“Doing homework” by Predi is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
In this power lesson shared by high school English teacher Cynthia Ruiz, students write their own personal statements of belief. The essay pushes students to write about something that matters to them and helps them get to know each other on a deeper level.
I used to assign a “Letter to the Teacher” at the beginning of every year to get a snapshot of how a student writes while simultaneously learning background information. Being completely honest, this assignment is also an easy way to get the first few back-to-school days started when a 90-minute class period feels like 900 minutes, because everyone is typically on their best behavior and not talking much. Although I enjoy reading the letters, the assignment doesn’t lend itself to revising and is written only for a specific, one-person audience.
I know building relationships with students is important and a way to get to know them is through their writing, so I did some research to see what other teachers were trying. I came across the “This I Believe” site and immediately liked the concept better than an introduction letter for a teacher.
The first time I assigned a “This I Believe” essay was in the fall of 2014, during the second week of school. I planned it as a year-long endeavor, something we could work on as a distraction from other essays required to prepare for state testing. This past year, I did not assign it until late April; it would be our last major writing task. I wanted to give everyone plenty of time to write but held them to a firm deadline of having four weeks to work.
This time, I crafted my writing guidelines according to those posted on the NPR site that hosts hundreds of This I Believe essays from around the world. My rubric still has some typical writing conventions, but overall I think it focuses more on student voice than structure. I made it clear that students had a lot of choice regarding both content and format. The biggest restriction came directly from the This I Believe site: a 500-600 word limit. I know a lot of writing teachers are divided when it comes to word count, but I figured it was still better than giving a specific number of required paragraphs and sentences.
One other requirement was that students use at least three “vocabulary devices.” This may seem like a restriction, but it actually supported student voice. Over the spring semester, we spent a lot of time reviewing both rhetorical and literary devices (anaphora, hypothetical questions, simile) and I told students to focus on the devices they genuinely felt comfortable using.
Helping Students Choose a Topic
Because the rubric leaves room for a lot of choice, I encouraged students to visit the featured essays site and not only read, but listen to real examples. I wanted them to see that this wasn’t just another run-of-the-mill assignment, that what they believe is important and writing is just one way to share those beliefs. I also made it a point to tell them our end goal was to share this essay with their entire class by way of a gallery walk.
After giving students time to explore the site, I had them “rush write” in their notebooks to see what immediate ideas they captured to help start the brainstorming process. Here’s the prompt I used:
This I Believe
For 2 minutes:
List words or ideas that you think about when you think of YOUR LIFE.
(Can be feelings, symbols, names, events, etc.)
After students generated this list, I asked them to consider what they wanted to write about and share with others. I wanted them to imagine a larger audience and think outside of meeting my expectations.
For some, deciding what to write about was easy and they began drafting immediately. However, the majority of students struggled not so much with what they believe, but how to write about it. Even though they appreciated having so much choice, they still needed some direction to get started.
We continued the listing strategy by focusing on “most memorables”: most memorable events in life so far, most memorable stuffed animal, most memorable friends, family experiences, life lessons learned, and so on. I asked them to focus on why they remember what they remember, and whether or not it impacts any of their beliefs. One student remembered a saying his grandmother always told him that still provides comfort as he’s gotten older. Another focused on her family not having a big house when they first moved to America and how she’s learned to be satisfied with opportunities instead of possessions. While this strategy helped a lot of light bulbs go off, it didn’t work for everyone.
Another strategy I tried was using involved sentence stems: I know I am the way I am today because______. I know I think about things the way I do because _______. I think most people would describe me as ______. I emphasized that these phrases did not have to be included in their final products, but should help generate ideas. I talked with a few frustrated students about this strategy and they told me it made them realize they’ve never really had to think about themselves in this way, but ultimately, it gave them direction for their essays.
Drafting and Revising
Because of block scheduling, I gave students about a week and a half to complete a working draft, which required having at least two paragraphs of their essay done. I only gave a portion of two to three class periods to actually write in class; students were expected to write on their own time.
On the day drafts were due, I set aside class time for revision. I asked students to refer to the rubric and focus on voice and vocabulary strategies. Questions I told them to consider were: Does this sound like me? Do I talk like this to my friends or family? I gave students the option of reviewing their own essays or partnering up with someone to peer edit. Again, this was the end of the year, so we had already established a pretty firm community of trust in class. I don’t know if peer editing would have been as easy had I done the assignment early in the year.
