By: Arthur Kelly
Frame: In this resource, Arthur Kelly describes designing a family writing program at his urban Las Vegas school as a way of engaging families in the school. The article answers questions about starting a family writing project and describes activities he uses to get families writing together.
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2
To me, the family writing project is a place to get to know people better. It’s a place where feelings, emotions, and memories happen. It’s a place where you feel love from everyone, and it’s a place where great things happen.
—Elisa, 13, Fremont Family Writing Project participant
One of the most important benefits of this project for me as a mom is that I’m getting to know my children better through their writing. After we leave each family writing project meeting, we have a discussion about our writing, and anytime parents and their children can communicate it is a great thing.
—Shaunene, parent, Fremont Family Writing Project participant
Each of us who [has] participated in the project or who currently is doing so realize that we are a valuable and viable part of the community that we live in. We have discovered that we may appear differently in the way we dress, in our backgrounds, our upbringings or our careers, but we are not different in our dreams and our goals.
—Julie, parent, Fremont Family Writing Project participant
Seven years ago, I arrived in Las Vegas and soon found myself teaching English at John C. Fremont Middle School, an inner-city campus situated between the Las Vegas Strip and downtown’s Glitter Gulch. Like me, many of my sixth-graders were new to the city. They and their families had come to Las Vegas from Central and South America, Mexico, the Pacific Islands, and Asia—as well as from cities all around the United States.
To these families, urban Las Vegas represented a place to make new beginnings and to work at making dreams become realities. The city’s immense service industry, particularly in the mid-nineties, had job openings waiting for anyone willing to work. For the most part, these were low-level positions with long hours and strong physical demands: Las Vegas operates around the clock, seven days a week. My students’ parents, I quickly discovered, are as likely to work swing or graveyard shifts as they are to have nine-to-five jobs. Just as with a tourist’s long-shot hopes at winning a big jackpot, however, much of Vegas’s promise remains tantalizingly out of reach for the city’s new immigrants, who find themselves stuck in these low-end jobs, struggling with multiple work shifts and finding they do not yet have the education or language skills it takes to move up the ladder. At our school, the transient rate is rapidly approaching 50 percent, a number that reflects the dream chasing that new families in Las Vegas’s inner city undergo as a rite of passage.
Even in my first year at Fremont Middle School, I wondered if it would be possible to work directly with the families. It was a familiar chorus among some of my peers to say that it was nearly impossible to get parents involved in their children’s educations. I hoped that parents would become more visible around our school if invited for reasons other than discipline conferences with counselors and deans. Our parents, I already knew, work hard and have full schedules. I guessed that to increase parental involvement at school we would have to develop opportunities that were not threatening or directly connected to their children’s academic day and that held some intrinsic rewards for the parents.
It occurred to me that my most successful writing lessons in the classroom were those that gave my sixth-graders the chance to write about their lives, about their own experiences. Their autobiographical writing always resonates with powerful voice and compelling content. I had the strong suspicion that given the chance, their parents would produce equally great writing of their own. But besides my interest in exploring what sort of writings the parents and children together would create, I really wanted the families to empower themselves through writing. Our family writing project offered them a chance to punch an opening in the standard school setting and together say, loud enough for anyone to hear, “We are here, this is what we think, and we hope you listen.” Voice and identity filled the community around my school, but I did not feel that those voices found many opportunities to be heard. Occasionally our immediate community gained attention when a crime was committed or standardized test scores fell below average, but those stories just did not tell what I knew, based on my experiences with my students and their families, and what deserved to be told. I found myself angry at the selective picture painted of my school and neighborhood.
In my fourth year at the school, I brought my idea of creating a family writing project to Dennis Goode, co-director of the Southern Nevada Writing Project (SNWP). He immediately pushed me to bring the idea to Rosemary Holmes-Gull, SNWP’s director, who all but ordered me to create a proposal and a budget. Dennis and Rosemary grabbed onto my idea and would not let me back down. The continual support and interest of the Southern Nevada Writing Project has been a crucial part of our project’s success and has also promoted the growth of family writing projects around Las Vegas. Our family writing projects are not school district programs but rather are writing-project sponsored and organized. This fact is important because it keeps ownership with the families, rather than in the hands of district curriculum designers or administrators who might be tempted to measure standardized results from such a nonstandard group. I urge anyone considering beginning a family writing project to look within writing project sites for support.
