflection.
A special thank you to Pauline Harner of Cougar News Blog for posting this article on the value of Enrichment Courses in creative writing and digital literacy and storytelling. Perhaps in today’s world especially, it’s of the utmost importance that we all be able to communicate through a variety of means and perspectives. The ability to express oneself creatively is one of the best gifts we can give to our young students today, a gift that will prepare them to look the difficulties, hardships, and turmoils of the world square in the eye and tackle them head-on while also imagining new, better worlds free of such things.
By Pauline Harner
Cougar News Blog
Cactus Canyon has added some new enrichment classes for the second quarter. One of them is creative writing, which is taught by John Leal. The other teacher is Tammy Howard, who teaches digital storytelling.
Mr. Leal’s class allows students’ creativity to flow. Neither classes use pencil and paper. Creative writing and digital storytelling are similar because they both offer a fun and creative way to help students become better with writing.
Creative writing is basically a class to work on students’ writing skills. Much like the journalism elective, students get to write stories, but in creative writing they write poems as well, and the stories are usually fictional. Creative writing is where students can be themselves and write as much as students possibly can.
“I plan to help students in the enrichment class by offering a safe environment to feel…
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As a former tutor and college admission office assistant, I am well acquainted with just how crazed and stressful college application days can be. However, it wasn’t until this past summer when I was helping some prospective students think through the brambles of college application questions that I realized just how milky and obfuscating these prompts and questions can be.
Here’s just one of the many tangled questions my poor students faced:
“Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
While on the face of it this prompt may seem simple enough, upon closer examination, it can quickly become clear just how unclear and muddled things truly are. First, there is the “Some students” comment, which suggests that there are students out there so water-thin as to have identities capable of complete capture within the confines of a college application. Insulting, confusing, and arrogant, yes, but above all this phrasing is simply confusing. So then, for those few special students with some deeper, more complex identity, what question exactly are they answering – or, more precisely, what question is this prompt actually asking? What are the readers of such a prompt looking for?
First, they’re looking to see that you take enough confidence in yourself to read such a prompt and agree: Why yes, I am an individual with a complex identity that’s yet to be captured by this standard application.
Second, they’re looking for a story. Note the wording, “please share your story”—this implies not only that the reader wants something personal and engaging (i.e. not academic or even overly formal), but also something that is uniquely and entirely you.
And that’s the tricky part. While the you in this prompt about identity and stories may seem like the most obvious element, it’s also the element that most student writers seem quickest to neglect. Oftentimes this prompt is answered with a story regarding some learning experience or “life altering” event—and while these would certainly be acceptable starting places for an answer to such a prompt, it’s in the description of the experience or the event that students often lose the “them-ness” of their story, burying their own specialness and unique identity in the details of a mission trip, life lesson, or mentor. Don’t let the you be lost from these stories—the reader, after all, isn’t interested in reading about a mission trip to aid impoverished children or about the awesomeness of your eighth grade basketball coach; they’re interested in you. So, when you find yourself faced with something like this prompt, a question that wants you to at once agree that your identity is too big for a college essay and then challenges you to still try and cram it into one, don’t let yourself be distracted by the trappings—touch quickly on the setting and circumstance of your story and then get to the protagonist, our hero: YOU.
And then there are the chestnuts like:
“Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.”
Sigh! It’s prompts like this one that make me roll my eyes and respond, Please briefly elaborate on at least one of your motives or goals for making this ridiculous request of exhausted college applicants. My recommendation for any poor students faced with such a question? Get straight to the point.
First, pick only your most interesting and unique activity or work experience. Again, this may seem to go without saying, but oftentimes students will reach out for some less-intriguing office job experience because it seems more “adult” or “professional” somehow. But really, I think we can all agree that we’d much rather read that crazy story about you being the Cow for your local Ben & Jerry’s Free Cone Day. This story would do much more than simply highlight something you learned about conflict management (those people who “save spots” in line for friends? yeah, those people should know that that is NOT cool!); this story would also better entertain your readers while showcasing just how brave and fun you can be. Moral of the story: Never underestimate the power of an entertaining story. If you can entertain your readers while sharing something sincere about yourself, it’ll stick in their memory better, give them a better overall experience of reviewing your application, and leave them with a much more impressive show of your writing ability.
Second (and again), get straight to the point. A lot of students end up wasting time and words on describing the job or extracurricular activity itself when, really, this is yet another question about you and your experiences. No one wants to read about the job qualifications or responsibilities of Whatever Office or about the meeting notes of Yeah-Yeah-Yeah Club. These readers want to know A) What Job/Activity, B) Why You Chose It For Elaboration, and C) YOU. And, if you hadn’t already guessed, B and C are definitely the most important elements of this equation. Jump off of A as soon as you can in order to get to the meat of the story (that’s you!).
