文书季 | 让孩子学会与自己对话——Ming老师的文书指导故事

 Ming Hsu 美国常春藤教育 7月17日

编者按  8月1日Common App申请系统开放在即,Ivy Lab暑期文书营已进入第6周。今年,我们在纽黑文和北京分别开设文书写作工作坊,已有超过30位2019年申请者在这里完成了精彩的的个人陈述和加州系统文书。由学生导师、文书支持团队、文书终审委员会形成的阶梯式文书辅导模式,最大程度上帮助学生保留自己的鲜明个性。文书季故事中,Ivy Labs导师们将分享他们指导学生进行文书写作的经验与策略,更有当届申请者分享写作雷区,为后来者提供借鉴与参照。

结束春季差旅回到纽黑文,在新英格兰的漫天花粉中,我破天荒患上严重过敏症,还险些以为自己染上了结膜炎。而就在迎接过敏一整个月后,我迎来了Emily。


在那之前,我和Emily从未见过彼此,甚至没在视频里碰过面。我们的沟通,主要依靠微信中的定期打卡以及邮件里的待办事项和规划指导——Emily喜欢如此行事,明确而高效,这也是我对她的第一印象。之后的四方语音会议上,我们讨论了Emily的背景问卷,这是我们的学生指导过程中至关重要的例行环节。问卷里,Emily详细描绘了自己的高中生活。老实说,除了那天留下的会议记录,我对她所分享的内容已经没有太多印象,却始终对她的声音记忆犹新:真诚、沉着、韵律十足,像个精神抖擞的播音员。


Emily的冒险天性从她的人生选择中就可见一斑:一个广州女孩,放弃按部就班的公立学校生活,转而前往美国西部内布拉斯加州干旱草原上,一所小小的私立学校。虽然去年已经指导过她的一位校友,我仍对与她的会面充满期待。


亮色碎花雪纺连衣裙,及腰黑发修出层次,烫出柔和的弧度,再配上微卷的刘海——Emily的着装与发型和她悦耳的声音所勾勒出的形象一致:甜美、端庄又积极。但很快,在火花四射的头脑风暴和自由写作中,一些沉重的故事从Emily的记忆中浮现。当中有她在第一任寄宿家庭的压抑经历,有学校里公然针对她的种族主义言论,也有她随之而来的个人成长和自我认知的累积。这些珍贵的故事合在一起,给她之前完美但难免单调的形象增添了纹理和深度。


然而,真实的内核并非唾手可得。即便进展顺利,灵感多数时候也只是淅淅沥沥的小雨,叫人不可捉摸,仿佛新英格兰地区的夏季降水,变化莫测,来去匆匆。但当灵感之雨偶然倾盆而下,你最好能预备妥当储水容器迎接它。这也正是我们工作的核心——帮助学生攫取倏忽而过的灵感,换言之,激发他们的人生启示来敲门。

引导学生关注自己的内心,让他们反思和表达自己实非易事,更诓论他们也不熟悉这样的视角。我坚信人生来便有其内涵和创造力,每个人都有精彩而独特的故事;但难就难在多数故事处于蛰伏状态,有些甚至尚未成型。这些故事更像沉默的独白,无力表达却又想要被听见。


更糟糕的是,学校并不会教孩子们定期对话自我。而当旁人问“对”了问题,一语激起翻涌思绪,缺乏自省经验的孩子们也很难自如面对。不经雕琢的情绪固然宝贵,却也常常带着刺,容易使人一叶障目。假如引导者不能熟练地把握、缓和这些情绪,它们很可能伤害学生与导师,导致学生误入歧途,不知所措。


于那些没有经验的人而言,从日常生活中总结出意义简直就像镊子拔牙般痛苦而漫长——但对生活的升华,其实不一定非得如此挣扎。

个人认为,在陪伴学生发掘故事的过程中,指导者需要保持中立且自信的引导姿态。他需要熟悉学生的心路历程,却不为其中细枝末节所牵绊,也能在种种不确定和沉默中安然若素。为此,在和Emily一起探访她所不熟悉的内心世界时,我会用精心设计的问题作指引。我问的问题都很简单,甚至看似和文书工作不太相关,但这不代表它们容易回答;更重要的是,它们完成了使命。


“你最珍贵的记忆是什么?什么是你常常回忆的?”

