This I Believe: Hold On To Your Heart Song

The first time I assigned a “This I Believe” essay was two years ago.  I assigned it during the second week of school once I had my students set up in Google Classroom.  I planned for the essay to be a year long endeavor; something that we could work on as a distraction from writing other essays required to prepare for state testing.

This past school year, I did not assign the This I Believe essay until late April and planned for it to be my students’ last major writing assignment.  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.  I made it a point to tell my students our end goal was to share this essay with their classmates by way of a gallery walk. Also, I made it very clear that they had a lot of choice regarding both content and format. The biggest restriction I gave them came directly from the This I Believe site, which was 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.  My department requires that we provide rubrics for major writing assignments so I adjusted mine to fit the new guidelines; it focused more on student voice than structure.  

Because the rubric was less specific than my original, I encouraged my students to visit the featured essays site and not only read, but listen to real examples of This I Believe essays. I wanted them to see that this wasn’t just another run of the mill writing assignment.  I wanted them to know that what they believe is important and writing is just one way to share their beliefs. 

My classes shared their essays the second to last week of school by a simple gallery walk.  I printed the essays (some with no names for my shy students) and allowed students to use post-it notes to give feedback.  In 12 years, I think it’s my favorite writing activity I’ve ever had students attempt.  Many students told me they plan to keep their essays for their college applications and show their families.

This past summer, I attended the Heart of Texas Writing Institute hosted by the University of Texas.  We were given the opportunity to work on our own piece of writing and after thinking about it, I realized I wanted to write my own “This I Believe Essay”.  I began collecting ideas in my writer’s notebook and bouncing ideas off of classmates.  And I realized that writing about what you believe is HARD WORK.  It made me cherish the essays my students wrote even more.

So, in honor of my parent’s 46th wedding anniversary, I’m sharing my essay entitled:  HOLD ON TO YOUR HEART SONG: 

I live in a 600 square foot condo with my boyfriend and our 80 pound pit bull. Ironically, space is very important when you don’t have very much of it. Over the past year, I’ve worked on downsizing my life by throwing away, donating, or repurposing just about anything I own. When I went through my closet, I discovered I had clothes I hadn’t worn in about five years and stumbled upon shoes still in their boxes, never worn. I don’t know why I kept things I knew I was not using; I guess I tricked myself into thinking I needed it all. Purging my closet was challenging but didn’t compare to when I forced myself to sit down with my cherished tub of compact discs that had traveled with me for about 15 years. I found mixed CDs with original art from friends I’ve lost touch with, rough recordings of me singing for a former boyfriend’s band, and autographed discs from shows I forgot I’d even attended. I started dancing down memory lane and wanted to listen to each track like I’d never heard them before, but the only CD player I have is in my car. Hauling the heap downstairs plus taking the time to listen to hundreds of CDs previously packed away for years didn’t seem practical. Ultimately, I wound up taking a deep breath and tossing 99% of my collection into an 18 gallon garbage bag, and gifting it to our art teacher who’s always on the hunt for objects her classes can use in their next creations.  

Giving away sentimental items was easier than I thought, but after recycling the empty tub I realized that there’s no way to really get rid of the thousands of songs I’ve accumulated over the years. I know all too well that songs tied to heartbreak and hurting can cause just as much clutter as a box full of old CDs; they can be heavy and swallow space, depleting your oxygen and suffocating you with sadness.  But songs also have the potential to provide a much needed sense of freedom or a fresh start, especially when played with the windows down and the volume turned all the way up.  Understanding the power a song retains is the reason I believe keeping a heart song (or two) is more valuable than holding on to material belongings.

I believe a heart song is different than a love song. Love songs are usually shared by two people and are for cheesy hashtags like #oursong or for first dances at weddings. I believe a heart song is a song that others may have created or that others may appreciate, but it absolutely remains in your heart for reasons only you understand.  I found my heart song when I was around 8 years old, and I have my mom and dad to thank for showing me “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King.  (click on the song title, play & listen!)     

Growing up we took a lot of road trips as a family, especially to see my relatives in Houston. Our visits almost always ended with a late night drive home after my dad finished playing chess or dominoes with my uncles.  We would leave Houston as late as 1AM and I enjoyed staying awake trying to find reflective deer eyes in the woods.  But mostly I enjoyed listening to my dad sing along to the radio, sometimes singing “Stand By Me” to my mom. On those drives, the land would be dark, and the moon was the only light we saw. I was scared of getting lost because it seemed like we were the only car around and sometimes we’d run into thick fog. But hearing my dad sing “No I won’t be afraid” was like being wrapped up in a warm blanket.  I felt safe because I had this peace of mind that my parents were always going to stand by and protect me and our family no matter what.  I clung to the words “No I won’t be afraid” even though I had no real experience of knowing how confusing and hurtful life could be since I was still pretty young.  As an adult, I continue to cling to these words and I cling to my parents as much as I can.  I know they’re only a text, phone call, or 3 hour drive away, but they seem to be right by my side when I think about my heart song, and I plan to hold on to it forever.  

When the night has come

And the land is dark

And the moon is the only light we’ll see

No I won’t be afraid

Oh, I won’t be afraid

Just as long as you stand, stand by me

So darling, darling

Stand by me, oh stand by me

Oh stand, stand by me

Stand by me

If the sky that we look upon

Should tumble and fall

Or the mountain should crumble to the sea

I won’t cry, I won’t cry

No, I won’t shed a tear

Just as long as you stand, stand by me

And darling, darling

Stand by me, oh stand by me

Oh stand now, stand by me

Stand by me

So darling, darling

Stand by me, oh stand by me

Oh stand now, stand by me, stand by me

Whenever you’re in trouble won’t you stand by me

Oh stand by me, won’t you stand now, oh, stand

Stand by me


One thought on “This I Believe: Hold On To Your Heart Song

  1. I am floored by your post that I just read on Jennifer Gonzalez’s site Cult of Pedagogy!! I just read excerpts of your students’ writing and powerful just doesn’t describe it. I especially appreciate the explanation of your process from designing the rubric to the gallery walk. I am in my first year as a NBCT Candidate for Middle Childhood Generalist and I am currently working on Component 2 where I have to submit Narrative and Expository Writing Samples over time. This article came right on time! You have a new follower. Thank you for sharing! Happy Holidays and Enjoy the Rest of the School Year!!


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