By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
When students find their voice and understand the power and magic of words, they are capable of expressing a myriad of emotions: frustration, anger, sadness, joy, wonder, curiosity. Through writing, students allow teachers to gain insight into their lives and innermost thoughts. Through writing, students can also share their strongest memories, deepest fears and hopes for the future. And in classrooms where writing is shared, empathy, acceptance and appreciation for others takes hold. The benefits go far beyond academics. When students find their voice, they can often discover more about themselves and the people around them.
Stories from the heart
The fifth-graders begin with the words “I remember” and read their written memories aloud.
“I remember my first day of kindergarten, not letting go of my Mommy and not understanding anything because it wasn’t in Spanish,” reads one boy.
“I remember preschool when I had no friends, because nobody wanted a fat friend,” recalls a girl. As the students share entries from their notebooks, the room is dead quiet. Nobody laughs, rolls their eyes or doodles. All of the students listen intently.
Leading this writer’s workshop at Capri School in Encinitas is Judy Leff, a teacher on special assignment. She is modeling a writing lesson in the classroom of Sally Russell. Both are members of Teachers of Encinitas.
“Every day there’s a workshop that touches my heart,” says Leff, who conducts professional development on the topic of writing for Encinitas teachers. “Good writing speaks to the human condition. It’s personal and touches many people. At first, students may not think they have anything to share because there’s no dramatic story to tell. But once they understand writing is about small and ordinary things around them, they see there can be a story in everything.”
“Writing is a whole other world you can escape into when your other world isn’t so good,” explains Cameron Christian in his notebook. “You can feel that excitement and adrenalin rush.”
Leff, a San Diego County Teacher of the Year in 2007, shares stories about her life and writes alongside students. She gives tips to aspiring writers: Pay attention to the world around you; write down what you see and experience; incorporate details both large and small. She explains that writers tell stories with words similar to the way artists tell stories with pictures.
Once a story is written, she encourages students to keep working on it and make it better. Documents are stored on their Google Docs accounts. They can work from home and communicate with each other during the writing process via the website. Students have also recorded their essays as podcasts.
Leff’s workshops are based on the UC Berkeley National Writing Project model, which emphasizes “authentic writing” as a way to bring students out of their shells and find joy in self-expression while learning the basics of writing. The workshops are also designed to help develop a sense of community, where students give each other constructive feedback and feel safe to take risks in an atmosphere of trust.
The community-building strategy works. A Hispanic boy, recounting how he was forced to speak English as a child, bursts into tears while reading his poignant memory. Many call him brave and compliment him on his good writing and moving story.
Inspiring English learners to become writers is rewarding for Leff, who holds evening writer’s workshops for parents and children together. She has been a mentor teacher and a fellow with the San Diego Writing Project at UC San Diego.
“I love this,” she says. “It’s a journey for students to see and understand themselves as writers. And it’s also a journey for me.”
Who am I?
Assuming an identity isn’t an easy thing at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, where students say others categorize them by skin color, hair texture or the way they speak. So when English teacher Marlene Carter asks students to do a writing exercise describing how they see themselves in terms of racial or ethnic identity, it opens the door for discussion about stereotypes and misconceptions.
A few students tell their teacher that it’s difficult to be so candid. Classmates offer words of encouragement. “We’re not judging you,” they say smiling. “Go ahead, read it.”
“I think of me and my friends as brown,” Kelcie Davis says, eyes locked on her paper. “If you look at a color chart or a box of crayons, you see several shades of brown. You see dark brown, light brown, caramel and tan. I don’t think of myself as black. Most people are a mixture of races; the outcome is the color brown.”
“I like to be identified as black,” Taylor Phillips reads. “I am not from Africa. I have never been to Africa and either have my parents. So why should I consider myself African American?”
“I call myself Latino or Hispanic,” Luis Cabrera reads nervously. “Most everyone calls me Mexican and it’s an assumption based on ignorance. I think people need to understand that there are other countries besides Mexico where people speak Spanish.”
Enrolled in a “support class” for AP English, students practice academic writing to pass the AP exam, but also experiment with other types of writing. Carter, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles, is co-director for the California Writing Project and leads a study group on issues of “race in the classroom” for the UCLA Writing Project. At Dorsey High School, located in inner-city Los Angeles, the National Board Certified teacher often asks her students to write about race in a positive way and to share their works in the “author’s chair” reading aloud.
