Mark Twain's writerly advice, to "write what you know,” certainly holds true for me. Life often fuels my writing, whether I’m creating characters that share the habits and quirks of my own children or crafting blog posts born of moments shared with students and teachers, leaning into the familiar can make my writing feel more real. However, I sometimes wonder what the word experience really means in a writing classroom and how our students’ perceptions of this word’s meaning influence their work, their engagement, and their sense of belonging in our community.
To many students, and maybe even teachers, an experience equates to a major life event. Stories of trips to Disney World, Hawaii, Hershey Park, and so on fill many students’ writing folders, while others who don’t have the means to visit the world beyond their backyards, look at me with blank stares and say, “I have nothing to write about.” I fear that somewhere along the way I may have given the false impression that experiences require plane tickets or full fuel tanks. I fear that this definition of the word has limited students by having them think that they don’t have stories worthy of being told, or worse, that they may not have any stories at all. I fear that this false impression has them penning fluff and leaving the heart and soul of their lives off the paper.
I grew up in a home that gave me a Disney story. In truth, it gave me quite a few. And yes, I can pull out a small moment or two… there was the time that my crafty five year old self “fell” into the fountain because I was petrified of the fireworks and would do anything to leave before they started, and the time I gave my sister the chicken pox days before our family vacation. (My mother smothered her in calamine lotion, stuck her by the window seat on the plane, and prayed that no one would notice.) But, we need to acknowledge that while these vacation story moments can make for a good story, they are equal to- or may carry less weight when compared to- my Shoprite moment, when I stood frozen in the midst of a mid-aisle toddler tantrum and a woman stopped to embrace me while whispering wise words of motherly praise and encouragement in my ear.
So I’m working to redefine the word experience for students. As a writer, the idea that seems to capture the true essence of an experience is a moment of connection or disconnection. More specifically, the heart of our experiences are found in the moments of connection...or brokenness with others and with our world...or when finding or losing ourselves. They don’t require any grand place or event. Instead, they simply require heart and presence.
I've begun inviting students to find topics that matter to them by opening up new possibilities... new ways for them to see their lives through writerly lenses.
Thinking of moments tied to a deeply felt emotion or connection with someone.
Thinking of moments of disconnection- loss, conflict, growing in different directions.
Thinking of moments when we’ve learned or realized something about ourselves.
Thinking about topics that bring people together.
Thinking about topics that deepen our understanding of or connection to our world.
Thinking about issues in the world that cause disconnection- social, environmental, economic, cultural.
However, I know this work can’t simply be for my students. As teachers, if we are embracing this definition and inviting students to honor honest and heartfelt experiences from their lives, we must also be vulnerable and share the everyday stories that feel deeply personal and may be a struggle to tell. This is hard. There’s no way around it. Yet, if we play it safe and sidestep to a “vacation” moment ourselves, our students will give us back what we offer. They’ll play it safe. They’ll say they have nothing to write about. They’ll think their experiences aren’t worthy.
All students have experiences. They have stories that are worthy of being told. Our job, is to invite our students to believe they are worthy of being written down.