Overall, draft day didn’t feel like the usual “revising and editing” days we’ve had with other essays. Students were very concerned with whether or not they were making sense, if they should add more, or if they were being too repetitive, rather than only being concerned about capitalization, spelling, and grammatical errors.
Sharing the Finished Essays
The culmination of this assignment was when the essays were shared in a gallery walk. The gallery walk is my answer to having students write for a larger audience, and it really helps this essay become about what students have to say instead of just another grade. I can’t count how many times I have returned tediously graded essays only to have a kid immediately walk over to the recycling bin and trash it! Sure he read the comments and suggestions I made, or saw the cute smiley face I left by an excellent word choice, but it didn’t mean much to him because the paper is graded and finished, and he is now done thinking about it. With a gallery walk, not only are students thinking about what they wrote, but they have the opportunity to think about what their classmates wrote as well.
I printed each essay without any names, and made sure any identifying statements were revised. However, there were quite a few students who said they were proud of what they wrote and had no problem if others knew which essay belonged to them. Because not every student turned in a final copy, I printed additional copies of some completed essays to ensure every student had something to read during our gallery walk, instead of drawing attention to the two or three students who did not finish the assignment.
I placed the essays on different tables throughout the room and allowed students to move around as needed; some chose to stand and read an essay, others opted to sit, while others sprawled out on the floor to read. I played soft music and asked that the room volume stay quiet enough to be able to hear the music at all times. I didn’t mind if students were sharing and discussing, and I really wish I recorded the various conversations and comments I overheard that day: “Wow! Did you read this one yet?” “Man. Who wrote this? I might cry. Good tears, though.” “This one is life, Ms. Ruiz.”
I provided a pad of post-its near each essay and told students to leave POSITIVE feedback for each other. I provided sentence stems to help:
Something I liked…
Something I can relate to/agree with…
Something that surprised me…
Something I want to know more about…
I really think…
I periodically checked to make sure no one was being inappropriately critical or just leaving cute hearts or check marks. I wanted students to think about what they were reading, and understand that feedback is a crucial part of the writing process
After about 40 minutes, each essay had received multiple written comments, looking similar to the picture below:
Overall, the feedback was uplifting and actually created a sense of belonging in each class. Students told me they learned so much about each other that day and were shocked by their classmates’ writing. A few said they wished they had written this essay sooner.
Sample Student Work
I was floored by some of the essays I received. Some made me laugh, some made me gasp, some made me cry. Compared to the typical papers I usually assign, this essay allowed my students to not just think about what they were writing but to care about their writing and to be intentional in the language they were using, both in word choice and rhetorical strategies, because it was about what they believe. It is some of the strongest student writing I have ever received as an English teacher.
Here are some sample paragraphs from students who gave me permission to share their work:
From a student who told me he hates school and hates writing.
From a student who by all outward appearances, comes from a traditional family.
From a student battling depression and anxiety.
From a student who missed almost a whole semester but is trying to stay in school.
Although this essay helped end the year with a strong sense of community, I think teachers could easily have students write it at the beginning of the school year or even in January at the start of a new year. I’d love to hear how other teachers have used an essay like this in their classes. ♦
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This article is about the radio program. For the TV series, see This I Believe (TV series).
This I Believe is a five-minute CBS Radio Networkprogram, originally hosted by journalist Edward R. Murrow from 1951 to 1955. The show encourages both famous and everyday people to write short essays about their own personal motivation in life and then read them on the air. This I Believe became a cultural phenomenon that stressed individual belief rather than religious dogma. Its popularity both developed and waned within the era of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Cold War.
A half-hour European version of This I Believe ran from 1956 to 1958 over Radio Luxembourg. It has since been revived numerous times, first by Dan Gediman and Jay Allison on NPR from 2005-2009, and subsequently by Preston Manning on Canada's CBC Radio One in 2007. Essays that appear on the show are available free of charge at its website.
Since 2009, the original This I Believe programs have been syndicated as part of PRI's Bob Edwards Weekend.
The idea for This I Believe flowed from both the WWII broadcasting experiences of Edward R. Murrow (who had spent of the latter 1930s and most of 1940s in the United Kingdom and continental Europe), and the emerging Cold War hostility with the Soviet Union.