Family Writing Project Design and Theme
It was October by the time I’d worked out details for the family writing project with SNWP, so I began the family writing project in January. For the past three years since then, we have met on five to seven Saturdays spread over January, February, and March. Each meeting lasts two hours—from eleven to one—in one of our school’s classrooms. I know of other family writing projects that meet after school or on weeknights.
The theme of our project, I knew, just had to be “identity.” The Fremont Family Writing Project, I hoped, would give us all a chance to think and write about our individual, family, and community identities. For the parents, this theme gives the chance to remember childhoods and write about their pasts, as well as the opportunity to define their lives in the here and now of Las Vegas. The kids, it turns out, love hearing and reading their parent’s stories and poems about their childhoods. And, of course, the kids are always enthusiastic when it comes to writing about their own lives and the challenges of growing up in Las Vegas. Our pasts and presents are not all we look at, however. We also dedicate one week to thinking and writing about our futures and who we will become a decade or more down the road.
The Artifact Activity. Included in the invitation and letters sent home before our first meeting each year is the request that each person bring along one or more artifacts that reveal aspects of their personalities and identities. This ice-breaking activity, which also becomes part of our first writing prompt, is important because it creates a sense of involvement with the group right from the start. Although some of the kids might know each other from school, most of the participants are strangers to one another.
Picture this scene from the first meeting of our most recent family project. Families are finding seats and sitting together but not really talking to each other. All of that is about to change with our artifact sharing. First to share is Julie, a mother who has brought with her four of her five children, ranging in age from five to seventeen. She beams proudly as she holds out a silver Olympic coin from Salt Lake City, a souvenir from the family’s recent trip to the Olympics. She also wrestles with several bulging family photo albums as her kids squirm in their seats, afraid she will show us some embarrassing snapshots. She finishes her turn by saying, “Family is who you are and what you stand for,” a concluding comment that draws applause from everyone in our new group.
The rest of the way around the sharing circle, children hold up colorful autograph books signed by friends, a game-winning football, action figures and dolls, and even dinosaur bones unearthed on a family trek to the desert. One mother holds up her nursing pin, representing her professional life, and yet another shows a teddy bear from her first date with her husband twenty years ago. Artifact sharing to this point is glorified “show and tell”; it gives us openings into each other’s lives, but it takes something more to make this activity a meaningful kickoff for our writing project. We need to reflect in writing to decide how this activity begins to define our individual and group identities.
First, we take five minutes to write in our journals. As a facilitator, this moment when parents and children first write side by side, as equals, is exhilarating. The prompt we use is simple: “In your journals, write down some words, ideas, or feelings that come to mind when you think about the items we just shared and the people we just met.” Some parents dive right in, their pens seemingly driven ahead by their thoughts. Others, though, sit hesitantly. It may have been years since some have been in a classroom, and others have quite likely never written anything to share with listeners. Silence falls over the room that moments before had been filled with stories, shouts, tears, and laughter. And, most impressively, it is our students, the children, who are leading by example, demonstrating the same excitement to write that they put into action in English class during the week.
Journal pages now filled with responses, it is time to read aloud. While we take turns reading, one or two students write down key words and ideas on the overhead projector. These short excerpts from our journals create a haphazard found poem, a poem of the moment. Here are excerpts from the group poem written by our third year Fremont Family Writing Project group.
The Family Is Important
The Family is important
In many different ways.
Some strive to be better,
Others play all day.
Emotional responses, promises,
Diversity, and always, the main idea—
Family is important to us all.
Everyone has something special,
Special to them in their own ways,
Everyone here is on the same page,
From different backgrounds, but we are here
For the same reasons, the children.
