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Classroom of the Week: Windsor High School’s “Moments”

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

By Liz Crowder

Inspired by SMITH Magazine’s recent anthology, The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure, English teacher Paul Jolly of Windsor High School in Windsor, CA asked his students write and share some Moments of their own.

Jolly first heard about The Moment when SMITH editor, Larry Smith, was interviewed on San Francisco public radio station KQED. “I loved the book and had shared several stories with my students, all high school juniors and seniors, most of whom have little to no confidence in their writing,” says Jolly. “They’ve had the usual crappy experiences in English class: inability to understand the reading, which leads to an inability to know what kind of help to ask for, which leads to lousy essays, which leads to insights such as, ‘School sucks.’”

After realizing that personal writing assignments seemed to strike a chord in his students, Jolly asked them to tell the story of their own, life-altering moments. The end result?

“The essays they put together alternately left us laughing out loud and crying on each others’ shoulders. It was one of the more memorable assignments I’ve given,” Jolly says. I had the exact same reaction to the collection of essays in The Moment book. Some stories are heartbreaking, others humorous, while still others a wonderfully tumultuous medley of both.

“One thing I found from teaching The Moment to my students is that it has truly universal appeal: while not every essay resonates with every student, they all find some that move them - and this momentum carried them into producing brilliant essays of their own,” Jolly says.

Jolly took this assignment to the next level by asking Larry to participate in a Skype interview with his students to give them an outside perspective on personal narrative. For almost an hour, students approached the classroom’s camera and peppered Larry with questions. “The questions were excellent, ranging from queries about the process, to what surprised me about the responses to the topic, to what I myself learned about storytelling via the making of The Moment book,” Smith says. “It was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had on the other side of the interview chair.”

The concept of having a single moment in life that irrevocably changes everything is such a fascinating one, and true for everyone, whether young, old or in-between. It levels the literary playing field in a way, becoming less about sounding like the next Ernest Hemingway or Maya Angelou and more about simply telling your story, as it happened to you.

“As I told my students, ‘No essay is better than, nor less than, any other. Each has a power of its own that the others cannot imitate,’” adds Jolly. “Don’t feel that yours is not as good as someone else’s.’ At the end of the day, one of my students said, ‘I thought you were just saying that…but I realize that it’s true. They’re all really good.’”

“So many students commented on what a surprise it was to see that Larry is ‘just a regular guy” ; and that, in turn, led to my favorite comment: ‘I never thought that I could be a writer, too.’”

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