Personal Essay Writing Class Conundrum

I’m in my third week of teaching a personal essay class at a local community center and (I am relieved to say that) I’m liking it! So far…so good. It’s a small class, I have just 3 students which is fine because this is the first time I’ve ever taught a writing class. I’m being paid and it’s in high school close to my home.I’m having fun writing up my lectures or lesson plans or objectives, whatever you want to call it. All good things. However, I have one small problem and I’m not sure what to do. 

The class is called, Personal Essay Writing and here is how I described the class in the brochure:

“The most well known writing advice has to be “Write what you know”. If this idea appeals to you and you are interested in mining the depths of your personal experience on paper, then this is the class for you. In this class you can expect to: gather ideas, decide which stories to tell, structure your story, find your voice and get audience feedback through our supportive workshop environment. As the workshop leader, I will share my knowledge of the personal essay market, and how to get your stories published.”

So in my class of 3 students, I have one older man who wants to write his life story for his friends, family and colleagues. He is not writing personal essays, he is writing his personal history. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough in my decsription and maybe it shouldn’t matter with only 3 students, maybe I should just tailer the class to each person’s needs-I’m still being paid-but as I read his writing, his assignment from last week (which is hand written) I’m thinking, this is not the class I said I was going to teach. And if I need to spend time teaching him how to write his history, aren’t I depriving the 2 other students from the objectives of the class, from what I said I was going to teach? I don’t know what to do. I fear that my student would like to spend the class reminiscing and I am having a hard time reining him in…….

what do I do?

3 thoughts on “Personal Essay Writing Class Conundrum

  1. Interesting situation.

    I’ve never taught a writing class, though I’ve taken many.

    If I were one of the other two students, I might be annoyed that so much time is being spent on one student at the expense of my own expectation of what I want from the class.

    On the other hand, if I were the historian, I might only be interested in chronicling my experience, essay be damned.

    Any way to query the other two students to see how they think the class is going? If they are enjoying it as is, you could continue on, but they may have constructive criticism about what more they’d like to see from you that’s more on target with the original class description.

    Maybe a more experienced teacher can post more insight.

  2. How interesting. I just had a very similar situation, teaching a class in which I had 16 students, and two were elderly gentleman who clearly wanted only to write their life stories. They too also only wrote in long hand, seemed to want to reminisce a lot aloud, and they also had problems hearing me (and I’m loud!) and others.

    It was not an essay class, but a more wide-ranging Creative Nonfiction class, so he was not in the wrong place exactly, but I found that the demands of guiding older students through writing personal history are so different than those of working with others primarily interested in writing personal essay, that for me to have given them what they needed, I’d have to short-change the 14 others in the room.

    It resolved itself only because both simply couldn’t hear well enough to follow the class and stopped attending. I felt badly because I know the effort it probably took for them to sign up and show up (both were in their 80s).

    In the end, I proposed that a class be offered only for older people wanting to write life stories (though I didn’t volunteer to teach it). I too realized that class descriptions must be precisely worded to avoid disappointment for the student and disruption for the instructor.

    Live and (teach and) learn, I suppose.

  3. I’m glad to hear your story. I did think about pitching a “life story” class to the nearby senior center because every “creative nonfiction or memoir” class I’ve taken as a student, has had one such person. And you’re right, what they need is very different from what the other students need as far as editing and feedback, and it does take away from the class as a whole. It was tough because my student’s stories were fascinating so it was difficult to cut him short, and I didn’t want to seem disrespectful….but I needed to stay on course for my other students.

    Live and learn and teach is right…hopefully my next class, with my new and improved description, will not have this same issue!

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