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Teaching Guide: Helping Students Find Significance

Definition of Finding Significance

Finding significance involves recognizing the significance of personal experience and narrowing down that experience to a revealing moment for focus and clarity. In the case of the Literacy Narrative Essay, for example, the personal experience the writer must focus on is one in which she learned a new discourse or joined a discourse community. The writer then reflects on how the experience shaped her views of language and literacy.

Suggested Sequence

This section suggests ways you can incorporate the exercises into your course -- we provide two days, but they can be divided and added in any way you find useful.

The days here are divided arbitrarily. In fact, depending on how much time you want to devote to this, you may decide to use both of these for one day.

Day One

In addition to the "Defending Your Life" exercise, the fourth chapter, "Remembering," in the PHG provides useful background reading. Assign "Techniques for Remembering," pages 104-106, to accompany this exercise.

Defending Your Life Exercise

This exercise was inspired by the film with Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep about a man who, before finding his place in heaven, must stand before a tribunal and watch episodes of his life played before them. He must then defend his actions and explain himself.

This activity emphasizes the same principle that there are signifcant moments in all of our lives, including some we may not be proud of. It demonstrates how writers use memories from their own lives for materials for stories, essays, and novels, and encourages students to use their own lives as a basis for their essays.

Set up for Defending Your Life Exercise

Give your students plenty of time to write and enough time to share their ideas with their group members. This activity may be viewed as a preview for their topic-finding for the Literacy Narrative Essay.

Ask them all to think of a moment in their lives that they're not too proud of. If someone could look back at this moment (perhaps a time they cheated on a test or let down a friend who was counting on them), what might this person think about them or their actions? This should help students think about issues of audience and the need to explain things fully to readers who have not lived their lives with them (something they sometimes forget). Then ask them to explain why they did what they did. This should emphasize the need for description, detail, and development.

When they have finished, ask them to consider what they think this moment might reveal about them. Then have them share their story with their group or a partner, and have the group or partner decide what they feel the episode reveals about the writer. Hopefully, these two purposes will match, and may give them an idea for an essay topic.

Remembering Techniques

Try the following remembering techniques:

Day Two

In addition to the "Revealing Moment" exercise, the fourth chapter, "Remembering," in the PHG provides useful background reading. Assign "Techniques for Remembering," pages 104-106, to accompany this exercise.

Revealing Moment Exercise

This activity is related to BRAINSTORMING activities. It involves generating a series of topics that could tell an audience something important about ourselves. Again, it is also designed to help students FOCUS their topics instead of trying to tell their entire life stories -- a task that's nearly impossible in a short essay, even for students who feel their lives have been uneventful.

This fear can be a stumbling block in this activity, but this is a good opportunity to remind them that even an ordinary incident can be retold in an exciting way.

The activity involves making a timeline with points they choose from their lives, and then freewriting about those points to see which might make a useful topic. It allows them some room to explore potential topics before having to commit to one, and thus alleviates some pressure for nervous writers.

Set up for Revealing Moments Exercise

First have students simply draw a line on a piece of paper. (It doesn't get any simpler than this). You may want to do this on the board along with them.

Then have them draw three points on the line, and label them with significant memories. You may want to encourage them to use memories about langauge if you are doing this before the Literacy Essay drafting. They will complain that they have nothing worth putting on the line, that nothing has ever happened to them, so it might be good for you to play along and do your own timeline on the board or overhead. Pick ordinary topics and explain that simple topics are not only easier to write about, but can potentially reveal a great deal about a person.

Once they have chosen three points and moments, have them freewrite for ten minutes about each one. After this, you may want them to share their work with the class, a reading partner, or their group. Have the group/partner come up with a title for each narrative and decide which they would like to hear more about and why. Hopefully, each student will have come up with a workable topic for their essay and learned to focus on points in their lives, rather than the entirety of it.

Remembering Techniques

Exercises

The exercises are activities we've used to help students choose moments that will illustrate something significant about their lives and avoid trying to do too much in a short essay.

We've provided two activities that have worked well for us in the past, and you are welcome to improve and modify them in any way. Each gets students thinking about possible topics for a narrative -- especially a biographical one, like the Literacy Essay -- by having them remember significant moments in their lives that could be used to illustrate a theme. In the case of the current CO150 syllabus, possible themes include language/self, language/community, language/power, or language/perception.

Defending Your Life Exercise

This exercise was inspired by the film with Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep about a man who, before finding his place in heaven, must stand before a tribunal and watch episodes of his life played before them. He must then defend his actions and explain himself.

This activity emphasizes the same principle that there are signifcant moments in all of our lives, including some we may not be proud of. It demonstrates how writers use memories from their own lives for materials for stories, essays, and novels, and encourages students to use their own lives as a basis for their essays.

Setup for Defending Your Life Exercise

Give your students plenty of time to write and enough time to share their ideas with their group members. This activity may be viewed as a preview for their topic-finding for the Literacy Essay.