“如果让你想象一幅关于自己内心的图景,它会是什么样的?”

“你离开家的时候,绝对不会落下什么?”

“什么食物会让你想起家?”

“你最喜欢什么歌?”

“为什么这对你很重要?”

……


一旦故事的骨架搭起来,剩下的就很简单了:在保留学生个人想法的前提下,修正语法错误,修剪杂乱的词句,梳理好时间线,充实故事轮廓,添加一些修饰。当然,一切都要顺着本身的故事线发展,毕竟过于功利地把叙述往既定方向推动很容易适得其反。做好上述工作,适度点缀上诗意和创造性,一篇文章的诞生便是水到渠成之事。无需刻意,故事线本身会带领我们找到意义的归宿,这一步一景印在读者心中的故事,也就是我们常说的“有记忆点的好故事”。


Emily的个人陈述正是这样诞生的。实际上,我们最后写了两稿,两篇文章在故事层面上截然不同,却同样表现出Emily平日里的个性:乐观,温柔,足智多谋,又不失对自我实现的渴望。

但“人生不如意事十之八九”,我们的写作过程也绝非一帆风顺。在Emily严重卡壳的时候,让她对着空白的Word文档干瞪眼,或是干耗在尚未成型的想法上意义不大。我会敦促她站起来,走出去——可以是去艺术创意节做志愿者,感受一下纽黑文市中心的活力;可以是在耶鲁美术馆欣赏毕加索、乔治·布莱克和马克·罗斯科的作品、寻求启发;也可以是和我一起制定访校名单,看看东海岸的一些大学,提醒自己勿忘初心。有时,Emily只是需要“换一下脑子”,我便会建议她在耶鲁中心的Hillhouse大街上溜达一下,这条绿树成荫的街道曾被查尔斯·狄更斯和马克·吐温誉为“美国最美丽的街道”……如此而是,不一而足。


很快,新英格兰的夏天不期而至,艳阳高照中,Emily在纽黑文短暂的18天文书写作结束了。随之偃旗息鼓的,还有我的过敏症。如今,重获新生的我已做好准备,等候下一批学生带着他们的故事前来。孩子们,你们准备好了吗?

Original Article by Ming Hsu

Exactly a month after I had gotten back to New Haven from the spring business trip and one week after I had developed my first-ever full-on allergic reaction (which I almost mistook for trachoma) at the mercy of New England’s pollen onslaught, Emily came.



I’d never met Emily in person. In fact, we had never even made a video call. By then, our communication consisted only of periodic check-in messages on WeChat and directional tips and to-do lists via e-mail, just as she preferred – clear and efficient. This preference of Emily’s also formed the basis of my first impression of her. Later, we had a four-way conference call to discuss her questionnaires (a procedural yet crucial step to kick-starting our service), where Emily tried to delineate her high school experiences. But honestly, save for the note I took of the meeting that day, I don’t remember much of what she shared. However, I do distinctly remember her voice – genuine, melodic, and composed, reminiscent of that of a peppy radio broadcaster.



The fact that Emily, a popular city girl from Chinese’s southern metropolis – Guangzhou, forwent her comfy and well-planned-out public school life, and chose to go to a tiny private school on the arid prairies of Midwestern Nebraska says a lot about her and her adventurous personality. Although I had already worked with a student from her school the cycle prior, I was still eager to meet her.



Bright floral print chiffon dress, waist-length straight black hair with loosely layered waves and soft curls on the fringes, Emily’s wardrobe choice and preferred hairstyle were consistent with the persona her dulcet voice had sketched out for me – sweet, demure and full of positivity.



Yet quickly, in between the intense one-on-one brainstorming sessions and guided free writing period, we were able to dig out from the deep recess of her memory many a poignant story, especially as they relate to Emily’s harrowing experience with her first host family, and the ignorant and flagrantly racist comments directed at her in school, as well as her subsequent personal growth and accruement of self-knowledge. Together, these precious pockets of stories added texture, complexity and depth to an otherwise picture-perfect but dull image.