The group poem became a favorite of our group last year because they really felt that it captured many values and ideas that they held important in their lives. Two of the kids read the poem aloud at our school’s poetry night, and one of the parents read it at our city hall grant proposal meeting. We also read it aloud as a group in our second week of the project as a way of reminding ourselves of our first time together, and in the last week of our project as a way of looking back to our beginning together.
The Map Activity. Another activity that helps to define who we are is one we usually do in the third week of the project. We show maps that everyone has made at home and brought with them to school. The kids draw maps of where they live in Las Vegas. The adults bring maps showing where they lived when they were their children’s ages. On their maps, they include places and details that each thinks is important. The kids usually include main streets, local stores, playgrounds, and their schools. The parents’ maps show pueblos, rural towns, Pacific Islands, and far away cities that they may have left behind physically but still hold onto in their memories.
I’d like to describe several moments from the map sharing that took place in our project’s first year. Kimberly, a parent, put her transparency on the overhead and smiled at the map projected behind her. “I grew up in a little town just east of Orlando” she said, pointing to the simple map showing a couple of roads, square shapes representing several houses, and scattered trees. “Up here is my house, on about seven acres. We actually had a doublewide trailer. These are trees,” she said, pointing to tree shapes drawn like inverted brooms. “It’s different in Florida because there you actually have to remove trees to build a house; here in the desert we hope we can grow them!”
Her map showed where her first boyfriend lived and the path to the house of her childhood best friend. There was a field where she and her neighbors played football in the rain and a cornfield where her junior high school band would camp for three nights each year and “shuck truck fulls of corn for the corn festival.” Pushing back her hair, Kimberly produced a sheet of notebook paper and announced “I’ve written a little poem about it that I call `Memories of Youth.'” She read the poem that appears below.
Memories of Youth
Liquid sunshine and
Playing with friends
On beaches with clams.
Loyal pets and
The smell of orange blossoms
We picked during serious talks.
The smell of sweet corn
And hot butter,
This memory stands out
More than any other.
Three days shucking
Truckloads of that corn,
Camping out with friends
On sleeping bags worn.
Memories like these
Will be cherished forever,
Of being kids, young loves
Growing up together.
—Kimberly, parent, Fremont Family Writing Project participant
She finished reading and everyone applauded. Kimberly removed her map from the overhead projector and headed for her seat, wiping at a tear. Her map and poem had given us all a glimpse at her childhood, a childhood experienced far from Las Vegas. Like Kimberly, the rest of us were from other places, too. One daughter shared a map of a small pueblo in Mexico with blue rivers that wound to white geysers exploding in front of mountains. A son showed a map of his house and yard, a map he explained in his paragraph that he drew “because this is where I live and it’s where my dogs play.”
After this, we engaged in a discussion of our lives in modern Las Vegas, lives that are continual exercises in future shock. In the nation’s fastest-growing city, landmarks are swallowed up and forgotten, and our most recognized symbols demolished and rebuilt to suit the times. It is good for all of us to see that while the parents have valued memories to share, the children are creating identities of their own here in this city of growth and change.
The Photographic Activity. In another activity, we take photographs around the neighborhood and city, capturing images of places that we find important or engaging. In class, we sit in groups and share the pictures, and then we write about our photographs and our reactions to their contents. One of the most memorable photos from any of our classes was taken by a mother and daughter near the school. The photo shows three overturned shopping carts lying haphazardly in the street and across the sidewalk in front of a cinder block wall. The mother explained that when she first saw them strewn there, she realized they represented a “part of living where we do in Las Vegas.” Too many times when we see something out of place or disagreeable, like the abandoned shopping carts, “we have the tendency to ignore it and move on.” That fact of life in our community is heartbreaking, the photographer-mother said, because people from other parts of the city, “when they are in our little part of town, expect to see things like this, which is sad.” In our anthology, her daughter wrote the caption “seeing these shopping carts brought me a feeling of sadness because people see things like this and act like they’re not even there.”
