WHY TEACH THIS?
The personal essay; A staple in most schools used for college entrance essays, scholarship applications, student reflection, or to sum up ‘what I did’ during summer vacation. Its ubiquity is due not only to its versatility, but also to its popularity with students. But standards and expectations are changing to place emphasis on synthesis and evidence-based writing, so students need additional challenges beyond the stereotypical ‘personal essay’ that has dominated
I start off showing 180° SOUTH, a documentary on Jeff Johnson’s mission to climb Cerro Corcovada in Patagonia. The movie really captures the feeling of a life changing mission, of overcoming obstacles, and of appreciating our world and the beauty and experiences in it. Then students freewrite ideas for their own piece, picking two different places (one right in their home town/region and one that required further travel) and identifying the one experience within each trip that taught them something or changed them in some way.
To model the process on how to outline this piece, I turn to the class as a whole for help. I have someone yell out a place. I’ll get an answer like “California.” My reply is, “Narrow it down.” For this piece to work, students need to centralise their story around a specific goal. From there, I’ll get answers like “Disneyland”. Then I ask them, “What was your goal?” Finally to ride Space Mountain after declining to do so on a previous trip?
Next I ask them about conflicts that endangered their achieving their goal and explain how, even if their conflicts seem banal, they can be dramatised to build suspense through word choice, description, and tone. A long queue? Describe how it was like a snake uncoiling, revealing layer after layer, as it twisted around concession stands and pillars.
Focus on how the wait frayed your nerves and heightened your already epic anxiety as each step simultaneously brought a sense of relief actually to be moving, alongside doom about what you were moving towards. Internalise it and make the reader care by showing how you felt and how it affected you.
My requirements are the following:
1. evoKe SenSe of PLAce. The story needs to capture the environment through imagery, sensory description, precise word choice and sentence structure, and by observing and commenting on the cultural atmosphere, climate, topography, etc. The reader should receive a sense of how people there live – be it positive or negative – and feel like they are there with you while they read.
2. A SToRy. Yes travel writing is non-fiction and should be based on real experiences, but it still should have a story arch. Many non-fiction pieces incorporate story-telling techniques to sustain a narrative and build suspense. There should be a plot (the goal and the process of achieving it), a conflict, building suspense (rising action), a climax, falling action, and a resolution. The narrator (the student) should have a goal and his attempt to achieve it drives the story.
3. A LocAL ‘chARAcTeR’. The character is a real person whom they really met or observed, but who also becomes the person(s) who symbolises or represents the place.
4. The hISToRy. Students must include relevant history of the place and/or people. ‘History’ can mean past or present history, political climate, interesting facts, or cultural knowledge; they should choose what suits their purpose and place best. History should be researched and sprinkled throughout the travel writing piece whenever a certain place, person, custom, plant, or tidbit comes up that could use a little backstory (history/context). I require in-text citations and a ‘works cited’ page.
5. The PRoceSS ePIPhAny. As corny as it sounds, travel writing is never really about the destination; it is about the journey. By the end of this journey, whether or not students achieved their goal, we should see what they learned and/or how it changed them. Whatever the epiphany is, the student should have constructed the piece so that their reader learns it along with them. Then I follow the usual procedures of outlining, drafting, and revising the essay.
This assignment evokes some of the best pieces of writing out of my students – and the personal narrative and creative elements help to coat the sometimes aversive flavor of research and citation. A pivotal bonus is that reading these pieces always provides me better insight into who my students are. They say you can’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes; this assignment helps me do that for my students, and shows me who they are through where they’ve been, what they love and loathe, and what they’ve overcome and learnt.
Read excerpts from Michael Palin’s Sahara, from Lonely Planet travel writers, and from Kira Salak’s Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles to Timbuktu. Analyse these pieces for plot, character building, voice and style, description, how they portrayed and transmitted a sense of place, and lessons learned (or taught).
ABOUT THE EXPERT
Michelle Shin lives in hawai‘i and received her doctorate from the University of hawai‘i. She was a public high school teacher for ten years and has recently transitioned to teaching at Kapi‘olani community college.