Remember, they wouldn’t be asking about this if they weren’t hoping to learn yet more about how you react to different situations, what you’ve learned, what challenges you’ve undertaken, and/or what experiences have inspired you.
Then there are gems like this:
“XXXX University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to XXXX.”
The truth is, these questions are never as simple as they seem on first read. So, take your time. Consider them from all angles and all word choices. And then get straight to your point—don’t make anyone wait around to find out how fascinating you are or what goals you plan to achieve.
And here are a few extra tips and readings to help you along your way:
- College Board’s “8 Tips for Crafting Your Best College Essay”
- Especially, brainstorm and be specific! First do the work of reflecting on what your strongest traits and most unique experiences are, and then pick out one to three (depending on the prompt) to start getting specific about – bring out the sensory details, the reflective details, the details that give it all meaning particular to you
- US News’ “10 Tips for Writing the College Application Essay”
- The highlights: be concise, honest, and coherent. Don’t let your rush to share your accomplishments and experiences muddle the storyline or embellish the facts. Be genuine and strive for clarity.
- MIT Admissions, Chris Peterson’s “How To Write A College Essay”
—Ellen Goldberger, “Everyone Should Teach Writing,” Inside Higher Ed, 2014
More and more, colleges are beginning to move the Teaching of Writing from strictly the English Department’s territory to school-wide efforts—efforts that necessitate contributions and collaboration with professors from every department and every level. Writing skills have always been of the utmost importance, and yet only now and only begrudgingly are some of our brightest teachers dedicating any significant time to ensuring that their students are able to well communicate thoughts and ideas through writing.
According to Goldberger’s “Everyone Should Teach Writing,” “Conventional wisdom and practical experience tell us that students’ ability to secure jobs and advance in their careers depends, to a great extent, on their communication skills, including polished, professional writing,” and what’s more, “writing is not separate from content in our courses, but can be used as a practical tool to apply and reinforce learning.” These are things we can all agree on whether we’re parents, students, employers, grade school teachers, high school teachers, or college professors. The stickiness comes in, however, with the notion that the teachers and professors themselves should have to make the time and extra effort necessary to better embed this most foundational and complex of skill sets within their own syllabi as opposed to someone else’s.
And while I stand behind this concept of better spreading and reinforcing the teaching and learning of writing across all disciplines, I must say that the most compelling component of Goldberger’s argument for me was her concerns regarding student responsibility and reading habits. As she argues, “students do read, but what they spend their time reading is not helpful”—if not outright detrimental—“in learning how to write” and learning how to communicate in a variety of subtle, professional, personal, and academic styles.
As Goldberger explains,
The key, as always, is to not simply stand around hoping that you land the best teacher or boss every time you enter a new class with new demands or a new job with new coworkers. The key is to take things into your own hands and expose yourself to as many different types of writing and writers as you possibly can. But more than simple exposure, more than simply enjoying your beach reads, you must be willing to take things a step further; you must be willing to spend time analyzing even the breeziest of novels all the way up to the most obscure and difficult. You must be willing to think critically about works you’d never given much thought to before, voice opinions and ideas to others regarding new works and interpretations, start book clubs, engage in book-related forums, and experiment with new styles of writing and new kinds of reading materials.
We must be willing to invest time in ourselves to reap the benefits of reading and writing. We must be willing to sit still a while apart from distractions and allow ourselves to become absorbed into another’s world before we can reap the benefits of improved communication skills, artistic expression, professionalism, progress, empathy, and socialization.
Whether you’re preparing for the SATs, a job interview, fiction writing, improved vocabulary, or any other number of possibilities, there’s one clear-cut road to take: Reading.
Read diversely. Read often. Read.
- Frank Bruni’s “Read, Kids, Read,” The New York Times
- Tutoring 101’s “Student Voices: Reading, Writing, and the Digital World“
- John Coleman’s “For Those Who Want to Lead, Read,” Harvard Business Review
- Neil Gaiman, “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming,” The Guardian
I recently came across Mission Viejo Library’s blog, Teen Voice, and was struck with a tutor’s inspiration!
But first, a bit on just what exactly MVL Teen Voice is:
“Mission Viejo Library Teen Voice exists to promote teen literacy. When visiting this blog, you can expect to find book reviews, book lists, author interviews, book trailers, and event reports for author talks and other related events.” – Written by and for teens, under the guidance of MVL’s Teen Services Librarian, Allison Tran
In other words, MVL’s blog is a place where teens not only get to actively create content, practice a variety of writing styles and essays for a wide audience, conduct research, and discuss what they’re reading with others, but they also get to read and engage with the work and writing of their peers—illustrating just how valid, adult, and important teen writing, reading, and research skills can be.
