About Writing

Author: Lynn Jacobs

Summary: Students in a high school English Language Development class writing a book? Lynn Jacobs’ story of her students success can inform teacher study groups and inspire professional development sessions. For details about the project, powerful student voices describing the process, and ties to professional literature that help to explain how and why this was a possibility for Jacobs and her students, check out this inspirational article.

Original Date of Publication: Summer 2006


Something out of the ordinary happened last year in my Junior/Senior advanced English Language Development classes: my students wrote a book. I know and the students know it was extraordinary, yet none of us quite knows how to talk about it. As a result of book project, the students grew as a group and as individuals in ways none of us expected. While their skill as writers certainly grew, the more important growth was in their self confidence and belief in their own potential.

Most of the students in my class have been schooled in the U.S since early elementary school, many since starting Head Start at the age of three. They are pretty evenly divided between Hmong and Latino. This class, called English for Academic Success, is the most advanced we offer in our English Language Development program. All of the students tested Early Advanced or Advanced on the California English Language Development Test (CELDT). This level of students are those that some scholars call Generation 1.5, or Long Term English Learners. Linda Harklau, in Generation 1.5 Meets College Composition and Yvonne and David Freeman, in their book Closing the Achievement Gap list some characteristics which may be identifiable in these students:

  • They have been educated in the United States. They have seven or more years in this country.
  • They see themselves as bilingual, but only have academic preparation in English. Many do not read in their home language.
  • They often do not feel they have complete command of English, and use another language at home or in the community.
  • They have social skills in English. Conversationally, they could at times appear to be native English speakers.
  • Their academic skills are not as developed as their oral skills. They have a false perception of their academic achievement. (Caused in part by teachers passing them to the next level simply because they turn in all assigned work.)
  • They are below grade level in reading and writing.
  • Their grades are adequate, but test scores are low.
  • They are in ESL or bilingual programs, but have not had consistent programs.

Finding Their Voices

Publishing a book was their idea, which surprised me, because they had always complained when I asked them to write. To help them find their own stories, we read and wrote a variety of genres. We listened to the National Writing Project’s Rural Voices Radio CDs, stories about places people live. We read Quietly Torn, a collection of personal narratives and poetry written by young Mien women in the San Francisco Bay Area, and some poignant poetry written by a former student of mine. We also read The Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho, which is a powerful fable about the importance of following your dreams and listening to your heart. It was when we read Quietly Torn that they asked if they could publish a book of their stories.

We began to write often. Not finished, polished pieces, just different types of pieces. We wrote reflective essays and we followed G. Lynn Nelson’s suggestions in Writing and Being, for keeping a journal, writing for half an hour a day. (Or at least sitting quietly for as long as possible, and working up to that amount of writing time!) We wrote about memories of people who have taught us things in our lives, and about places we know well. We collected words, as Susan Wooldridge suggests in Poemcrazy, and we wrote poetry. We wrote “Twenty-one questions I have always wanted answered,” and did a metaphorical poetry writing exercise about where we come from.

Every now and then someone would ask if I thought we could really make a book. After doing some research, I found that the project was technically and financially feasible. This news, although exciting to me, seemed to puzzle my classes. They wondered when they would begin to write for this book. It was getting late in the year, and they hadn’t started it yet. Or so they thought.

I reminded them of all the writing they had been doing, which was sitting in their notebooks and journals and I asked them to pick one piece they wanted to polish for our book. They were instructed to choose a piece that was important to them, one which told their truth and which they wanted to share with other people.

How Much Truth is Okay to Tell?

Over the next two weeks, they talked and shared their stories. They agonized over which one to pick, and how to revise it. I have never seen such a flurry of revision. These students had always been insulted and burdened by the idea of even correcting typographical errors. Now they were eagerly reading and rereading their papers and each others’ papers. They looked for how to best tell their stories, and how to make sure they were complete and honest and clear for the reader.

John said:

Drugs are one of the strongest things that have changed me. They changed my ability to do things, like my thoughts. I did many drugs in the past, and lost a lot of brain cells. It sounds like I’m lying, because it seems like I’m a good boy. But my background is a whole lot different from your point of view. I tried almost all the drugs in around eighth and ninth grade. I drank beer, smoked weed, and took Ecstasy.

Karina said:

Last year, something happened to me. I found out I was pregnant. I did not know what to do. I wasn’t even sure if the father of the baby was my real love. I was afraid. My teenage life was over. I hadn’t thought about my dreams and goals until that day. Soccer season was done for me. Everything was ruined for me. I was afraid of how my parents and a special teacher were going to react. Well, I knew that my teacher was going to get mad, but I wasn’t sure how my parents were going to react.

Jorge, wrote a heart-wrenching story about his life and his family in twenty-one questions. He asked:

  1. Have I ever shamed my father or his last name?
  2. Will he get over his drinking problem and become a regular man?
  3. When will my mother realize that every time my jefito drinks he’s losing strength?
  4. When will my mother realize that if he keeps drinking he won’t be there someday?

While I wanted them to tell their truth, and to be clear about it, I had not expected them to be so forthright about their lives and situations. As the stories flowed, my incredulity grew. I struggled with how much truth to allow them to tell, and whether I should edit (or censor) their language. Does being the teacher give me the right to ask that their stories be changed? I struggled with this question in a conversation I had with Meng. When I read his twenty-one questions about living life as a “thug”, I was particularly disturbed. He wrote:

“Why do I see a thug in me?
Why do we have to be gangsters to survive through the ghetto hood?
What is so good about Bloods and Crips?
Why do my homies carry a Buddy 9-millemeter down the street?
Why is there hatred spread around us?”