“Racial tensions, both inside and outside of the classroom, can impact student learning,” says Carter. “By writing about matters of race and identity, it can increase understanding, lessen the tension and be part of a rigorous, standards-based curriculum that will prepare them for college. It’s a matter of empowering them. Writing empowers students to voice their opinions. People who don’t write well lose some of their power.”
Several of her students from Belize are dark-skinned with straight hair. Their writing reflects confusion about where they belong in Dorsey’s social structure. Other students say they don’t want to be labeled African American or Mexican-American. They are simply American.
Cynthia Ruiz is often mistaken for being white despite her Mexican heritage. Her essay “Embracing Who I Am” reflects this dilemma: “I have felt like an outsider, realizing I am being judged and categorized. … They see a white female. Because of my skin color, that’s all they’ll ever see. When someone looks at me, they don’t see the Mexican woman I am.” The essay was published last year in Matters of Race, a UCLA anthology of student writings. Several of Carter’s students have had their work appear in UCLA publications.
Before the bell rings, Carter assigns homework: Students must eat lunch with students of a different ethnic group on campus and then write about it. The teens look terrified.
“I’m not comfortable doing that,” one girl protests.
“What if I don’t have much to say, Miss Carter?” a boy worries aloud. “What if I can’t fill a page?”
“It’s all part of primary research, and I think you’ll find a lot to say,” says the teacher. “It will be a new experience. I want details. Tell me who you sit with. Tell me about the dialogue. Describe people’s body language. Tell me how you felt about it. And if you can fit all of that into one page, it’ll be a miracle.”
Just their imagination
Joe Schaaf sits in a classroom at Korematsu Elementary School, but he’s also immersed in another world. The fourth-grader is writing a story about a Pacific tree frog whose habitat is threatened with destruction. Helping the protagonist fight for his life are two birds named Flip and Flutter. Schaaf, you might say, is “in the zone” where words are flowing freely onto his computer screen.
Other students are equally hard at work. Spencer Ault is writing about an arachnid that shoots venom from its legs and fights crime. And Kacey Hsu is writing about a mean girl named Priscilla who enjoys getting other girls in trouble.
The students are only fourth- and fifth-graders, but soon they’ll be published authors, inspired by Cheri Olmstead, who teaches writing for gifted students and also holds writing workshops for students after school.
“Their stories are wonderful,” says Olmstead, a Davis Teachers Association member and teacher for 35 years. “They are interesting, funny and exciting. My students know about setting, character description, rising action, climax and resolution. They have to incorporate all those literary devices into what they’re doing. And by the time they finish, they’ll be able to punctuate dialogue and know how to use commas.”
She is a National Writing Project teacher consultant at UC Davis and has mentored other writing teachers. She was praised by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell last year. Through writing, she gives students a voice.
Her students write and publish hardbound books with the help of online publishing companies such as Lulu.com and Creationsbyyou.com. They must create a “story map” before writing. Fourth-graders are told to write about a California critter on the endangered species list and how it is saved from extinction. Fifth-graders have more leeway and may create fiction based on any theme. Sometimes, to get their creative juices flowing, she’ll have her students work with clay and bring their main character to life via sculpture first.
“You can do anything you want — fantasy or real life,” says Chase Rowe, a fifth-grader who wrote a book about fishing. “I like being able to create another world.”
Olmstead looks at the work in progress and offers some advice to the class. “Show, don’t tell, to reveal character traits,” she says. “If someone is boring, show how boring they are, don’t just say it. Make them so boring the reader wants to fall asleep.”
Students, says Olmstead, don’t know they are wonderful writers until they are given the chance. “Sometimes they are completely changed,” she says. “They come back and tell me they wrote wonderful stories over the summer. That keeps me coming back for another year.”
“I feel like Hansel and Gretel lost in a forest with no end,” an 11th-grader writes. “My mother was never much of a mother to me. She was like the witch in the story. She would lift my hopes with lies and false promises, telling me I would live with her as soon as she got on her feet and that I would have my family back together. She was pretty, tall and full of a partying spirit. I crawled out of the cage and pushed her out of my heart, as far out as I could. I found hope in the arms of my father who truly loves me. Like Hansel and Gretel, I found my way home.”
Writing personal diary entries is part of being a “freedom writer” in Giovanni Torres’ AVID class at Bell Gardens High School, where his students research a fairy tale and connect it with their own lives. The exercise allows them to share poignant memories, get in touch with their inner feelings, and give Torres some insight about what makes them tick — even though entries are e-mailed to him anonymously. But the purpose of journal writing is not just about finding one’s self, says Torres. Hopefully it will lead students to embrace higher education and become contributing, compassionate members of society.
