In the 1950s, William G. Perry developed a model of intellectual development to help understand the “positions” of intellectual and ethical growth that post-adolescent college students go through over the course of their college years. He describes nine different fluid “positions” across four categories: 1) dualism, 2) multiplicity, 3) relativism, and 4) commitment within relativism. When I first learned about Perry’s work as an undergraduate psych major, I was intrigued. Almost 20 years later, Perry has found his way back to the forefront of my mind as I observe not my own “position” in Perry’s scheme but the position of my students. Considering the sometimes annoying behaviors of my students in light of this model of intellectual maturation has helped me be less bothered by the behaviors my students exhibit and more interested, which is always a good thing. Recently, I have started discussing Perry’s scheme with students in my writing classes. This has proven to be quite fun actually. I use this discussion as a way to kick off a final essay project where I ask that students write about something they truly believe in–something fundamental to who they are (at least at the moment). I’ve used this project as a final one in my composition courses, but it can be easily adapted for other courses. Here’s my basic lesson:

  1. I start by reminding students that they’ve been focusing on their thinking and their ability to voice their thoughts clearly amidst other voices all semester long. This essay that they are about to begin working on is an opportunity to assert their voices and personal beliefs for others to hear.
  2. To get the discussion going, I show them this piece by Taylor Mali. They always enjoy it.

  1. After viewing Mali perform his poem, I elicit reactions from students. What is his point? After some discussion, I segue to the idea that if we expect anyone to take us seriously, we need to speak with conviction, to believe in something strongly enough to own it, and to talk about it confidently so others can appreciate our passion.
  2. It is at this point, that I share with them a little of Perry’s scheme for intellectual development and encourage them to consider where they might fall presently on the scheme. (This is not an easy task for many, but it gets them thinking more about their own cognitive habits.)
  3. From there, we move to a quick activity to get them thinking hard about what they believe. I post four signs on the wall–strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree. Then, I instruct students to stand against the wall, and, as I read from a list of axioms, to move under the sign that represents how they feel about the statement. The statements can be adjusted to fit any class. I’ve used the following:
    • Art reflects life.
    • Life is affected by art.
    • Stories can effect real-world change.
    • We have a responsibility for the words we write.
    • Strong writers are voracious readers.
    • As Orwell said, “If you cannot write well, you cannot think well, and if you cannot think well, others will do your thinking for you.”
    • We can’t help but be changed by telling and writing stories.
    • Escapism alone is a sorry excuse to write and read literature.
    • No text is original.
    • Your contribution to the intertext is a critical one.
    • The language we use constructs our realities, so we ought to be careful about the language we use.
    • Your readers are the ultimate judges of your work.
  4. After the “shuffling” activity above, I ask students to select one of the axioms that was read that they consider to be true–one they strongly agree with–and to select one they believe to be false–one they strongly disagree with. (They do not have to limit themselves to the axioms from the previous activity, but it is a starting point.) Sitting in pairs, then, students discuss what they believe, sharing their choices with one another and discussing reasons for those beliefs. The point here is to get the dialogue going, which is at the heart of the “This I Believe” essay they will be writing.
  5. Moving along, I introduce to them some background on the national essay project “This I Believe,” which is the model for the essay assignment they are about to begin. I stress to them the purpose behind writing and sharing such an essay and the fact they will be contributing to a much larger project–sharing their voices with many others.
  6. I distribute to the students the actual prompt for their essay project, which is basically the list of essay writing tips from the producers of This I Believe. We talk about the assignment to answer questions and clarify the requirements. I tell students that I encourage them to submit their projects to the the national one, but at the very least each will have to read his or her finished essay to the class; it will be recorded and posted on a special section of our course website for others to listen to and comment on. (This raises the stakes for them.)
  7. I share with students some of my favorite “This I Believe” essays that I hope will inspire them as they writer their own. Here are some that I commonly share:
  8. Finally, time permitting, I ask students to spend some time quietly writing three to four foundations of belief that are operating in their lives. We share some of these before leaving. (The point, again, is to get students closer to writing their essay which will be due as a draft during our next class meeting.

When all is said and done, students really end up enjoying this project. They take it seriously because this, more than other writing they’ve done in the class, seems a direct extension of who they are. They know they will be sharing with a broader audience–reading it, having it recorded, and available on the web. They really end up owning their ideas here more than previous work of the semester. It’s a nice way to wrap things up.

There are also plenty of supplemental materials for teachers to use the “This I Believe” essay for their classes. These materials are available at thisibelieve.org. Good luck with it. If you try a similar project, let me know how it works out for you.