But you gotta work hard for those kernels of truth. On a good day, inspiration only comes in drizzles; and by nature, it is hardly predictable. They come and go, just like raindrops of the fickle New England summer. But when they do come in a downpour, you better have a bucket at the ready to collect them. Which gets at the crux of the issue – how do we make it easier for students to access them? In other words, how to get inspirations to strike more frequently?

Original Text by Ming Hsu

Getting students to reflect by directing their attention inward is never easy, much less in a tongue they didn’t grow up with. I’m a firm believer that people are infinitely complex and creative, and that everyone has an interesting and unique story. But the challenge is that most stories stay dormant and are sometimes unformed. They exist more like a silent soliloquy, unscripted, but longing to be heard. To make matters worse, few school teachers, or parents for that matter, teach students the importance of periodic introspection, to say little of how to cope with the sudden swelling of unfamiliar emotions stirred up at the gentle prodding of the right questions. See, raw emotions are precious, yet they can also be deceptive and razor-sharp. Without a skillful guide to channel them and blunt their edges, they can easily cut both ways and often end up leading students astray and confused.


For the uninitiated, extracting meanings out of our quotidian experiences can at times feel like pulling teeth with tweezers – a painful and drawn-out process. But the good news is it doesn’t have to be.


In coaxing stories out of students, the principal role of a guidance counselor in my opinion is that of a detached and confident guide, one that is familiar with the terrain but isn’t bogged down by the nutty-gritty details of a set itinerary, and is comfortable with uncertainty and silence. To that end, I employ carefully crafted questions as my compass as Emily and I together explored the unfamiliar patches of her mental landscape. The questions I ask are simple, and to most, they can even seem totally irrelevant. But it doesn’t mean they are easy to answer. And mostly importantly, they get the job done.



“What’s your most prized memory, or a memory you often return to?”

“Could you snap a mental picture and describe it for me?”

“What do you never leave home without?”

“Which food reminds you of home?”

“Tell me about your favorite song?”

“Why does it matter to you?”


Once the story is fleshed out, what’s left for me is simple – fixing grammatical mistakes, trimming off straggling words, playing with chronology, adding contours and colorful flourishes here and there, but always preserving the voice of the student (or help them find one if they haven’t already), while following the story arc wherever it leads us (planning too far ahead and pushing for a certain narrative can backfire easily), before tying everything together into a beautiful matching bowtie at the end to top it off. With some poetic license and a healthy dose of creativity, the story will jump right out at you. When done right, the arc always leads us to its rightful destination and will leave in a reader’s mind its traversed path – the cognitive remnant of what is more colloquially known as a memorable story, well told.


And this is exactly what happened to Emily’s personal statement. In fact, we finished two versions – diametrically different topics on the story level, yet both substantiated by the same personality traits that animate Emily daily: optimism, tenderness, and the unyielding desire for self-actualization.


But as with most things in life, the journey is not always a smooth sail.


On days when Emily was seriously stuck, it’s pointless to stare at an empty Word document and labor over a half-baked idea that never was. So I’d urge her to jump off the seat and go out – whether it meant signing up as a volunteer for the Arts & Ideas Festival to connect with the vitality of our creative Elm City, or getting inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Cubist still figures, Georges Braque’s concentric circles or Mark Rothko’s entangled color squares at Yale’s Art Gallery, or me helping Emily draft up a school visit list to check out some colleges on the east coast to remind herself once again of the reason she was here in the first place. But if she just needed a quick reboot, I’d simply ask her to take a stroll down the center of Yale’s campus on the tree-lined Hillhouse Avenue, arguably “the most beautiful street in America” per such literary luminaries as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain… Yep, you got it. Counselors gotta be resourceful.


Very quickly and unperceptively, New England’s summer crept in unannounced while the brilliant Palo Alto sun was beckoning. Emily’s short stay of 18 days in New Haven had finally come to an end.


Meanwhile, my allergy had also died down. Now, I stand refreshed and eager to welcome my next cohort of students to New Haven to hear them out. Are you ready?

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