During Murrow's stay in London he had become a friend of the WWII British Prime MinisterWinston Churchill (who had an American mother and British father), and this enabled him to introduce Churchill to William S. Paley, who was his boss at CBS. During WWII Paley spent much of his time in London working in the Psychological Warfare Branch of the Office of War Information (OWI), which included redirecting the transmitters of Radio Luxembourg following the liberation of the Grand Duchy, for use as a black propagandastation (Radio 1212). Meanwhile, Murrow had "covered the London air raids from the streets and rooftops ...went on 25 bombing missions over Germany and broadcast from a British minesweeper in World War II." (See TIME magazine, Monday, September 30, 1957: : This is Murrow) This close relationship between Murrow, Paley, CBS and the British Establishment led to an offer after the War for Murrow to become part of the editorial diarchy at the British Broadcasting Corporation, an offer that was not endorsed by the BBC Board of Directors.
Murrow returned to the USA which was in a growing Cold War with its former WWII partner, the Soviet Union. During these years of the late 1940s and early 1950s, political paranoia involving a Communist conspiracy was flowing from Washington, DC and it eventually came to be led by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. Paley who came from a CBS/OWI background also became a firm supporter of the new Central Intelligence Agency after the War and allowed some of his part-time CBS newsmen to serve as CIA agents. His own Paley Foundation also became engaged in laundering money for the CIA and Paley allowed the creation of a CBS blacklist and Murrow was among the first to sign a CBS loyalty affirmation. (See pages 303-307, In All His Glory: The life of WIlliam S. Paley.) At the same time the Pledge of Allegiance was being repackaged amid controversy as a general test of American loyalty at large, and it was into this climate of fear and agitation that Murrow introduced his new radio program: This I Believe.
Murrow's style of presentation had been influenced by a teacher of speech named Ida Lou Anderson. She suggested that he should become more concise in his opening presentations on radio. Cesar Saerchinger, his predecessor at CBS Europe had introduced his broadcasts with: "Hello America. This is London calling." Murrow abbreviated his own opening remarks to "This...is London" and he soon began adapting the prefix "this" to many titles including "This... I Believe". James Earl Jones became one of many to adopt the Murrow style when he later announced: "This...is CNN". Murrow was not without his critics at CBS, and some of his colleagues had formed their own "Murrow-Ain't-God Club" (ibid TIME September 30, 1957.)
According to Ward Wheelock who wrote a preface to the 1952 book, This I Believe was launched in 1949 at a business luncheon of four men (Murrow being one, with the other three left unnamed). He related that the reasons for the project "were obvious":
...the uncertainty of the economic future, the shadow of war, the atom bomb, army service for one's self or loved ones, the frustration of young people facing the future.
CBS series (1951–1955)
The original five-minute series began at WCAU in Philadelphia and was aired over the CBS Radio Network and 196 affiliated stations between 1951 and 1955. The Program Director was Edward P. Morgan who told potential contributors that This I Believe was a "non-religious" program and that it was not a forum for one contributor to attack the beliefs of another contributor. The actual time allotted to each contributor in order to allow for the introduction, closing and sponsorship of the program, was three and a half minutes. Novelist Kathleen Norris refused to participate on the grounds that "It's either a mawkish sermon, or it's indecent exposure." (See TIME magazine, Monday, December 1, 1952.)
This I Believe was also relayed by U.S. government funding over the Voice of America and the U.S. Armed Forces Network to listeners in 97 foreign countries. The BBC World Service, funded by the British Foreign Office, relayed the program to Australia.
A print version of the show appeared in 85 U.S. newspapers where contributors were asked to submit essays containing no more than 600 words. The U.S. State Department offered these editions to foreign newspapers in 97 nations with which the USA had diplomatic relations.
In 1952 Simon & Schuster published This I Believe: Written for, and with a foreword by Edward R. Murrow and edited by Edward P. Morgan. Its cover stated that it contained: ...the personal philosophies of one hundred thoughtful men and women. Its sales were only exceeded by the Bible.
A cover description of its contents stated that:
...this book is the further extension of an idea that has already exploded into the most widely listened to radio program in the world. That idea is simple. It is that men and women will live happier and richer lives if they deliberately decide what they want from life — what they want in material things and the relative importance of moral and spiritual things. You, like most people, undoubtedly have certain rules by which you run your life. But, again like most people, you've probably never tried to formulate them, even to yourself. That's where the men and women in this book differ from you. They have at least tried to do so. They have "looked in their hearts and written," humbly and hesitantly, upon the invitation of the distinguished radio and television news analyst, Edward R. Murrow. "After all," says he, "the only way of discovering what people believe is to ask them." What these thoughtful people, in all walks of life, have written is here for you to read and ponder, and perhaps to emulate — in this collection of the 100 of the best of the personal philosophies of life which Mr. Murrow has discovered among the many hundreds contributed to This I Believe - on the air and in newspapers.