However, though the value of a teenager’s reading and writing skills is well and widely understood by teachers and parents today, this understanding does not always extend to the teen in question nor, unfortunately, always to the actual practices of said teachers and parents. This failing is tragically evident in the state of the U.S.’s adult reader population. As Megan Rogers explains in her article (Oct. 2013) “Troubling Stats on Adult Literacy” for Inside Higher Ed,
“The Survey of Adult Skills by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that despite having higher than average levels of educational attainment, adults in the United States have below-average basic literacy and numeracy skills.
The U.S. ranked 16th out of 23 countries in literacy proficiency, 21st in numeracy proficiency, and 14th in problem solving in technology-rich environments, according to the OECD survey.”
In other words, despite how much lip-service we pay to the wonders and importance of strong reading and writing skills in the U.S., we’re doing a pretty terrible job of putting those words into action. Scholastic’s Ginny Wiehardt further elaborates on the vast importance and challenges of getting teens to read in the 2011 article, “Realistic Ideas to Get Teens Reading”:
“The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that students who said they read for fun almost every day had higher average reading scores in 2004 than those who said that they never or hardly ever read for fun.
Junior high school and high school students who [don’t spend time each day reading for fun] could face significant setbacks in later life. Even those who don’t plan to attend college will need strong vocabulary and comprehension skills. In fact, one school administrator consulting with Scholastic recently indicated that a mechanic’s manual requires better reading skills than a standard college text. And throughout adult life, they will likely need to decode complex information such as healthcare forms and insurance documents.”
So, we know it’s important for teens to be exercising their reading and writing skills regularly, but how can we help encourage these practices, especially given how busy our young students tend to be (or at least think themselves to be) these days? Well, this is where that “tutor’s inspiration” I mentioned before comes into play.
While there are many options and many avenues for getting teens more interested and involved in extracurricular/fun reading and writing, learning from MVL Teen Voice’s example isn’t a bad place to start.
Thanks to digital tools like blogs, students are now able to interact with written texts in a wide variety of new ways, such as in the creation, collaboration, and reading of works by and with their peers. According to the Pew Research Center, 96% of AP and NWP teachers surveyed “agree (including 52% who strongly agree) that digital technologies ‘allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience’”; “79% agree (23% strongly agree) that these tools ‘encourage greater collaboration among students’”; and “78% agree (26% strongly agree) that digital technologies ‘encourage student creativity and personal expression.’”
In other words, students given the opportunity (using digital technologies) to write for, read, and interact with the written works of their peers are those most likely to see improvements in their ability to collaborate with others as well as in their exercise of creativity and personal expression—all of which make for stronger readers with stronger reading comprehension skills. Speaking from personal experience, as one who once kept blogs as a part of college courses and who has also been published in larger academic conversations, I can certainly say that when one knows that their audience is composed of their friends, classmates, and the incredible vastness of anyone surfing around the internet, it has a way of making you think more carefully about your words, style, arguments, and opinions. It has a way of better personally investing young writers in their research and audience. And when you start writing with one eye toward the integrity of your research and one toward your audience, you likewise become a better, more empathetic, more critical, and more analytic reader.
What’s more, and perhaps what lends these collaborative/digital writing and reading opportunities their greatest advantage, is the simple fact that if you have access to a computer or public (or school) library, then keeping a blog or other online writing forum is typically free of charge and easy to set up for immediate use. Computers, however, are by no means a necessity to making these kinds of collaborative, peer-oriented writing and reading opportunities available to students. Many schools and local libraries also host various writing clubs, extracurricular groups, elective courses, and much more that can help make these experiences and opportunities more available to students, computer or no computer.
Want more? Just take a look at some of these other examples of student writing, reading, and collaboration:
- Beyond the school yearbook, McKinney North High School (McKinney, TX) also offers its students extracurricular opportunities in Journalism as well as in a more generalized Writing Club (for both writers and visual artists!)
- Lovejoy High School (Lucas, TX) has its own student-oriented, student-driven, and award-winning! news source in The Red Ledger
- Allen High School (Allen, TX) also offers student-oriented writing, reading, and collaborative opportunities through their school newspaper (The Eagle Angle) and their Poetry Society
- And, as Emerson College has so generously shown here, there are a slew of student-driven literary magazines across the country with every type of focus, style, and submission/editorial policies imaginable
Bottom line? Get reading, get writing, and get moving!
