“Three Things That Matter Most” Student Writing Lesson

What are three things that matter most to you and to people significantly older than you? How do your responses compare?


Students will read and respond to the YES! article “Three Things That Matter Most in Youth and Old Age” by Nancy Hill. 

In this article, photographer Nancy Hill asked two groups—children under 7 because they have lived relatively simple lives and adults over 70 because they have decades of experience—to explore what three things mattered most to them.

In addition to finding patterns in the responses, Hill also discovered that we live among amazing people over 70, yet few of us know about their experiences. She realized that we need to reach out and learn from these remarkable seniors so their stories and wisdom don’t quietly disappear.


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YES! Magazine Article and Writing Prompt

 Read the YES! Magazine article by Nancy Hill, “Three Things That Matter Most in Youth and Old Age.”

Writing Prompt:

What are three things that matter most to you? Now, ask the same question to someone significantly older than you. Find out why this person chose these three things. How did your answers compare? Describe what you learned from the person you interviewed.


Writing Guidelines

The writing guidelines below are intended to be just that—a guide. Please adapt to fit your curriculum.

· Provide an original essay title

· Reference the article

· Limit the essay to no more than 700 words

· Pay attention to grammar and organization

· Be original. provide personal examples and insights

· Demonstrate clarity of content and ideas

· This writing exercise meets several Common Core State Standards for grades 6-12, including W. 9-10.3 and W. 9-10.14 for Writing, and RI. 9-10 and RI. 9-10.2 for Reading: Informational Text.*

*This standard applies to other grade levels. “9-10” is used as an example.

Evaluation Rubric


Sample Essays

The essays below were selected as winners for the spring 2019 YES! National Student Writing Competition. Please use them as sample essays or mentor text. The ideas, structure, and writing style of these essays may provide inspiration for your own students’ writing—and an excellent platform for analysis and discussion.

The Lessons of Mortality by Rory Levya, grade 7. Read Rory’s essay about her roller derby family and the lessons she’s learned from her grandma about living life our own way before it’s gone.

Time Only Moves Forward by Praethong Klomsum, grade 10. Read Praethong’s essay about how music is her magic shop, while her friend’s grandma Sandra takes risks, like skydiving, with a smile. 

The Life-Long War by Emily Greenbaum, university. Read Emily’s essay about how a former major petty officer who once lost his will to live inspired her to identify her own passions.

Wise Words from Winnie the Pooh by Amanda Schwaben, university.  Read Amanda’s essay about how her twin sister’s love for Winnie the Pooh revealed the most important things in life:  love, friendship, and having fun.

Decoding the Butterfly by Antonia Mills, grade 11. Read Antonia’s essay about how butterflies are like older humans—they are not seen for who they are or who they were but by false assumptions.

This Former State Trooper Has His Priorities Straight: Family, Climate Change, and Integrity by Isaac Ziemba, grade 7. Read Isaac’s essay about a former state trooper who lives by a code of integrity and loves his family with all of his heart, just like him.

The Phone Call by Lily Hersch, grade 6. Read Lily’s essay about how her grandpa’s living examples of empathy and kindness have inspired her to be an outspoken advocate for her brother Eli.

Lessons My Nana Taught Me by Jonas Buckner, grade 6 . Read Jonas’ essay to understand how to do a straight-up interview and why health is so important to his grandma.

The Birthday Gift by Charles Sanderson, high school teacher. Read Charles’ essay about the importance of leaning in, listening, and showing up at a student’s horse shows. 


We Want to Hear From You!

How do you see this lesson fitting in your curriculum? Already tried it? Tell us—and other teachers—how the lesson worked for you and your students.

Please leave your comments below, including what grade you teach.

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