I decided to talk to him about it, intending to ask him to submit instead another, safer piece he had written about his house. I opened the conversation by saying, “Meng, this is really scary to me. Is it true?” He answered, in his gruff, abrupt way, “Well, what do you want it to say? You can just change it to however you want it to be.” By this time he was sweating, and said he was really uncomfortable talking to me about this up close, moving to the other side of the room. I heard from what he did not say that this was his life, his truth. I knew in that moment that if I was going to ask for their stories, I had to be ready to honor them as they were presented. This definitely added an edge of risk to the publication of the book, but it also gave it a power and honesty that it would not otherwise have.

Putting It All Together

Realizing I needed help to put this book together, I asked for an editorial committee who would be willing to meet after school for a few days. Six of the quietest girls in both classes showed up for the first meeting. In the next two weeks, they read every submission, decided upon chapters, and titles for the chapters. They chose quotes from The Alchemist for the chapter title pages, and wrote an introduction. They decided upon the order of the pieces in each chapter, and noted which ones needed stronger titles. They decided to call the book, Love Ties My Shoes. This refers to the fact that tying someone’s shoes is an act of love, (think about who ties shoes for another person: parents for children, children for old parents, husbands for pregnant wives…) and once they are tied the person is able to go forward with confidence, without fear of tripping.

This project was truly a testament to the power of publication of student work, the way it validated the students and encouraged them to reach for their best work. Out of two classes, forty-six students in all, everyone submitted a piece of writing for publication. Every piece was as good as they could make it. Each has been revised multiple times. I believe it was the context of the work that drove them to revise so willingly. They knew their words would be read by others and wanted them to be right.

So, What Did Happen This Year?

In trying to discover exactly what worked this year, and why it did, I return to Harklau and Freeman and Freeman. These scholars all have suggestions for what Long Term English Learners need to achieve academic success. As I read these suggestions, I think about my class, and how our activities fit in with these lists. Harklau and Freeman and Freeman suggest the following:

  • Teachers should be aware of their students’ prior academic literacy experiences.
    I had taught many of these students in a prior year and those new to me were not new to the school, so I had a pretty good idea of what classes they had taken. Early in the year I checked the transcripts of the students who I didn’t know to get an idea of their academic backgrounds.
  • Teachers should promote academic literacy by exposing students to a wide range of writing.
    My students read many different types and genres of writing this year. They read novels and short stories, poetry and expository text. Some angered them, some they loved, but all generated discussion.
  • Teachers should help students develop critical literacy by talking about reading, by questioning, discussing, evaluating and writing about what they have read.
    We used structured group discussions as the main instructional device in reading The Alchemist. Students pored over the text, looking for interesting quotes to share and talk about. They wrote about what they had read, using textual quotes as the ideas around which their essays were written.
  • Teachers must recognize students’ diverse needs, emphasizing the importance of learning how to write, not what to write, and balancing grammar correction with instruction in rhetorical style.
    They wrote in many different styles, about their writing, what style they preferred and why. I chose to focus on thoughtfulness and depth of ideas rather than correctness, although in the end, each student edited their piece for grammatical conventions as well.
  • They should be engaged in a challenging theme-based curriculum in order to develop academic concepts.
    While these authors seem to be referring to content-based themes, we focused throughout the year on the ideas from The Alchemist on the importance of listening to one’s heart, and following one’s dreams. This theme was a constant in our classes and I believe it had to do with the closeness that developed among the class members. They seldom have the opportunity or permission to talk about those things, and when they could, they did.
  • Instruction should draw on students’ background, experiences, cultures and languages.
    The telling of their own stories definitely honored their background experiences and cultures. While only some of the reading did this specifically, the discussions engendered by the reading caused much talk about cultural values and behaviors.
  • Teachers should organize collaborative activities and scaffold instruction to build students’ academic English Proficiency.
    Collaboration was key in these classes. Thinking was scaffolded by the use of graphic organizers which were designed to support students achievement of higher-level thinking and questioning. Discussions and group art projects related to the reading fostered strong class collaboration, as well as did the overall excitement at being part of this publication.
  • Teachers must create confident students who value school and value themselves as learners.
    Success builds self-confidence. After the book was finally published, we had a publication party, and an art show in a local café, in which samples of the book were blown up and framed for public review. The students read their work aloud in to those attending the closing of the show. As they became known as the authors of the book, their increased self confidence was evident. For the first time they were being noticed publicly, and for writing, of all things! One student, Carlos, upon seeing the cover of the book framed and hung on the classroom wall, mused that he had often been in classes where great things were promised and he’d thought this would e just one more of those. He just shook his head, saying “I never thought it would really happen.”

I’m not sure whether I will take on another project like this one. Even though I followed all of the suggestions of Harklau and Freeman and Freeman, I am not sure the “magic” could be replicated with another group of students. What I am sure of, however, is that providing a purposeful, thoughtful structure within which to learn, even though it is only for an hour a day, can give all students a little bit of thinking space they need to experiment with growing into who they want to be. It just might make an important difference in their lives.

References:

Freeman, Yvonne, Freeman David. Closing the Achievement Gap. Heinemann. Portsmouth, R.I. 2002.

Harklau, Linda. CAL Digest. October 2003. EDO-FL-03-05

Pacific News Service. Quietly Torn. Pacific News Service. San Francisco, CA. 1999.

Wooldridge, Susan. Poemcrazy. Three Rivers Press.1997.

Nelson, G. Lynn. Writing and Being. Innisfree Press. 2004.


Related Resources

Original Source: National Writing Project, http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/2333

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