When I teach first year composition courses, I have students write some type of personal narrative for their first essay. This typically involves them relating a story about themselves and creating an argument based off of what they learned from their own personal experience. Recently, instead of having students do a personal narrative where they relate any story from their lives, I have been assigning a literacy narrative as the first essay. This assignment causes students to think about their relationship to literacy, in any shape or form (reading, writing, media literacy, etc.). This essay has gone well because it makes students see how intertwined reading and writing are, and it helps them explore their own personal contact with literacy throughout their lives.
For the literacy narrative, students usually read essays such as Richard Rodriguez’s “Gains and Losses” or Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,” pieces that talk about literacy not just as reading and writing but also as a cultural experience. Along with these texts, students could also read pieces by authors such as Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, and more. While this essay has been successful in the classroom, it has it’s downside. Specifically, some students take a linear process when composing the essay, simply relating specific teachers from their educational past in a chronological manner (elementary to middle school to high school). While still thinking about their interactions and learning of literacy, these essays feel formulaic and become extremely repetitive.
After reading Lecrae’s Unashamed (2016), I am thinking about assigning students a different type of personal narrative. Rather than leaving the essay open ended or having them focus on literacy, I am toying with the idea of prompting them to think about their identity and what they may expect from college. This thought has been rattling around in my head ever since I read chapter four of Lecrae’s biography, “Lost Man on Campus.” There, he writes about his years in college and he, as an African American male, struggled to fit in with different groups.
For most students, their first semester of college is a make or break period for them. If they fail to find a place or group to plug into during first semester or that first year, the likelihood of retaining them through to graduation becomes difficult. It is not impossible, but the chances of a student who does not feel like he or she fits in diminished exponentially after that first semester or year. Universities have programs that seek to counter this trend, specially first year experience classes and programs.
I have taught first year experience classes before, and they are, from my experience, extremely important for students during that first semester. These classes teach students things such as navigating financial aid, the career services on campus, registering for classes, money management, and other things that students need to know. Along with this, the class provides students with a community and cohort of students that will hopefully form relationships throughout the semester, thus increasing their retention rate. This occurs because the first year experience classes center on group cohesion and nurturing.
So, how could having students write about their identity and their college expectations go along with something like the first year experience? Simply put, this type of assignment would allow students to reflect upon what they may expect from the university experience and how their identity makes them think about those expectations. At the end of the semester, or possibly at mid-term, a follow up assignment could be for students to reflect upon what they wrote at the beginning of the semester (after about three to four weeks on campus) in relation to what they actually encountered and learned about the university experience during that first semester. This could be done in a final essay assignment, or it could be done in group discussions. If done in group discussions, students could talk about their first essays about three weeks into the semester (their expectations) and their reflections at the end of the semester. This, possibly, would create a type of camaraderie similar to that found in a first year experience class.
What types of readings would be useful for a class like this? Lecrae’s would be beneficial because he writes about his struggle to find an identity during his college career. (He went to two colleges and dropped out of both.) Students could also read something like Thomas Roger’s “The College Hazing That Changed My Life” or Ernest J. Gaines “A Very Big Order: Reconstructing Identity” (an essay that doesn’t deal with college but with identity and education). Rodriguez’s and Tan’s texts, mentioned above, would also work. Similarly, fictional pieces could help students explore identity and college expectations.
At this point, I am entitling this essay the “Personal Identity Narrative.” If you have thoughts or suggestions for tweaking this assignment, please let me know in he comments below.