Elaine Rabb, Nashoba Brooks School’s storied Grade 8 English teacher, watched as another batch of students expressed themselves in their “This I Believe” essays.
Continuing a five year tradition, Ms. Rabb has heard many NBS students tell stories about what means most to them, a collective picture of a veteran class. “Each year the speeches are a bit different, reflective of the grade and their individual life experiences,” Rabb explained, also noting that levels of introspection change, based on each student’s personal growth.
This I Believe was originally a radio program, created in 1951 by journalist Edward R. Murrow, who brought notable people onto his show to read about a core belief that guided them every day. Murrow’s program allowed readers a maximum of five minutes to accomplish this task, which, by necessity, distilled each belief into a clear, concise speech. For students in middle school who are transitioning from early to formal writing This I Believe compositions fit naturally into curricula. Today, revived by National Public Radio, Murrow’s creation lives on. NPR’s objective in bringing back this cultural phenomenon reads like any school’s social-emotional guidelines: “Our goal is not to persuade Americans to agree on the same beliefs. Rather, we hope to encourage people to begin the much more difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from their own.”
Acknowledging the importance of this respect-developing exercise, Ms. Rabb’s essay requirements help students write their truths:
Tell a Story about You Ms. Rabb asks students to be specific and truthful. She urges students to “consider moments when belief was formed or tested or changed.” And while their stories can be gut-wrenching and even funny, what’s most important is that they “should be real.”
Be Brief From its creation, brevity has always been an important shaper of This I Believe essays. Grade 8 students develop each sentence carefully, attempting to never waste a word. With only 500 to 600 words or about three minutes when read aloud, they utilize their editing skills to ensure their work packs a punch.
Name Your Belief Summing it up succinctly, Ms. Rabb’s request for clarity echoes in her own requirements: “If you can’t name it in a sentence or two, your essay might not be about belief.”
Be Positive This I Believe essays by their nature should be inspirational, which is why Ms. Rabb encourages students to “write about what you do believe, not what you don’t believe.” Writing shouldn’t be dogmatic or editorializing.
Be Personal Finally, Ms. Rabb echoes Murrow’s original mandate, that each piece should be about a belief that has guided each student. She wants students to “avoid speaking in the editorial ‘we,’” encouraging originality rather than “an opinion piece about social ideals.”
Coming into the eighth grade, students finally reach the moment they must look beyond Nashoba Brooks School’s walls and fields. They fill out applications and prepare for interviews during the fall. But, this is also their final year and the rush of emotions born from a visible separation on the horizon can make admissions essays difficult. Students very much want to be in the now, to enjoy their final year. This I Believe makes this process easier, by channeling feelings into an essay that also can be used for applications.
Writing and speaking their truths creates avenues for introspection as well, in a time when they have to explain to those who don’t know them who they are and what they believe. Caleigh Weig, a current Grade 8 student, explained that sifting through her beliefs was a practice in memory: “I had many ideas, but most of them I shot down because I didn’t have specific memories attached to them.” Her essay forced an investigation of her experiences and made her see how her strongest memories had lead to her beliefs.
One of the co-presidents of the Grade 8 class, Divi Bhaireddy, echoed Caleigh’s feelings: “The hardest part of coming up with ideas for this project was needing to break down the way I lived. I’m only in eighth grade so as you would expect I never really gave much thought to how exactly I interact with people and make decisions day to day.” Introspection leads to answers and is part of Nashoba Brooks’ social-emotional initiative. As the leaders of the School, Grade 8 students need to be the best at knowing themselves. Self-awareness frees students from selfishness and allows them to spend time reaching out and connecting with younger members of the community.
The greatest outcome of Ms. Rabb’s assignment is the way it brings Nashoba Brooks’ oldest students together in their final year. Divi put it nicely when she expressed surprise at learning something original about her twin sister: “Yes, we are sisters, but the types of things we write about and live with are completely different. This essay topic and project gave me an insight about how my own sister lived her day-to-day life.”
1 Allison, Jay, and Dan Gediman. “The History of 'This I Believe'.” NPR, 6 Apr. 2006, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4568270.
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