Living Life-on-Life Through Writing
The phrase living "life-on-life" came to me as a high school student through my work with Young Life, a non-denominational outreach ministry, where the leaders often built relationships with at-risk students wherever they were hanging out.
In my classroom, the concept of living "life-on-life" is to encourage students to express their true feelings and emotions about what is going on in the world around them and to treat those feelings with respect. The life-on-life approach challenges teachers to step outside of their comfort zone to ask tough questions and to build relationships with their students.
In my classroom, these relationships have boosted the quality of student writing. For instance, I have been fortunate to live "life-on-life" with a number of students who have experienced life-changing incidents. I can recall having a conversation with a sixth-grade student about her mother being a teen mom and no longer being a part of her life. An example of her self-reflection is shown in her writing below:
"I only know about my mom from overhearing stories from my aunt and uncle who now raise me. …I am not sure why she left me, but her actions have influenced me. I am not going to casually date in high school and make the same mistake she did. I want to be part of my child's life when I am responsible enough to have one."
Whether it's about losing a parent to a sudden death, family members tackling drug or alcohol addiction in the home, or confronting divorce firsthand, students are aching to reach out.
Power of choice
Genuine student writing artifacts are best produced when students are allowed to have input on the topic. Encompassing backwards design in the creation of writing units allows a teacher to focus on a broad subject and allows students to narrow it based on their life experiences.
For example, my students write a personal narrative about an incident that changed their life. Prior to the essay, we work through the writing process, and I attempt to challenge their beliefs by asking questions that require much self-reflection. This self-reflection provides a primer for students to write in more depth or write more about their emotions.
Frequently, students are oblivious to how their actions are paving the path of the future. It's challenging for young people to look towards the future because many of them are only living in the present. Teaching them to reflect on the how and why of their own life is truly a treasure.
Brian Cook is a sixth grade language arts teacher at North Dorchester Middle School in Hurlock, Maryland. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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