Ask them all to think of a moment in their lives that they're not too proud of. If someone could look back at this moment (perhaps a time they cheated on a test or let down a friend who was counting on them), what might this person think about them or their actions? This should help students think about issues of audience and the need to explain things fully to readers who have not lived their lives with them (something they sometimes forget). Then ask them to explain why they did what they did. This should emphasize the need for description, detail, and development.

When they have finished, ask them to consider what they think this moment might reveal about them. Then have them share their story with their group or a partner, and have the group or partner decide what they feel the episode reveals about the writer. Hopefully, these two purposes will match, and may give them an idea for an essay topic.

Revealing Moment Exercise

This activity is related to BRAINSTORMING activities. It involves generating a series of topics that could tell an audience something important about ourselves. Again, it is also designed to help students FOCUS their topics instead of trying to tell their entire life stories -- a task that's nearly impossible in a short essay, even for students who feel their lives have been uneventful.

This fear can be a stumbling block in this activity, but this is a good opportunity to remind them that even an ordinary incident can be retold in an exciting way.

The activity involves making a timeline with points they choose from their lives, and then freewriting about those points to see which might make a useful topic. It allows them some room to explore potential topics before having to commit to one, and thus alleviates some pressure for nervous writers.

Setup for Revealing Moment Exercise

First have students simply draw a line on a piece of paper. (It doesn't get any simpler than this). You may want to do this on the board along with them.

Then have them draw three points on the line, and label them with significant memories. You may want to encourage them to use memories about langauge if you are doing this before the Literacy Essay drafting. They will complain that they have nothing worth putting on the line, that nothing has ever happened to them, so it might be good for you to play along and do your own timeline on the board or overhead. Pick ordinary topics and explain that simple topics are not only easier to write about, but can potentially reveal a great deal about a person.

Once they have chosen three points and moments, have them freewrite for ten minutes about each one. After this, you may want them to share their work with the class, a reading partner, or their group. Have the group/partner come up with a title for each narrative and decide which they would like to hear more about and why. Hopefully, each student will have come up with a workable topic for their essay and learned to focus on points in their lives, rather than the entirety of it.

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Download a Copy of the Exercises

Click on the exercises below to download a copy of the exercises to disk:

Suggested Readings

This sections provides supplemental reading from The Prentice Hall Guide and other resources you may want to consult.

The following are suggestions for background reading or sample essays you may want to copy for your students:

The Prentice Hall Guide

Chapter Four, "Remembering," should be assigned background reading for your students.

Remembering Techniques

Back Back to the The Prentice Hall Guide
Try these remembering techniques:

Authors on Remembering

Back Back to the The Prentice Hall Guide
It may be useful to assign these excerpts as examples of the types of writing based on memory that your students can use as models:

Momaday and Wakatsuke provide models for evoking feeling through description, and Rodriguez shows how a childhood memory can be used to raise larger social issues.

The Writing Process

Back Back to the The Prentice Hall Guide
Pages 124-133 in the PHG are useful guides for students having a hard time starting to read. "Looping" and "clustering" (page 125) are great activities for in-class draft time that often get the most reluctant students to recognize that they have something to say. Looping and clustering provide different modes of thinking for students who feel intimidated by the idea of writing sentence after sentence on a blank page -- for nonlinear thinkers, these techniques really work.

Reporting, from Fields of Writing

Fields of Writing: Readings across the Disciplines has a section called "Reporting," pages 151-59, that deals with observational writing, getting started on narrative essays, and focus. It contains some useful tips you may want to borrow for the Literacy Essay that could supplement the PHG well. The authors are Nancy R. Comley et al, and the book was published by St. Martin's in 1990.

Writing Expressive Discourse

Editors Jan M. Younger et al have a chapter in Readings are Writings that provide useful supplemental hints and materials for finding significance in everyday events and using examples to illustrate points and themes. Chapter Four, "Writing Expressive Discourse," pages 66-79, could prove quite helpful. The book Readings are Writings was published by Prentice-Hall in 1996.

Writing with a Purpose

For students having difficulty with purpose and focus, Chapter One, "Toward Purposeful Writing" of Writing with a Purpose can help students find a purpose/focus and shape it in the drafting phase. Writing with a Purpose, by James M. McCrimmon, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1984.

Illustrating by Use of Example

For extra ideas about "Illustrating Ideas by Use of Example," see the chapter of the same name in Patterns of Exposition by Randall E. Decker and Robert A. Schwegler, Harper-Collins, 1995. It demonstrates how to use an example to illustrate a larger theme and provides essays/excerpts as models.

Observing, from Purpose and Process

Stephen Reid's other book, Purpose and Process, has a useful section on "observing" (Chapter 3) that can supplement the PHG well. It contains many sample essays and discusses purpose in writing. "Remembering," Chapter Four, is also quite effective and provides some great tips/guidelines. Purpose and Process by Stephen Reid, was published by Prentice Hall in 1991.