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Teacher Tips and Answers

Prewriting for Personal Essays

The word recall means exactly what it says: "call a memory back into mind." The word recollect is much the same: "collect memories again." Even the word remember means "put the parts back together again." So, the first part of the process of writing a personal essay is calling back and collecting and reassembling the many memories you have of key periods in your life. You'll start by selecting a specific period to explore.

Prewriting to Collect Memories

One way to think about important times in your life is to connect them to the person that you are. A gathering grid can help. First, you'll create quick descriptions of yourself, outlining who you are. Then, for each description, you'll tell what happened that made you that way. Afterward, you can write a sentence reflecting on the time period that you'd like to write about.



When I Became This Way

How I Became This Way


Lean and lanky

The summer I grew 2 inches



Reluctant participant


Hating to lose/hating to win



Staying at Grandpa's house

Nothing to do but read Harry Potter



Moving from Silicon Valley

People thought I was smart, so I became smart


Stand-up comedian

Moving from Silicon Valley

Used humor to try to make friends/fit in


Anxious, but hopeful

Move to new school

Being new? Puberty? Don't know



Lifelong/since 5th grade band

Lots of practice

What time period would I be most interested in writing about and why?

It looks like the move from Silicon Valley has had the most influence. I grew two inches that summer—went from being a confident kid to an awkward teenager. That's the summer when I stayed at Grandpa's house and became a reader. After getting to the new school, everybody thought I was smart, and I started to believe them. I also started cracking jokes, trying to fit in. And I became anxious. It could have been from any or all of those things. Maybe writing about that time period can help me sort it out.

Collect memories and pick a time.

Fill out a gathering grid like the one above. Describe yourself and tell when and how you became that way. Afterward, answer the question about what period you'd like to write about. Make a copy of this Google doc or download a Word template.

Teaching Tip

This activity goes the reverse direction of the warm-up. Instead of starting with times they might like to return to, students begin with who they are now and then reach back into the past to find the significant events that shaped them. Occasionally, a student will stumble upon a confusing or upsetting experience. Make certain the student feels safe to write about such an experience if he or she wishes, or to write about something completely different.

Prewriting to Organize Key Events

After you have chosen a specific season of your life to write about, you should list the major events that occurred. A time line can help you. To the left of the line, write a time period. To the right, write a significant event that took place. Try to list at least four periods and events that you can include in your personal essay.


Packing the old house; movers take stuff to put in storage; drive across country


Staying with Grandpa while Dad works and looks for new place to live; grew two inches; tripping all the time; Goodwill shopping


Moving into new place, knowing nobody, reading


First day of school; people called me "professor"; people laughed at my jokes

Create a time line.

Create your own time line of events during the season you will address. To the left of the line, write time periods. To the right, write what happened. Make a copy of this Google doc or download a Word template.

Prewriting to Gather Details

When you read the sample personal essay, you probably noticed the many types of details it included: action, dialogue, reflections, description, and so on. A gathering grid can help you collect these sorts of details for each event in your time line.

First, you'll jot down the main events in the left column. Then for each event, list as many types of details as you can remember.

Main Events

Action and Dialogue

Sensory Details
(see, hear, smell, taste, touch)

Reflective Details
(thoughts, emotions)

Leaving San Francisco

Packing the apartment

"Box it or toss it."

Long drive over mountains/plains

Cool misty mornings

Exhaustion, tape screech, dirt

Endless cornfields, gasoline smell

Nodding, half-dreaming

Leaving the Bay for flyover country

What about my friends?

What will happen to me?

Sadness, isolation, worry, uncertainty

Staying at Grandpa's

Sleeping on mat on dining room floor

Going to library for air conditioning

"Doesn't know how long his legs are."

Talking front porch

Reading and writing

"See that woman? She's a spy."

Hot and humid

Singing into fan, chopped-up voice

Coarse fabric on library seats

Venus setting between houses

Ice cream melting down cone and arm

Everything is peculiar and old.

Everything is suspended.

Grandpa is funny.

Books are bigger on the inside.

Authors are like friends in the absence of friends.

Adjusting to new place

Setting up my huge bedroom.

"I should've tossed less."

More library time, more reading/writing

Puzzles in the basement, waiting

Huge rooms, hardwood floors, echoing

Old wood, old everything

Kids ride by on bikes.

Flat land, swamps, mosquitoes, sweltering

Money goes a lot farther in Ohio.

House is a trade-up from apartment.

Everybody else's got a life going on.

I'm here waiting for mine to start up again.

Going to new school

Three other Jakes in first-hour

Making friends with Jake Wade

He liked jokes, so I made jokes.


'70 era school, orange panels

Steps up and down, retrofitted ramps

Less diverse, less preppy

Stuffy classrooms

I was average in Frisco, but I'm smart here.

I was boring in Frisco, but I'm funny here.

I was a kid in Frisco, but I'm a teen here.

Gather details about the period.

Complete a gathering grid like the one above, listing as many different types of details as you can about the significant time in your life. Make a copy of this Google doc or download a Word template.

Teaching Tip

In the sample personal essay, actions, dialogue, descriptions, explanations, and symbols intertwine. Sometimes, one piece of text functions in two or more different ways. When students write their own personal essays, they should draw on many different types of details but interlace them into a smooth, true-life story.

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