Another mother wrote an entry in her journal that brought out important observations about the photography activity and the impact it made on her: “After seeing all the pictures that members of the Fremont Family Writing Project had taken, I noticed that all the pictures had a lot in common. Most of the pictures focused on family and religion. We may come from different families and cultures, but we all have the same concerns regarding the safety of our neighborhood. We all want to raise good kids and make them succeed in their lives and be useful citizens of tomorrow.
The Letter-Writing Activity. One activity we have used in the final week of all our family writing projects has been a twist on the classic friendly letter-writing activity many English teachers use every year. In this version, parents write letters to their children as though they will be receiving them ten years in the future. The kids, on the other hand, write to themselves, also ten years down the line. Our project’s previous weekly activities have looked at our pasts and have examined our present lives here in Las Vegas. This activity leads everyone to look ahead to unknown futures and lives. Predictably, the future letters bring out deep emotions and profound thoughts. In one letter from the first year of our project, a mother writes to her daughter:
I keep your first book of poetry by my bedside. Whenever I feel down or depressed, it gives me joy to read your beautiful poetry. I am so proud of you and of your accomplishments as a writer. I know you will be graduating from college soon as a teacher and I know that your students will love you.
In another letter, a mother writes:
If you are not where you thought you would be at twenty-two, do not feel bad or torture yourself. The choices we make along the way change our course and you help to chart the courses of others you come in contact with. Be true to yourself always and when you get the choice to sit life out or dance with it, I hope you dance.
Elisa, a girl who has been with our project for all three years asks herself a catalog of questions in one letter:
How am I doing? Do Nikole, Kristen and I still see each other? Are Nikole and I team teachers? Did we all go to the same college? Where do we all live? Have I grown any taller? I do hope so! Did we all get married and have kids? I am so sorry for asking so many questions, but I am very interested in how all of our lives turned out.
Writing and sharing these letters is always an emotional event, with parents and children hugging and more than one outburst of tears. The thoughts, wishes, and dreams expressed reveal hopeful futures on the horizon.
I hope that these short descriptions of some of our activities and the types of writings they produce give you some insight into the nature of family writing projects. In starting your own family writing projects, there are some practical considerations to make. I have talked to a lot of teachers around the country in the last couple of years about starting and facilitating successful family writing projects. It seems that at each conference or presentation, I hear many of the same questions, a couple of which I want to repeat, and respond to here.
First, there is the question as to how to recruit families. I begin the process by mentioning the project at our school’s open-house night. I have a sign-in sheet available and invite interested parents or students to add their name to the list. In the first year, I had only a few families sign the page. In the second and third years, the list grew in length, likely due to our successes and visibility on campus and in local press. I also look for students in the first quarter of school who really seem to love to write. When making routine calls home at the beginning of the year, I make it a point to mention the family project to the parents of those children. It is not a problem if your first family writing project is small. You can be certain that following projects will grow in size as word gets out and families from previous years join again.
This last point raises another question: What type of students do you want in your project? My advice is to set the project up for success, particularly in the first year. In my first year, I deliberately invited families who I felt would become excited by our work and demonstrate corresponding dedication. In my third year, I made it a point to pursue families who I might not have invited in the first year. I envision a time when I am leading family writing projects exclusively with families of troubled students or largely with families whose children have challenging learning disabilities or handicaps. However, I am afraid that if I had begun with those goals in the first year, I might have not known how to be successful or might have become discouraged when unanticipated issues arose.
One of the most important suggestions I can make is that you keep in almost constant contact with your families while the project is underway. Send home invitations, make follow-up phone calls, mail home thank-you notes after class sessions, and keep parents posted with plenty of flyers between classes. It has been my experience that at a school where parent involvement overall is low, I am able to keep my families from start to finish by making contact often. In fact, all three of our projects have actually grown in size during the time frame of our workshop.
Family writing projects have the potential to become one of your most rewarding experiences as a writing teacher. They do require a time commitment and the willingness to work with families in ways that go far beyond the typical after-school conference. Expect remarkable moments and highly thoughtful writing from your families, and you will not be disappointed.