Radio Luxembourg series (1956–1958)
When the original American series ended, This I Believe was broadcast by Radio Luxembourg as a half-hour show over its famous 208 wavelength. It was described in programme listings as "the human drama programme telling of faith in times of trouble and adversity", and "the programme that brings you human drama and tells the story of people where courage and belief form an integral part of their life." While the 208 wavelength schedule of Radio Luxembourg was aimed at serving the British Isles with a commercial radio station format of American shows that were not provided by the monopoly of the non-commercial BBC, its actual audience covered much of Europe and beyond via its simultaneous transmissions over 49.26 meters in the Shortwave Band.
The first English language European series of This I Believe began on September 16, 1956 at 9:30 PM on Sundays under the sponsorship of the Co-operative Wholesale Society, Ltd. It was hosted by Sir Basil Bartlett who had a part in British WWII propaganda films. The script was written by James Carhatt and Nicholas Winter.
A second series began on October 6, 1957 and presented by host James McKechnie with research by Susan Franks and script written by James Eastwood.
The third series was hosted by Richard Hurndall and began on October 5, 1958 with a script written by Paul Tabori. This last series concentrated upon the lives of celebrities such as Shirley Bassey, Vanessa Lee and T.E.B.Clark.
The series was produced by Monty Bailey-Watson in London where it was recorded by a unique process on to the audio tracks of film strips for later transmission from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The final series ended when American originated talk shows that had been heard on Radio Luxembourg, began to give way to the increasing demand for sponsored record programmes (which could be produced at a lower cost for higher revenue), in order to satisfy the British demand for recorded music that was not available on the BBC.
NPR series (2005–2009)
This I Believe is a weekly radio series that began airing April 2005 in the United States on National Public Radio produced by Dan Gediman and Jay Allison. It was independently produced by Dan Gediman and Jay Allison from 2005-2009 for the non-profit organization This I Believe, Inc. The series invites individuals to write short essays about the core beliefs that guide their daily life. NPR aired these personal statements each week on their newsmagazine programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Sunday and Tell Me More. On the February 16 episode, Allison announced that "our series will be finishing its four-year run in April." True to his word, the NPR series concluded on Sunday, April 26, 2009. However, the series continues with weekly segments on PRI's Bob Edwards Weekend and Sirius XM's The Bob Edwards Show (see below).
CBC series (2007)
CBC Radio One began airing its own version of the show on May 14, 2007. The first forty essays were commissioned from prominent Canadians, including Julie Payette, Rick Hansen and Joe Clark, although subsequent essays are invited from the public. The show is hosted by former politician Preston Manning.
PRI series (2009-present)
In May 2009, This I Believe, Inc. moved its broadcast operations to the Public Radio International (PRI) program Bob Edwards Weekend and the related Sirius XM program The Bob Edwards Show. These programs feature a weekly This I Believe segment which airs first on Fridays on Sirius XM then on the following weekend on PRI's Bob Edwards Weekend. From May 2009 until August 2010, Edwards each week interviewed This I Believe, Inc.'s Executive Director Dan Gediman about a different episode of Murrow's 1950s radio series, which was then heard in its entirety. Beginning in September 2010, Edwards has each week been airing a new contemporary This I Believe essay, written by one of the tens of thousands of listeners who have submitted essays to This I Believe, Inc. since the beginning of their public radio series in 2005.
Compilations of This I Believe essays were published from 1953 until 1996. The books were translated into several different languages and distributed internationally. Edward P. Morgan and John Marsden acted as editors for the original book series. A record titled This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Ten Living Americans, with commentary by Edward R. Murrow, was released along with the original books.
In 2006, a new book called This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women was published. It was a collection of sixty essays from the NPR series, plus twenty essays from Murrow's original series. Another book, This I Believe: On Love was published in 2010. It collects sixty new essays from public radio listeners on the subject of love. This I Believe: Life Lessons was published in October 2011. It is a collection of essays on the personal beliefs and guiding principals in American life.