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Like most teenagers, Sasha DeCosta ’24 has some “stuff.” Stuff to process, deal with, reflect on, and work through. DeCosta also has the St. Andrew’s English Department, which, this year, offered its V Form students a new way to muck through all that stuff: Put it on the page.
English Department faculty members Will Torrey and Will Porter collaborated to create “Stranger in a Strange Dynamic,” a new creative nonfiction writing unit within the English 3 course for juniors that included work by stars of the genre like James Baldwin, David Sedaris, Roxanne Gay, and more.
“Even though it's so fun and important to read and talk about fiction and literature, we also want to keep things fresh and interesting for our students,” says Torrey. “Sometimes from their perspective, and even from ours, it just feels like, ‘Okay, now it's another book. Now it's another paper. Now it's another book. Now it's another paper.’ So much of what this course is about is to understand who you are and your identity through your own experiences.”
Adds Porter, “We noticed over the years that at [V Form/junior year] grade level, that age, the students have lots of questions. Looking to literature for answers is valuable, but so too is looking inward to have them think about how to tell their own story.”
For DeCosta, that story was one in which they weren’t the hero—and that’s precisely the point. “It’s hard to admit you've done wrong,” DeCosta says. “I think for a good essay, you can't paint yourself as a one-sided hero. In our class, we read a lot of personal essays where people weren't the hero or this perfect character, which made it easier for me to write about those times when I'm not perfect.”
While the culmination of the unit resulted in each student writing a 1500- to 2000-word essay, with additional writing and journaling exercises throughout the unit, there was also the non-rubric requirement to opt in.
“I think these kids naturally feel a little bit of reticence when there's this opportunity to write about their own truths or in some cases, their own families,” Torrey says. “But they really came to not only embrace that vulnerability through the writing process, but to also be present and listen to their classmates, who are talking about the mistakes they’ve made. It felt like something that was very useful, and powerful, and in some ways therapeutic, for them to participate in.”
DeCosta’s essay—which chronicled their failed attempt to eschew the “screenager” life and instead truly live in the moment at a concert they finally got permission to attend—used humor as a venue for deep self-reflection. “From the actual experience of missing an entire concert because I was trying to record it, I learned obviously living in the moment stuff. I was devastated for missing it, but was just going to move on and not think about it anymore,” DeCosta says. “But going through the writing process, I was forced to relive what happened, and to understand why I did what I did. I’ve never really reflected like that through writing.”
For her essay, Angela Osaigbovo ’24, the head of the school’s Creative Writing Club, wrote about a time she was in the spotlight at a national Scrabble tournament. Losing, her team rallied to win on the strength of some “crazy” words; the lesson there, Osaigbovo says, was not to give up.
“Since this was a recorded competition, it’s online, so I went back and watched myself and the decisions I made,” she says. “It is so weird watching yourself like that, but through the watching, and then the writing, I got to really relive the past in an interesting way.”
Osaigbovo, who took the course with Dr. Martha Pitts, says she wasn’t writing about “a big, emotional moment,” which is a notion Porter wanted to impart to all students in the unit.
“The main thing that matters is we're just looking for honesty,” Porter says. “We're looking for specificity. We're not looking for the sort of revelation where you have a day that changed your life, but look for a day where something small happened to you that made you approach an element of your life in a different manner.”
Osaigbovo appreciated the craft notes she received from Pitts, on elements like tone, narrative structure, tension, and mood.
“This is a completely new style of writing for me, and figuring out how to get your emotions and surroundings structured on a page in a way that makes sense, and that the reader can feel, was really helpful,” she says, “particularly right now as we are all juniors and have to think about college essays.”
Both Osaigbovo and DeCosta say they hope “Stranger in a Strange Dynamic” is on the curriculum to stay. “As we become seniors and leaders of the school, what we do in this class is really impactful,” Osaigbovo says.
“I just felt all of the best of St. Andrew's was encapsulated in the essays I read from my students,” Torrey says. “I felt so honored that the students believed me when I said that they could write about anything, and they could be vulnerable, and seeing that they trusted me enough with that—it was a joy. It was the highlight of my time with my juniors so far.”
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