Two years ago, Torres was one of 28 teachers selected from among 10,000 applicants by the Freedom Writers Foundation to work with Erin Gruwell. In the film Freedom Writers, Hilary Swank portrayed Gruwell, a brand-new teacher in Long Beach facing a diverse classroom of at-risk teens who showed no interest in school. When Gruwell discovered they were surrounded by violence, she interested them in reading Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl, took them to visit the Holocaust Museum, and eventually arranged a visit by Miep Gies, the courageous woman who hid the Frank family in her attic. Her students’ diaries described drug use, violence and struggles with physical and mental abuse. Eventually their stories were published — and 1 million copies of The Freedom Writers Diary have been sold. Many of Gruwell’s students went on to graduate from college and become success stories.
Torres’ students have many of the same issues facing the original Freedom Writers and also keep diaries telling of their daily struggles living in poverty, broken homes and violent surroundings. Torres, a Montebello Teachers Association member, also has them write about tolerance, which has helped unify the classroom. Some of his classes’ best entries over the past two years will soon be published and housed in the school’s library. A personal entry from Torres was recently published in Teaching Hope: Stories from The Freedom Writer Teachers and Erin Gruwell.
“Writing as a growth tool prepares them for applying to colleges and writing personal statements,” says Torres. “Kids come into my classroom hating to write and leave as confident writers who like writing. I love knowing I’ve given them an outlet as well as the opportunity to become the writers they’re destined to be.”
It’s 100 degrees and lunchtime at Roosevelt High School in Fresno. The loudspeaker blasts announcements throughout the campus every few minutes about tryouts for sports teams or students who should report to the principal’s office. One at a time, students enter a classroom with food piled on trays or stuffed into brown bags. They huddle around a table and eat without much conversation. After a few minutes, they fish papers out of backpacks and folders, clear their throats and prepare to bare their souls.
It may be an odd setting, but the Creative Writing Group has come to order inside Megan Bohigian’s classroom. Between broadcasts on the loudspeaker, students share their work. Tenth-grader Der Xiong reads a poem she has written titled “Mom’s Lost Tears”:
She walks in,
A moment of silence,
Her face hung low,
Watery eyes, ready to drip.
“That’s a beautiful poem and a beautiful start,” says Bohigian, an English teacher and Fresno Teachers Association member. “The rhythm is huge in that. There’s a lot of feeling in that poem.”
Bohigian, a fellow of the San Joaquin Writing Project, is a published and award-winning poet. She holds an MFA degree in creative writing with an emphasis on poetry from CSU Fresno. Sometimes she creates poems about her students. She encourages students to write their own, although they may be resistant at first.
“Kids say, ‘I don’t like poetry.’ I ask how many songs they know and explain lyrics are a form of poetry.”
Writing poems allows students to relive events and emotions that have had a powerful influence in their young lives. It’s a vehicle for expressing teenage angst. Poems occasionally describe violence in the home and have prompted her to call Child Protective Services. Bohigian doesn’t grade their poems and she doesn’t judge them. Neither do students in her group, who offer support and constructive criticism when asked.
“Poetry is a way of getting kids to write about what’s important to them,” says Bohigian. “You learn about their lives, about their relationships and how they handle conflict. It’s all part of the human story. I have children who are homeless and in foster care. Our kids are living lives we cannot even imagine. For some students, poems are so personal that they use a pseudonym.”
Poems can help students cope. One student’s father died last spring of cancer, and poetry is helping that student to process the event.
“Some things are too hot to handle without the protection of a metaphor,” says Bohigian. “The right metaphor can help you deal with something far too painful to write about or talk about directly.”
Some of her students have had their work published in local periodicals, including one printed by CSU Fresno. Many attend the Annual Young Writers Conference at the university. But the best thing, say students, is feeling that they belong to a community of writers once they enter Bohigian’s classroom.
“Here, you can express deep feelings you are not able to tell others,” says Alice Pa, a sophomore.
“Writing poetry makes me happy,” says Serenity Marmolejo, also a sophomore, after reading aloud her poem titled “Silver Sun,” describing what it’s like to “live between worlds.”
“Usually I’m kind of quiet,” says Marmolejo. “I don’t fit in anyplace. But here, we all fit in.”