Friday, March 25, 2011

What Writing Project Teachers Do

I met Samantha for the first time in the stack of Holocaust diaries. While the other papers are at least a page long and often longer, her diary is about a 4th of the page. There are reversed spellings all over the page, I can’t decipher a few of the words, and the graphite is dark and smudged with the effort of the person holding the pencil and transferring her thoughts onto the paper. If I’m honest, I know that this paper frightens me. It looks remarkably like something my kindergarten son would write. It is the kind of paper that people put into my hands and ask, “what do we DO with this.” It is difficult to get past the conventions to the writer’s thoughts. And yet, what is on the page, once deciphered is disturbing, even for a Holocaust diary. She writes of rape. The alarm bells go off. “What do we DO with this.”

I talk with her teacher. He tells me that she is an “EC” girl who “reads below grade level.” He tells me that she is “an angry girl” and lets me know that he feels that her “anger has come out in this writing.” He also lets me know that though he has been able to get her to “cut and paste” or copy words from a book onto paper to answer a question, this is “the first time that she has shared her thoughts on paper” and his face is awash with his pride for this big step she has taken, his concern for her, and what will happen if this writing is “published.” What do we DO with this?

I meet Samantha one-on-one. She knocks quietly on the door of the empty classroom I’m using to interview students and I double check my list to be sure I’ve asked for the right girl. She’s not who I was expecting. He hair is pulled back into a short pony tail, her soft, baby-face cheeks stretch into a sweet, shy smile. “I’m Samantha” she all but whispers. And then she meets my eyes. Soft, brown and wary. Very, very wary.

We begin to talk about her writing. Here voice is steady and strong. She is smart and articulate. She tells me how important she thinks it is that these pieces will be published in a movie. She wants people to know what happened during the holocaust and she recognizes to power in her own voice in telling that story.

She also tells me how she doesn’t really like school, how she used to get in trouble in elementary school, and how there is “too much drama in this school.” But then she says, “I used to be in a lot of drama before, but I got my stuff together now!” I cheer and she sits up straight, beaming and says, with a quite confidence “I’m proud of myself!”

But then I ask her about other writing and she tells me that she just doesn’t write on her own time, that she doesn't really like to write. I think the interview is over, but I ask, “is there anything else you’d like to tell me about writing.” She pauses, sizes me up and then tells me about a book she wrote in 2nd grade about a “really, really sad, bad time in [her] life” that she doesn’t “normally talk about much.” She tells me how hard it was to write, but then comes back to that theme she had at the beginning of the interview. We write so that others know what happened, so that it can help them. The power of her own voice and her own stories have made an impression on this young woman and she is empowered, compelled even, to put both out there. She leaves and I think “What do we DO with this?”

Two days later, I go to the classroom to snap some pictures for the movie I’m making to publish the dairies. I see Samantha again. The articulate, animated, shy smiling, powerful girl is gone. She sits as far back in the carefully arranged backless classroom as possible, slouched down in the chair, eyes on her desk. Her face and body language read “stay back” and “untouchable.” Her classmates raise their hands in response to questions, chattering and whispering with each other on their communal quest for the right answer. Samantha remains immobile, staring. Her teacher calls on her. She slowly raises her eyes, sighs and smacks her teeth, looks back down. He presses her to consult the book. She slowly raises her hand to it, slams it open and flips pages with a feigned boredom. He gently presses her, telling her she can do it, then moves to another student. I wonder, “what do we DO with this?”

* * *

I recently shared Samantha’s story in a National Writing Project conference. Her voice, rang through the room as we all sat, looking at her writing. “I’ve got my stuff together now. I’m proud of myself.” Afterwards, an audience member said, “This is the real work” pointing again to Samantha’s writing. “This is what Writing Projects teachers do.”

Writing Project teachers search out all the layers of students and their writing. They look beyond what is on the page and into the whole child, and into the socio-cultural history that child brings with her. They recognize growth and change before the numbers can show it, and they help students to do the same.

They also learn from their students. They know that they don’t have all of the answers. They answer the question, “What do we DO with this” with more questions for the student, for the student’s family and for other teachers. They share the stories of these students and they ask collegues what they see in them. It is this constant state of reflective inquiry and collegiality that makes up a "master teacher" and the UNC Charlotte Writing Project has made that space possible for me and for my thinking teaching colleagues.

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