At Fieldston Middle, English class is an opportunity to connect to different forms of literature through discussion and writing. For 7th and 8th Grade students, their personal experiences and interests played a key role in their latest English assignments.
Inspired by the New York Times Magazine column “Letter of Recommendation” and writer Jason Diamond’s submission on bialys, the 8th Graders’ letter of recommendation assignment fittingly culminated with an outdoor bialy tasting on a sunny day. Sampling the breakfast treat together was a perfect finale to their assignment of selecting an underappreciated object or experience to “recommend” and connecting it to a bigger idea. Students’ final essays addressed topics such as Connect Four and James Bond. As the 8th Graders progressed in the assignment, they also discovered the importance of identifying these strong personal connections, with some students even changing topics midway through the essay unit because they felt disconnected from their first choice.
“One of the rewards to including personal experience is that no two pieces will be the same because each student brings themselves and their experiences to the work,” says Fieldston Middle English Teacher Sharan Gill. “One of the challenges is that students have to make connections themselves because we can’t tell them why something is important to them.”
“Incorporating my personal stories into my schoolwork makes me feel like I am sharing a piece of my life with my writing, and it makes me feel like I am not just writing for a grade on a school project,” says Tiger Z. ’28, who wrote about writing letters and appreciating a slower pace in life.
After completing their essays, the 8th Grade gathered for an awards ceremony, recognizing their peers’ work in categories such as Engaging Hooks, Literary Gems, and Powerful Messages. 7th Grade would also have their own ceremony, rewarding essays for Terrific Titles, Fantastic First Lines, Intriguing Imagery, and Profound Points.
“Recognizing a student’s work with an award rewards them for taking risks and being vulnerable,” Gill says. “Maybe a student thinks they wrote a good essay, or maybe a student isn’t sure, but asking them to share their work with all of their peers and teachers in a public setting lets them know, or reinforces for them, that they have interesting things to say and to teach us through their writing.”
In 7th Grade, students explored their personal experiences in relation to the literature read in English class. Their juxtaposition essay assignment required them to write a personal, persuasive essay in which they juxtaposed a true story about a meaningful decision they made and a story from class using three frameworks for thinking about decisions. These frameworks include analytical versus intuitive thinking, making decisions to move toward or away from scenarios, and making bounded versus free choices.
“Writing about their decision-making using formal frameworks helps students take their thinking and choice-making seriously,” says Fieldston Middle English Department Chair Laurie Hornik. “It also gives them the confidence to see themselves as “characters” with agency in their own lives. It can be challenging to look objectively at your own life and your own decisions. For some students, practicing with literature — analyzing the decisions of fictional characters — helps them then bring that thinking to their own decision-making. For other students, analyzing their own decisions helps them get more out of reading literature.”
Aliza W. ’29 wrote about losing a tooth while hiking at camp, comparing her decision to keep the tooth with a short story character’s choice that ultimately helped a narrative progress. “Those are just the major decisions that people made, and normally life isn’t made up of only large major decisions,” her essay reads. “Normally, there are smaller decisions that build up the larger decisions and/or make a story complete.”
“Using my personal experiences in writing is enjoyable because it gives me an easy way to spread my perspective that no one else has into writing, in a way that talking about things I learn and hear cannot do,” Aliza shares. “It feels liberating.”
Middle school may often be a time of conflicting identity and confusing changes, but through this lens of empowering decision-making and literary connections, 7th and 8th Graders are evolving into stronger individuals.