Also, just for fun, here are a few of the awards Lovejoy’s The Red Ledger has won so far…
- Gold Star in the Interscholastic League Press Conference contest – 2014
- Best Website in the High School Journalism Day & Competition for the Dallas Morning News – 2014
- Best Series or Project for 14 Days of Love in the High School Journalism Day & Competition for the Dallas Morning News – 2014
- Gold Medalist in the Columbia Scholastic Press Association News Digital Critique – December 2013
- First Class with two Marks of Distinction in the NSPA Publication Website Critique Service – 2012
- Gold medal certificate from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association – 2008, 2009
- Best of Show Award from the National Scholastic Press Association -2007
- Many neighborhoods have neighborhood newsletters (some more formal and exclusive (insofar as the creation of material is concerned) than others), and there’s no reason why any one student, family, or club couldn’t band together to create and locally promote their own such newsletter
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
― Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!
Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel (a.k.a. “Dr. Seuss”) is an author whose works continue to inspire and capture the imaginations of millions of children today. Dr. Seuss was truly a fellow who knew how to reach people of all ages and how to communicate deeply complex issues in a way that basically anyone can understand.
And, while it might seem that Dr. Seuss’ books are really only tools for younger readers, elements of his style and works can be used for the benefit of students of all ages—including high school and even college students.
Here are just a few examples of how:
- Have students (middle school) reread one of Dr. Seuss’ books (maybe have each student focus on a different book), such as The Lorax. Then have them discuss/write a paper on what social issue(s) Seuss has distilled into said story and how he stylistically did so—what components of the issue did he focus on, leave out, oversimplify, explain most artfully, etc.? Then have your students take their Seuss book and their analysis thereof, and use these to write their own such story regarding the topic at hand (whether it be the same topic from their Seuss book or another topic from class). Through these activities, students are not only engaging with a funny/goofy text, but they’re actively engaging with/analyzing the techniques of different writing styles as well as learning how to distill complex problems/issues into simple terms and, perhaps most importantly, learning how to then communicate/teach/discuss these problems with others.
- For students learning about other religions or cultures, you could have them read texts like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Following this reading, have them analyze what cultural clashes appear to be taking place as well as what cultural/religious festivities/ideas are being celebrated, brought into question, critiqued, and so forth. Then have your students select another cultural or religious event/holiday/celebration/ritual (such as one they might be learning about in class), and have them attempt to discuss/analyze the chosen event/ritual by writing their own such Seussical work regarding the event/ritual. This will help them begin thinking more critically about what they’re learning, how to communicate it with others, and help them to better realize all the rich nuances of different cultural/religious events/rituals.
- For education students or students interested in teaching, perhaps have them take one of Seuss’ books such as Horton Hears a Who!, and analyze why Dr. Seuss made each of the choices he did throughout the text given the particular lesson/moral he had in mind. Why did he choose an elephant as the protagonist? Why a bird as the flighty (pun intended), unfeeling mother? Why does the bird’s egg hatch out a half-elephant? What problems/ideas are these choices meant to demystify for children/people and what problems/ideas do these choices themselves create? After completing said analysis, have your students take whatever problem/lesson they have at hand, and have them turn it into a Seuss-styled book aimed at illuminating certain issues for readers while also encouraging/raising new questions for them. This can help students not only bolster their reading/critical analysis skills, but also help them to see that sometimes creating space for more questions can be just as useful (if not more so) for encouraging meaningful conversation/learning than can stating facts or theories outright.
- For history students or literature students, you could have them analyze various of Dr. Seuss’ books in relation to the author and his biography/background. This has the potential to open meaningful discussion regarding the importance of discussing or not discussing texts in relation to their authors as well as discussion regarding the importance of being culturally and historically literate before approaching texts.
- For students of marketing, activism, or media, it could be fun and fascinating to have them analyze how various of Dr. Seuss’ works have been used in recent years to market different products and ideas outside the books themselves (such as using the title character from The Lorax to pitch and promote various supposedly “green” products). This will not only enable students to meaningfully engage with vital contemporary issues, but will also give them an opportunity to discuss how advertising and media can warp, muddy, or clarify issues, messages, and causes for either better or worse.
- For film and literature students, it could be beneficial to open discussions of book and film adaptations by looking at those of Dr. Seuss’ works that have been adapted to film and how successful or unsuccessful those adaptations were (in all the possible meanings of the word “successful”).
So, as you can see, Dr. Seuss’ works continue to offer a cornucopia of learning possibilities for students of all ages, interests, and backgrounds.
- At Seussville.com you can find all manner of books, lesson plans, and classroom activities based on Dr. Seuss’ works.
- Mother Jones: The Lorax: Blowing Smogulous Smoke
- BrainPop: Dr. Seuss Activities for Kids
- Seventh Generation: Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax on our Diapers? What’s Going On?
- Random House Kids
- PBS Kids
- IHOP Invites America to Plant Three Million Trees in Celebration of the Release of Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment’s 3D-CG Feature, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax
- The Guardian: Why don’t Dr Seuss’s books make good movies?