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This We Believe: Eighth Grade Class's Take on Iconic Radio Essay Series

Deanna Garcia
90.5 WESA

The students in Zack Hull’s 8th grade English class are eager to share their “This I Believe” essays. For several years, he has had his students dig within themselves and write about something they believe in, and he said the end of their 8th grade year is the perfect time to do that.

“It’s a big time, coming-of-age year where kids are really figuring out who they are," Hull said. "I wanted them to express through a narrative. Stories are so powerful for kids this age, about something they inherently believe in.”

In the 1950s, Edward R. Murrow made waves with “This I Believe” radio essays from everyday people and public figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Robinson. The series was brought back to the airwaves by NPR in 2005, and since then has been used in classrooms throughout the nation, including Hull’s.

As an English teacher, Hull helps the students not only write, but also read and analyze. That, in turn, helps the students find their writing voice.

“We read about all these characters in dystopian literature like the Katniss Everdeens and the Jonases from the Giver, and they have such things to say, but the adults in the books dismiss them as being naïve or not having life experience, but I think the truth is that a lot of kids have a lot more hope than adults do because they haven’t been jaded quite as much,” Hull said.

Savannah Benko’s essay is an example: “I believe in monsters. The monster is not a who, but the monster is a what. The monster is an emotion that builds up inside of us and possesses us because we let fear and rage get into our heads…”

Benko said the themes from her essay came not just from life experiences, but also from a class-assigned book called "Monster," which deals with themes such as race and identity. Hull said that is one of the hopes when teaching literature, that students look beyond the surface.

“We’ve spent the year learning about how characters like form their identity through books, and we really look deeper into things, and I think that really helped us look deeply into what we believe in and what formed our identities so I think that’s what really helped us do these kinds of essays,” said student Tolik Borisov.  

Tolik’s essay:

“…My life has led me to believe that those who suffer the fate of having real emotion and thought and those who question who they really are will forever seem unstable and broken and by finding how they are unbroken makes them who they truly are.”

Hull said each year, essay topics vary widely, but there are also some similarities.

“A lot of kids write about their trips overseas or even into the city, or they write about issues that aren’t typical suburban issues they’re confronted with and they want to think about," Hull said. "They want to think about other people that they live with in the world and how we should treat them and things we see in literature and not necessarily in a suburban neighborhood.”

“We spend every day thinking about people, but all too often the people we are thinking about are ourselves. I believe that people are too quick to be self-centered and not quick enough to serve others and that needs to change…” reads the first part of Zoe Sauder’s essay. Hull said one challenge is getting the students to think outside of what they’ve been taught in the classroom for years.

“I think in this age of all the testing and everything that we have, kids are dying to do a project that involves their own authentic voice,” he said, “which by the way doesn’t mean just being flowery and writing fun stories, but really saying what you believe in which is, I guess, cliché, but it’s what the This I Believe project is all about.”

Of course, it is an 8th grade class, so there are one or two kids who don’t get into it.

“Mr. Hull has taught us a lot, but at the beginning of the year I didn’t really agree with his teachings because they were quite confusing and I felt that they went too deep — but listening to these essays makes me realize maybe I was too shallow,” said Teague Urban, after which his fellow students gasped and expressed shock at his admission.

Some of the essays contain very personal stories or experiences, which is partly why Hull waits until later in the school year to do them, plus he said it gives students an outlet and a way to explore themselves.

“These can help you form your identity, your personality, what you care about, and I want kids through these stories to be able to begin constructing or even continue constructing what it is they’re passionate about, and just care about something,” Hull said. “It doesn’t have to be a cancer-curing thing that they’ve written, but write about something you care about, and I hope that that inspires them to go out in the world and look at stuff more critically and not just be so passive all the time.”

For student Natalie Daninhirsch that seems to have worked. She said in past years, essay writing was very technical, with the focus being on grammar, spelling and other mechanics.

“Once we started this year, we didn’t have to worry about the mechanics of our sentences or the structure of our sentences," Daninhirsch said. "It was all about putting your thoughts into words and writing them down and just trying to figure out who you are through writing.”

“If there’s one thing that Mr. Hull has taught us all year is that writing isn’t something you do, it’s something that you should feel and that you should truly believe in,” said Jack Lopuszynski.

Each year in late May, Hull publishes essays from each of his English classes in a book titled “This We Believe.” Each student can buy a copy, and he holds a signing party at which the students have a chance to sign each other’s books. Hull then has each student sign his copy, which he keeps as a memento. There is an official This I Believe Curriculum online, and essays are still aired regularly via podcast.

Other essays from Hull's Class:

Natalie Daninhirsch:

Ethan James:

Riya Yadav: