Owning Their Stories: Teaching Memoir at an Alternative High School

By Amy Vizenor

On a sunny afternoon in May, I sat in the parking lot of Midwestern Alternative (pseudonym), a high school for “at-risk” students where I was interviewing for an English teaching job. Watching the high schoolers spill out into the parking lot to leave for lunch, I felt intimidated by their stereotypically edgy, alternative dress, style, and behavior. I also felt intrigued and motivated to teach in a unique program, as my previous teaching experiences were in traditional middle and high schools. With anticipation, I accepted the job when it was offered. When I met these same students on the first day of school in September, I realized that while their appearance might have been tough, they were just kids—kids with stories to uncover about the life experiences that propelled them from their traditional high schools to alternative education.

My teaching assignment included three courses: English 9, Composition, and Independent Reading. A significant part of the curriculum for the composition class involved teaching concepts such as the writing process, types of paragraphs, organization, style, transitions, audience, and conventions. Students plodded daily through these exercises, working diligently but remaining detached from the class and from me, despite my efforts to interest them in the content.  A couple months into the school year, I had coffee with a colleague who had created a first-semester course for college students on the topic of memoir—with great success. I decided to encourage my students to own their stories by incorporating memoir into my composition class. Doing so transformed the complexion of the class and moved students from making it through the daily grind of the course to engaging as writers with expertise and investment in their craft—writers whose personal stories were valued in the classroom space.

Alternative Education

Alternative schools and programs are designed to meet the needs of students identified as at risk of failure to graduate from high school (Carver and Lewis 1). Not all alternative settings share the same features; rather, they provide extra supports to their student population through specialized structures and personnel. Midwestern Alternative employed several structures to promote student success, including (1) an onsite, free daycare, (2) a no homework policy, (3) weekly access to a chemical dependency counselor, and (4) an informal relationship between students and staff, as evidenced by students addressing faculty by first names.

Adolescents may enroll in an alternative school by choice or by referral of their home schools. Common reasons for referral to an alternative setting include academic failure, truancy, physically or verbally disruptive behavior, chemical use, pregnancy, and mental health issues. Traditionally, the numbers of students of color and students with a low socioeconomic status enrolled in alternative schools are disproportionately high (Farrelly and Daniels 107). The student demographics at Midwestern Alternative reflected this imbalance. Currently, the percentage of students of color enrolled in the school district as a whole is 25%, compared to 39% at Midwestern Alternative (Minnesota Department of Education (MDE)). The district’s student population receiving free and reduced-price lunch is 37%, while 69% of students at Midwestern Alternative are enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program (MDE). Thus, the student population at Midwestern Alternative reflects a high number of both students of color and students living in poverty.

Though traditionally underserved students bring a strong skill set to the classroom, it is often neutralized in a traditional system. As Herrera noted, “More often than not, however, CLD [culturally and linguistically diverse] students’ assets are left untapped because the classroom does not provide a place for them to become part of the curriculum” (14). As the school year progressed, I realized that I was leaving student assets untapped by slogging through an old-school composition curriculum. I was teaching my alternative high school class in a very mainstream and, for my student population, ineffective manner. My teaching was a disservice to them and to me—despite my best intentions.

Memoir as a Genre

Born of the nonfiction narrative movement begun in the 1970s, the memoir genre evolved from autobiography and enjoys widespread popularity today (Kirby and Kirby 22-23). While the autobiography is often a birth-to-death narrative, the memoir presents a “slice of ordinary life” (Bomer 4). Memoir relies upon the author selecting one key event or a handful of events with the same theme and requires the author to grapple with all of the complexities surrounding the topic of the memoir. In writing memoir, the author uses the genre to puzzle through, answer questions, and make sense of their experiences (Kirby and Kirby 23). This notion “puzzling through” was one of the things that appealed to me about memoir. My students had had impactful experiences, but they had not taken time to sort though the layers and make sense of them.

Academically, memoir offers a rich opportunity for meeting standards in reading and writing using a medium that, in our current culture of reality television and sharing life through various social media sites, appeals to adolescents. While reading memoir, students might engage in literacy standard RI.9-10.3: “Analyze how the author unfolds an analysis or series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them” (Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Teachers could incorporate several writing standards when students are writing memoir, most of which are sub-parts of standard W.9-10.3: “Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences” (CCSS). English teachers can easily justify teaching this nonfiction genre as an avenue to reaching reading or writing standards.

Memoir in the Classroom

Inspired by the advice from my colleague to utilize memoir in my composition class and ready for a change, I planned for our journey into memoir. Included in my plans were framing memoir; reading memoirs and autobiographies; analyzing constructs of memoir; generating ideas through free writing and timeline creation; engaging in the writing process; exploring avenues for publication; and celebrating our success. From start to finish, we spent almost three months reading and writing memoir.

Framing Memoir

In January, we read excerpts from Bomer’s Writing a Life, exploring the history of autobiographical writing and the concept of writing about “a slice of ordinary life” through memoir (4). We discussed public fascination with peering into the lives of others and the insights gleaned from experiencing an event through the lens of another. We also addressed controversy regarding what constitutes “truth” in memoir, citing the example of James Frey’s expulsion from Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club for misrepresenting truth in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces.That example lead to dialogue about the difference between fiction and nonfiction and the percentage of  “truth” required for nonfiction.

Reading and Analyzing Memoir

After developing a shared understanding of memoir as a genre, we prepared for a trip to a large public library not far from Midwestern Alternative. Before the library visit, we reviewed how to search the library website for memoirs, each student creating a list of potential books to check out. When we had done all of our pre-work, we walked to the library so students could see and touch the books they had identified and choose one to read. Several of my students had never been to a public library before, and seeing the shelves of books stacked floor to ceiling was a novelty to them. Some of the students had their own library cards. For those who didn’t, I checked out their books on my library card. A few students signed up for library cards during the visit. The trip to the library was a highlight for my students. They were excited by the opportunity to choose what memoir or autobiography to read. Their palpable enthusiasm for checking out their selected books made me realize how little choice students might have in the materials the read and interact with over the course of a school year. There was something important about physically going to the library, too. It was an adventure and an opportunity to leave the school building. The impact of acquiring the books would not have been the same had I checked them out myself and delivered them to school.

Because of the no-homework policy at Midwestern Alternative, we used part of each class session for reading. As students read their memoirs, they analyzed the works in light of the following questions:

  1. Is this memoir a “slice of life” that includes just a phase or experiences in a person’s life, or is it a birth-to-death, chronological autobiography? What experiences are included in the memoir?
  1. Is the memoir believable and true? Do the experiences the author shares seem like they could have happened? Does the author write in a way (with details) that makes you believe him/her?
  1. Is the memoir reflective? Does the author tell you not just what happened, but how s/he felt about what happened and how it changed him/her as a person?

Ultimately, they wrote short essays addressing these questions and the degree to which the books they read fit Bomer’s definition of memoir as we had studied it (4). This analysis of memoir primed the students to write their own stories.

Writing to Generate Ideas

In addition to spending class time reading memoirs—both the ones they had from the library and other, shorter works taken from Ehrlich’s When I Was Your Age—we also devoted time to writing in a writer’s notebook. Each day, we completed “free writing” on a topic I selected or they chose. Sample prompts included topics like my earliest memory, my greatest accomplishment, something I didn’t tell my parents, an adventure with a friend, and my something I regret. We all (including me) wrote for 7-10 minutes each day. When time was up, we sat in a circle where people who chose to do so took turns sharing their writing.  I gave the option to “pass” for students who chose not to share. Time in the sharing circle was powerful. I think everyone recognized that sharing their writing required them to be vulnerable, and students were very careful with each other. In this writing and sharing practice, I saw the students create a classroom space in which all voices were honored (Herrera 14). I say all participants because the students honored my voice as a writer, too.

The day on which the prompt was “something I regret,” I wrote about an incident that happened when I was in fourth grade that later connected to my adult life. Matt Thomas was a large boy in my class who consistently came to school wearing dirty clothes and smelling of body odor. It was not uncommon for other students to make fun of him. One morning, before Mrs. Scanlan was present, one of my classmates sneaked into the classroom and placed a piece of dog feces under Matt’s desk. When Matt arrived, he was visibly upset, his face growing hot as other students snickered. Mrs. Scanlan demanded to know who was responsible. I had seen the culprit, but I said nothing. The next year, Matt transferred to a different school, and I didn’t think about him or the incident again. Twelve years later, I was standing in a check-out line at a stationary store when I noticed Matt standing in front of me waiting to make a purchase. My intuition that it was him was confirmed when he wrote his name on his check in scrawling script: Matt Thomas. In that moment, I struggled with indecision as my feelings of guilt washed over me as if the incident had just happened. Should I speak to him? Should I ignore him? What would I say? In the end, I said nothing, and Matt walked away.

As I shared this writing with my students, I noted how much regret I felt about failing to support Matt in fourth grade. To some degree, I revisited that regret and more when I didn’t speak to him as an adult. In revealing my shortcomings to my students, I showed them my humanity, my cowardice, and my shame. I was nervous to share my regret, and I was amazed by their ability to listen, empathize, and show compassion.

Another method we used to generate ideas was timeline development. Students each established a timeline of their lives, choosing events that were noteworthy and writing about them and the circumstances in which they occurred. As they considered important incidents, they reflected in writing about the meaning of the events, jotting down notes about the significance of each event.

The free writings, timelines, and other notes and reflections the students kept in their writers’ notebooks became a source of material to choose from as they prepared to draft their own memoirs. By the time they were ready to begin writing, they had much from which to choose.

Engaging in the Writing Process

In preparation to write, I had students review a six-step writing process: brainstorm, organize, connect, draft, revise, and edit and publish. They used computer-based, memoir-specific materials from the website Writing Matters: Writing Memoir to refresh and enhance their understanding of the writing process (Teaching Matters). As noted previously, students had invested a lot of time into generating ideas in class. To select their topics, students chose their top three ideas from their writers’ notebooks and completed a chart explaining the significance of each event. They shared their top ideas with a small group of their peers, whose insights they relied on to make the final selection. Often, classmates were familiar with ideas or stories from previous conversations, and they were able to make recommendations for the best material. Part of this selection process included consideration for whether or not the authors were comfortable sharing those experiences, as they knew that others would be reading their work. To their credit, most of my students did not shy away from painful topics, which included (1) finding out I was pregnant at age 14, (2) letting my mom down because I was high when she was dying from lung cancer, (3) getting arrested for possession of illegal drugs, (4) when my mom stopped coming home, and (5) immigrating to the U.S. from Somalia and forgetting what Somalia is like.

After choosing their topics, students organized and connected their thoughts and ideas by reflecting on the following questions:

  1. What is the key event?
  2. What happened before the event that will help your reader understand the experience?
  3. What happened after the event?
  4. Throughout the experience, what were your thoughts and feelings?
  5. How did the experience change you as a person or impact you? What did you learn about yourself as a person?

When students had completed their first drafts, I taught a session on improving writing using “show don’t tell” techniques. Students brought their drafts and participated in four different strategy-specific stations in small groups: use dialogue; use sensory language; be descriptive; and be specific, not vague. This task was one of the most challenging for students—to read, analyze, and improve upon their work. As they participated in the stations, they made minimal changes to their drafts. In retrospect, I should have provided better scaffolding to complete this writing exercise. It was challenging for them to step outside their narratives and identify ways to substantively change what they had already drafted. Instead of running stations, I should have offered more direct instruction and modeling of how to use the strategies.

Exploring Outlets for Publication

As students were drafting their memoirs, we started exploring avenues for publication, the purpose of which was to build authenticity into the writing experience. In the real world, authors write for a broader audience. Initially, some students expressed concern about publishing their work. They felt intimidated. However, as they researched publications that accepted student work and read student work published on various websites, interest increased. We found that many sites or publications did not accept work with the “mature themes” addressed in many of the students’ memoirs. In the end, all students submitted their memoirs to Teen Ink, a site that publishes online and paper magazine issues devoted to teen writing and artwork (Teen Ink). Teen Ink has few restrictions on the content for the work it publishes, making it a good fit for the memoirs my students were writing.

Celebrating Our Success

Final papers were due at the end of March, and all students self-assessed their work on the rubric I was using to evaluate their memoirs (Appendix A). Across the board, students were generally more critical of their work than I was. For the next two class sessions, we celebrated their success as authors by hosting a reading of selected excerpts from the memoirs for students who chose to share. We enjoyed snacks and invited other staff and students to join us. Students’ voices and stories were heard and valued.

At the end of May, we discovered that Teen Ink was publishing three of the students’ memoirs in one of its online issues: finding out I was pregnant, immigrating from Somalia, and being arrested for possession of illegal drugs. When I shared the publication news with the class, students were simultaneously incredulous and elated. Because of our shared experience of “writing a life” together, it felt like the success of one of us was the success of all of us. By the time the news of the publications arrived, we were in the last few days of school, which felt bittersweet, as our class was no longer; our time together was over.

Memoir in an Alternative Setting

While the genre is effective with high school students in general, there are three inter-related reasons why memoir is particularly significant for alternative high school students. First, connecting with their experiences through memoir empowers students by encouraging them to overcome shame and own their stories. Second, memoir aligns with several tenets of culturally responsive teaching. Third, writing memoir puts the student in the role of expert, setting up the student for success.

Overcoming Shame and Owning Their Stories

Whether they came to the alternative site by choice or by force, many students attending alternative schools have had challenging and possibly damaging life experiences that have interfered with their potential for success in a traditional school setting. As noted by Monroe, “Schools present many opportunities for children to feel a sense of weakness or failure. When children see themselves as deficient or having failed in some way, they experience a sense of shame” (58). Many, if not all, of the adolescents at Midwestern Alternative perceived themselves as having failed in their home schools. While in reality their home schools may have failed them, the students carried a sense of school failure and, in turn, shame. In her book titled Rising Strong, researcher Brené Brown asserted, “You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness” (45). One of my goals for engaging students in writing memoirs was to help them process, reflect on, and walk inside their stories. In the pre-writing phase, students analyzed the events about which they were writing at length. Many of the events students chose were shameful to them—things most didn’t share out loud. On the rare occasion that students did talk about the circumstances that brought them to the alternative high school, they often did so with bravado, in a boastful, posturing manner in an attempt to mask the hurt that accompanied these experiences. However, when invited to engage in honest reflection about these events, many of the students revealed the pain and loss they felt. In bringing their stories out of the shadows and uncovering them for what they were, students found their worth, saw their resilience, and experienced success.

Alignment with Culturally Responsive Teaching

Asserting that meeting the needs of CLD students requires more than “good intentions,” Herrera identified several key components of culturally responsive teaching well addressed by incorporating students’ biographies into the classroom: (1) appreciating students’ and families’ “ways of being,” (2) constructing a classroom space in which all voices are honored, and (3) establishing classroom “ecologies” that demonstrate care and respect for all students’ backgrounds (13-14). As she described the importance of acknowledging CLD students’ experiences, she noted: “When educators work to move beyond the status quo, CLD students’ biographies, knowledge, and Discourse are valued and utilized beyond superficial attempts to ‘celebrate’ students’ culture and language” (14). Kirby and Kirby echoed this sentiment, explaining that inherent in memoir is a respect for difference and “transformative” opportunities related to cultural and ethnic diversity (24).

Memoir functioned as a vehicle for bringing students’ backgrounds, cultures, language, and ways of being to the forefront of the curriculum. Some of the students’ choices regarding the memoirs they checked out from the library were identity-driven; they selected works by authors whose cultural or linguistic identities aligned with their own. In doing so, they found mentors—like individuals who had navigated unique or challenging experiences, reflected on them, and learned from them. As students wrote their memoirs, they their experiences and the ways they framed those experiences became the curriculum. They each saw themselves represented in the classroom as they wrote about events in their writers’ notebooks, eventually choosing one theme or incident to unpack in their memoirs.

The Role of Expert in the Classroom

Kirby and Kirby explained, “When students write about their lives, they encounter a rare opportunity in formal education to know more about a topic than do their teachers” (24). This aspect of memoir was central for the students at Midwestern Alternative. For many of them, school was a place where they were far from expert. In their eyes, they were failures. My colleague once expressed that the students were so used to failing at school that they were almost afraid to succeed. However, one of the things they needed most to persevere through school was to be and feel successful. Gay asserted:

Success does not emerge out of failure, weakness does not generate strength, and courage does not stem from cowardice. Instead, success begets success. Mastery of tasks at one level encourages individuals to accomplish tasks of even greater complexity. To pursue [learning] with conviction, and eventual competence, requires students to have some degree of academic mastery, and personal confidence and courage. In other words, learning derives from a basis of strength and capability, not weakness and failure. (26)

In her book Pedagogy of Confidence, Jackson reiterated this idea: success breeds success, and students must have experiences in school in which they feel competent and confident in order to overcome the cycle of under-achievement (Jackson 80).

Writing memoirs enabled my students to experience success. The free writing exercises were key in building their sense of efficacy and accomplishment. They completed free writing knowing that they could not be wrong. They were the only ones with the right answers. Sometimes I shared my own free writes that were uninspiring and choppy. Though students never expressed it out loud, it seemed that me sharing my mediocre writing made them more confident in their own capabilities. I could almost see them thinking, “Huh. She’s not that good. I could do that—and better,” and they were right! When it came time to craft the memoirs, they were practiced and ready. Their incremental successes with free writing equipped them to write their memoirs.

I did not track my students’ academic journeys following participation in this composition class. I wish I had. In fact, as I was writing this manuscript, I found some of them on social media and caught up with their lives. However, I do know this: when we were engaged in memoir, students were invested. They worked (mostly) without a lot of prodding. They talked about their memoirs outside of class. They enjoyed learning. When I solicited feedback from students at the end of the year, many mentioned memoir in their comments, such as:

“The writing in general was great. I really liked writing a memoir.”

“This quarter I really enjoyed reading my memoir book so it made it easy to read.”

One of my students wrote, “What you teach sticks.” I hope that was true, but it didn’t stick because of me. It stuck because they were working with content that was meaningful to them. They were the experts.

Conclusion

Though my students at Midwestern Alternative certainly possessed ways of being, knowledge, and skill sets that they needed, most of the qualities they possessed were not valued in traditional schools. In fact, the school personnel often found these characteristics distasteful or inadequate—a detriment to school success. For my students at the alternative high school, memoir provided an avenue for promoting who they were by putting them at the center of their education. In this way, memoir facilitated their success on both academic and personal levels. Memoir facilitated my success as a teacher, too, by helping me see and appreciate each, individual student. Knowing my students changed the way I saw them and how well I could teach them. Being known changed the way students saw me, and they were willing to think, to try, and to risk. Because they were willing to write, students gained perspective and took back some of the power those perceived failures held over them. Because they were willing to write, they owned their stories.

Works Cited

Bomer, Katherine. Writing a Life: Teaching Memoir to Sharpen Insight, Shape Meaning and Triumph Over Tests. Heinemann, 2005.

Brown, Brené. Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Random House, 2015.

Carver, Priscilla Rouse, and Laurie Lewis. Alternative Schools and Programs for Public School Students At Risk of Educational Failure: 2007–08 (NCES 2010–026). U.S. Department of Education, National Center forEducation Statistics. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2010.

Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative. “English Language Arts Standards.” 2018, http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/. Accessed 3 May 2018.

Erlich, Amy, editor. When I Was Your Age Volume One: Original Stories about Growing Up. Candlewick Press, 2001.

Farrelly, Susan Glassett, and Erika Daniels. “Understanding Alternative Education: A Mixed Methods Examination of Student Experiences.” NCPEA Education Leadership Review of Doctoral Research,vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 106–121.

Gay, Geneva. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice. 2nd ed., Teachers College Press, 2010.

Jackson, Yvette. Pedagogy of Confidence: Inspiring High Intellectual Performance in Urban Schools. Teachers College Press, 2011.

Kirby, Dawn Latta, and Dan Kirby. “Contemporary Memoir: A 21st Century Genre Ideal for Teens.” English Journal, vol. 99, no. 4, 2010, pp. 22-29.

Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). “School Report Card.” http://rc.education.state.mn.us/#mySchool/p–1. Accessed 3 May 2018.

Monroe, Ann. “Shame Solutions: How Shame Impacts School-aged Children and What Teachers Can Do to Help.” The Educational Forum, vol. 73, 2009, pp. 58-66.

Teaching Matters. “Writing Matters: Writing Memoir.” https://learn.teachingmatters.org/course/view.php?id=122. Accessed 8 May 2018.

Teen Ink. “Submit to Teen Ink.” https://www.teenink.com/. Accessed 9 May 2019.

 

Appendix A

Memoir Checklist: If you’re done, complete this checklist.

_____ My memoir has a title.

_____ My memoir is double spaced.

_____ My name is on my memoir.

_____ I have spell-checked my paper.

_____ I have read my paper one last time and corrected any errors.

_____ I have followed submission guidelines for the website to which I’m submitting my work.

_____ I have submitted my memoir to one of the websites we explored (www.teenink.com).

_____ I have printed a clean and final copy of my memoir.

_____ I have scored my own paper using Amy’s scoring guide (below).

_____ I have stapled this paper to the back of my memoir.

 

Memoir Rubric: Scoring Guide (30 points)

In each category, circle the description that you think best fits your paper.

Vizenor rubric.png

Writing is Elemen‘tree’: A Visual, Auditory, and Tactile Framework for Navigating the Writing Process

Lyndi Maxwell, PhD

Abstract

This article describes how teachers can use manipulatives, visual aids, and poetry to help students navigate a process-approach writer’s workshop.  The workshop is presented as being analogous to how a squirrel navigates an oak tree, as the squirrel represents the writer, each part of the oak tree represents a stage of the writing process, each acorn represents an element of writing, and the harvested acorn collection represents the finished piece of writing.  A rhyming verse accompanies each stage serving as a reminder of what each stage entails.  The workshop includes the following six stages: 1) rehearse; 2) write; 3) receive; 4) revise; 5) publish; and 6) share.  Each stage is discussed individually in terms of: 1) writing activities; 2) an example of how to apply each stage to whole-class interactive writing; and 3) an example of how one student applied each stage to his own work as he transitioned from interactive to independent writing.

Introduction

     “I’m done!” “I already checked it.” “Nothing needs fixed.”  Writing time seemed to sound an alarm of restless third-graders hurriedly making these claims.  Discouragement would immediately set in, as I knew it wasn’t “done”, they hadn’t “checked it”, and a lot of things needed “fixed!”  I wondered why, even after modeling and interactively writing our way through the writing process, students consistently struggled to retain and execute it.  It was spelled out so clearly and sequentially to me: 1) pre-write, 2) write, 3) revise, 4 ) teacher conference, 5) edit, and 6) publish.  Where was the disconnect?

Eventually, the work of writing research pioneers such as Don Graves (1983), Nancy Atwell (1998), and Lucy Calkins (2003) illuminated my mistakes.  I had not made writing the predictable, recursive process that students needed.  Instead, I had expected them to take leaps and make assumptions that, without explicit instruction, guided practice, and specific feedback, are not developmentally realistic for third-graders.  Specifically, I had expected them to read their own writing, find fault within their own writing, and revise it into something that was “good enough” for me.  They had no conceptual understanding of the writing process, and I had been conflating my “teaching” writing to their actual “learning” of it.  In reality, our “writing process” looked more like this: 1) student writes something, 2) reads it to me, 3) I edit it and return it, and 4) students neatly rewrites draft, having produced a final piece that showed no noticeable growth from the original one.  It had become to feel more like my grade than theirs, and problematically, I had allowed it to become more of a transaction rather than the transformation I had envisioned.

My students needed writing instruction opposite of what I had been giving them.  They needed to write within a systematic framework to understand that writing is not a transaction, but a transformation in which they see their thoughts and ideas take shape and unfold.  They needed to understand that writing is enhanced through social interaction via peer conferences, teacher conferences, and also through individual reflection.  Most importantly, they needed to experience the sense of pride that comes with seeing how far one’s writing has progressed.

While the writing workshop I implemented is derived from the seminal work of Graves (1983), Atwell (1998), and Calkins (2003), it supplements their work in that it provides students with a predictable, comprehensive visual display of the writing process.  Moreover, it combines visual, auditory, and tactile modes of learning (See Figure 1).  For instance, students visually see each stage of the writing process, which provides a sense of comfort and understanding of where s/he has been, where s/he is currently at, and what s/he must do in order to progress to the next stage.  Students benefit from accompanying rhyming verses, which signify the writing expectations at each stage, while they also move a squirrel around an oak tree as a representation of oneself progressing through each stage of the writing process.  Please note that the intent here is to guide students in understanding the stages of the writing process, rather than an in-depth how-to guide to enhance the quality of students’ writing.

The purpose of this article is to share how in a rural Midwest, general education classroom  I implemented a process-approach writer’s workshop complete with the aforementioned visual, auditory, and tactile components to guide twenty-one third-grade students through the writing process.  A research and theory section first underscores the importance of early childhood writing and briefly describes the workshop’s theoretical framework.  This is followed by a description of the workshop’s conceptual model, and proceeded by the “Writer’s Workshop” section, in which the following six stages are discussed: 1) rehearse; 2) write; 3) receive; 4) revise; 5) publish; and 6) share.  While it is understood that the writing process is recursive rather than linear and not every student will progress through the workshop in exactly the same manner, in the interest of clarity, each stage is discussed sequentially in terms of: 1) the writing activities; 2) an example of how to apply each stage to whole-class interactive writing; and 3) an example of how one student applied each stage to his own work as he transitioned from interactive to independent writing.

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Dogmatism and Teaching Writing

Alexandra Glynn

The great writing textbooks seldom prompt aspiring writers to be certain. The ancients assumed that they would already be, so there was no need to discuss it. The moderns deride certainty. But how many times have writing teachers had to correct an “I think that the political atmosphere is…” by deleting the “I think”? And put a question mark in the margin next to “People generally believe in my opinion that we are all…” and the like? Fish states that the advice found in books like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which he sums up as “write short sentences, be direct, don’t get lost in a maze of piled-up clauses, avoid the passive voice, place yourself in the background, employ figures of speech sparingly” is helpful only as it relates to a purpose (37). So people learning to write need to know what their purpose in writing is, and what their audience is. But it is also true that the problems of long sentences, indirectness, masses of vague clauses, and the like, come from writers who are not certain of what they think, or what they are trying to argue.

Wayne Booth once illustrated the need to address root causes when he wrote of a man he worked with who had taught composition many years and who was “incapable of committing any of the more obvious errors that we think of as characteristic of bad writing” but yet this gentleman “could not write a decent sentence, paragraph, or paper until his rhetorical problem was solved.” In this particular instance, the rhetorical problem was that the gentleman had to find “a definition of his audience, his argument, and his own proper tone of voice” (139). Once he was able to be sure of even a few important things, he wrote wonderfully.

Nowadays, as mentioned above, a rhetorical problem is the lack of certainty. The creeds that laud lack of commitment are found in all intellectuals from French philosophers to Samuel Beckett, and even T. S. Eliot says, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time” (510). Thus the emphasis in writing studies in on exploring and being creative, not on understanding and repeating to others that which is true. Susan Sontag, writing about Roland Barthes summarizes his style as confidently asserting yet it “insists that its assertions are no more than provisional” (427). Not many people can be so unsure and still write well.

The problem of lack of sureness also comes at least partly out of the celebrated romantic ideology that “the act of composing is a kind of mysterious growth” that comes from the great well of wonderful things that is in each person (Young 132). Forsyth, in The Elements of Eloquence, notes this truth about the romantics that they celebrate the individual’s creativity above all else. He also says there is a notion out there that if “somebody learns how to phrase things beautifully, they might be able to persuade you of something that isn’t true” (4). So, I might add, the beautiful phrasing is left to the demagogues, hucksters, and charlatans who are unafraid of persuading people of that which is not true. But whether lack of sureness is from an over emphasis on celebrating the creativity that is in each of us, or if it is from a commitment to the truth that there are no truths, it seems to me it is still an issue worth discussing. I think perhaps even a student’s desire to cheat comes from being assigned a certain controversial topic about which one is not at all sure of anything.

In terms of teaching writing, when the dominating ideology is that we are never allowed to settle on an assertions and be sure of them, the teacher is to design “occasions that stimulate the creative process” (Young 133). What results, it is widely thought, is always worthwhile, good, and should be agreed to by all, even if it logically contradicts that which comes out of someone’s own well. Now, this can make for interesting compositions, all this creativity and experience-arguing, but is that the only possible way to teach writing? People are reasonable, or assumed to be, and when presented with two incompatible truths they don’t all automatically weave leis and dance around the oak tree celebrating diversity of thought. Mainly students get confused. And their confusion is reflected in how they communicate. They cannot write a thesis statement because they don’t think anything is true for sure. Alternatively, as writing teachers constantly see, they write four theses statements in one paper. Continue reading

“We Made it for You” — Spoken Word by Daniel Ellis

I’m here to speak truth.

I’m here to speak truth.

I’m here to speak truth.

Truth in the light of histories textbooks. That deny my heritage.

Truth in the light of men’s ignorance. Whom infringe upon the rights of those who’re indigenous.

Truth in the light of broken dreams. As they carried us in chains across the eastern seas

I wrote this to speak truth into the misguided, mismatched, misinterpreted, misread and misrepresented flukes they disguise as the truth of what they truly think I am.

To them I am

A “dolla dolla bill y’all”, a “Get money, spend money, f*** b words”. Another sound cloud rapper they can twiddle to with their screen tapping thumbs, not understanding I did it to promote my people and their message of struggle and pain.

Then claiming to love my “culture” and wear their hair in my fashion because they think it’s “high” fashion.

I am here to speak the truth

You CANNOT say the N-word if you haven’t been called it before.

To them I am

Those pair of nikes. The ones you cop cuz everybody thinks I play basketball and is good at sports.

To them I am the stereotype

breakdancing, rap loving, watermelon eating, unaware, ignorant beast of a man, who in the truth of it all is just trying to live his life like every human being.

I’m here to speak truth.

I get followed in stores. Not because the manager finds me so likeable he needs to be near me, but because of his racial bias he thinks I can’t and won’t buy that sweater on rack 15 at Forever 21.

I’m here to speak truth.

I am the constant criticism of rebellion. The moment I ask for my rights to be given freely and I say “Black Lives Matter”, they still devalue and desensitize. All because they’re afraid of what’s before their eyes. A revolution.

I’m here to speak truth.

They think just because of my skin tone, I should be in a different zone. They think I shouldn’t be here. “Go back to Africa”, they say. “We don’t like you’re kind”. “It’d be best if you didn’t speak your mind”.

When I hear someone say go back to Africa, or that they don’t need black people and say Blacks aren’t American.

Don’t tell me to go home because I will not stay where I’m not wanted . But it makes you think because they wanted us so bad they had to have a nation so in a sense they must’ve wanted us pretty bad? Now I don’t mean that in a good way. We didn’t ask to be here. On the Ivory coast home to the mother shore. Taken from our homes and land. Kicked and pushed. Grasping for return as we were dragged across the damp African sand. We rocked back and forth in a strange and alien place where we were corralled on ships like cattle. The restless waves as they rolled and battled. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Taken from our homes. As some were drowned in water.

Wail and wail in the enduring spirit men and women dreaded to hear it.

I’m here to speak the truth.

We came to a nation that wanted us only to build it for them.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Built on the backs of slaves, the nation of so called freedom.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Forced to believe in a higher power and made to forget our history. How can I believe in a god of the men that denounced my god telling me my God is now their God all whilst wanting me to believe they are God…. it makes you think.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Years of struggle bred resilience to pain. As we learned there didn’t need to be any shame of our pigment, and that it was better to live in it.

I’m here to speak the truth.

They tried to silence us by killing our leaders.

Malcolm X Martin Luther King. On those sad days did we truly sing. In the name of freedom sad songs that defined our people. I sing of the southern fields and slave ships that make me think of the sweet by and by. How I would always cry. Seeing Grammy Nellie tell me of her days in the south. Talking about the day she met Mamie Till and The way Emmett looked without a mouth.

Evil intentions for but a boy. All he had in his heart was joy. Where the days where hot in the endless sun singing spiritual songs of freedom. Some Glad morning when this life is over I’ll fly away… Like those black bodies swinging in the southern trees they too will fly away with the winds of change, all in the name of liberation.

I’m here to speak the truth.

Were so close and yet so far, So that’s why we must fight.

I’m here to speak the truth

You’re right, Black people aren’t Americans.

We Are America.

The fruition of strange fruit bred from beautiful seeds that blossom in grow in the harshest of places and spaces. Beautiful Black People who embody the essence of the American dream of progress, ambition and hard work that we made. We are the leaders who’ve climbed ladders and mountains to gain the truth of our struggle. Pioneers of this land. We the people have the right to have rights.

I’m here to speak the truth.

You didn’t make America Great.

We made it for you.

We made it for you.

We made it.

Poetry Selections from Joshua Feliciano

More Than Just Words

Poetry is like a song written on paper
It doesn’t always have to rhyme
It doesn’t always need time
You could make a poem in poetry about everything
It could take seconds and it can take hours
But poetry is like a way of expression
You can always use it when experiencing a side of depression
There are times when you are feeling down
Or maybe you’re just feeling
Up!
Poetry is a place of freedom

 

Life Before Growing Up

Look in all honesty I never had much
I grew up with enough food to survive and the entertainment I needed
But the truth behind it all is my mom shedding blood and tears behind it all
Even as a kid I used to sit and think about it in a bathroom stall
Can you feel my pain?
If not just know this constant pain runs in my veins
Everyday reflecting on what I did and why I did it
Sitting alone in the dark wanting to be a part of the darkness
All this pain laying right on top of my conscious
There’s a whole lot more
But I’d rather keep that in my core for now

 

A Message to Future Me

A message to future me:
Remember that time you graduated high school
Well now life is a bit harder isn’t it
Just keep focusing on your true being you’ll have this in no time
Remember when you struggle just think about your wife and kids
Remember the time you realized it was going to be extremely hard in the military
Well now look back at it, it was pretty easy wasn’t it
Now you have other goals to focus on
Focus on those around you and the ones that were there for you when you truly needed it
Drive forward because your life moments are not what built you to be you
You worked hard for this yourself
Now build from it

 

Sinking Pain

I see others being mocked for what they wear, oh it is too much to bear
Putting on a fresh pair of kicks, people think it’s to pick up chicks
Working hard in classes to get a possible good future, just to get bullied and get a few sutures
Paying attention to what people are saying, just to head home and keep on praying
People acting cool in school, when after the days over they sit around and drool
Kids coming to school unprepared, while teachers not knowing the child’s despair
I see girls wearing lots of makeup, when the beauty inside can raise the stakes up

 

Mother Love

The family photo just sitting there in the distance
Ripped up but not broken
Our family may not be so bright or wealthy
But forever we lay and stand together
We may be grown but my mother will always see us as her little ones
It doesn’t matter if I’m 21 or 50 my mother will always treat me like a child
I love my mother and forever will love her

 

Hope

I hope that I start a fresh life, with a beautiful wife
I hope someday that after I graduate from high school,
my life wouldn’t treat me much as a fool
I hope that someday these crayons I use will evaporate,
so that I could see what it looks like melted and elaborate
I hope that someday my children will grow, for my legacy I will bestow
I hope that someday I can rest easy, rest easily without feeling a bit queasy
I hope that someday the people around me will succeed,
so they won’t become alcoholics drinking tons of mead
I hope that in the light of day, my destiny will shine and lead the way
I hope that sometime soon I have a nice house,
come home to a good morning and my wife in a blouse
I hope that in time of despair, god will help us with time to spare
I hope that one night, god will give me power with all his might
I hope that one morning, I can die peacefully with plenty of people mourning

 

Government

We all know that in politics only one can be the winner
The smartest and bravest will usually be the sinner
This government we follow empties our pockets causing a bruise
These distractions we’re being attracted to are not only to amuse
Everything we’re brought towards to always seems convincing
One by one, each and every person’s information is slowly mincing
In this world, even if we understand a certain matter nothing seems to be comprehensive
Days and days go by and it seems to me everything in life gets more expensive

 

Life Behind the Scenes

Good ol happy moments
Just sitting back and relaxing
Playing video games that teach
So attached to learning like a leech
Reading good books and comics
For a person like me it’s a bit ironic
But a lot of people don’t realize my mind works like I’m sonic
On free times I lay down in bed watching Youtube
Watching videos about literally anything
Analyzing and researching everything
I may be a bit different but I’m very gifted
I help other people when times get devastating
I open up their minds with my words and usually have them contemplating
I am my own king
Living my life on words is better than living my life focusing on expensive things

 

Experiment 89

It was cold, matter of fact freezing in this steel coated room
I stood up feeling weak,starved, and dizzy
I walked on a floor that had sharp but little pieces of glass
I could not feel the pain being administered by these little glass pieces
I see a door close by as I stumble across this risky floor
I look through the glass pane only to discover other patients like myself being tested on
I see another within eyesight being mutated into some sort of creature
It was scaly, massive, and scary looking
Scientists begin opening the doors, patient’s run wild as the beast swallows them one by one
I make a run for it, so close to the door and “Gulp” “Crunch Crunch”

Teaching Fiction: Craft, Composition Theory, and a Lie

Teaching Fiction: Craft, Composition Theory, and a Lie

by Luke Daly

[pdf version here: Daly-TeachingFiction]

[see the companion creative pieces here: “The Four Deaths of Mitchell Fish“]

My first magic trick as a new lecturer of creative writing was reappearing three days per week. I disappeared too, at the end of every class, but the students didn’t seem to impart this with the same mystique.

“Daly!” sometimes they would shout, or I would imagine them shouting, as I entered. In my younger life, I was always running, always late, so I may have encouraged them to see this as a magical act. And then I’d say, “Today we’re going to talk about Point of View,” or something like that. And we would. Not only would we talk about it: identify it, discuss its concealing and revealing qualities in selected works, practice it during writing heuristics, and in general start to build it into our lexicon, but the students would come to class having read the right chapter from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Or maybe that day it was the chapter on character. By all accounts, they would be ready to wring every drop out of Character into their own writing. But this was not the slam dunk case, as many educators will understand. One goal of this essay is to discuss why this gap occurs and how to work through it.

Continue reading

The Four Deaths of Mitchell Fish

THE FOUR DEATHS OF MITCHELL FISH

by Luke Daly

[pdf version here: Daly-FourDeathsofMitchellFish]

[see the companion essay “Teaching Fiction: Craft, Composition Theory, and a Lie“]

I. Oxygen

I slash in like a dull knife but don’t tip into the abyss.  Just wow at the Formica.  Some wrongful oxygen rises up the ways in my neck.  I do fall then

II. Oxygen

Slick Mick pushed in through the screen door, stopped in the middle of my eat-in kitchen with the brand new formica countertops his finger in the air like he was gonna say something.  Fell face first on the floor right where you’re standing.  If I’m telling the truth? I hoped he was dead. So I started sifting my hands like this through the bills and penny-savers on the formica, feeling for my cordless phone and hoping that if he was dead, I wouldn’t find the phone quick enough to save him.  And I saw him on Day One, charming as only a drunk can.  Previous to the nightly urination in bed and being too far gone to wake up and clean it.  Previous to driving my glossy black Oldsmobile into the Blue Earth River the day after I got it.  Previous to stabbing his hand with a steak-knife trying to show off for Jenny at Ponderosa.  That’s why Ponderosa uses knives with rounded tips now: My man, Slick Mick.  And here he was in my trailer, like a damned dead fish, oily from the car but no real work, just playing around with his nuts.  Go on and lie there, you sick duck.  I’ll call you an ambulance just as soon as I find my cordless phone.

Continue reading

Two Truths and a Tall Tale: An Ice-Breaker Activity by Michael MacBride

Michael MacBride

Exposing Yourself to Students: You are a Source!

I like to start the semester with a popular ice-breaker activity—two truths and a tall tale. During my first TA orientation, the TA director (Randall McClure) used this activity to get us talking. From that activity I learned that Dr. McClure had in fact been involved in a snowball fight with the members of U2, and slept (unknowingly) next to a dead body for several hours (while camping out for U2 tickets). So I adopted it. Continue reading

Analyzing Poetry and Songs

Song Exploration Project

Scott Hall

Irondale High School

Find a song that has been recorded by several artists (at least 4) over the past 30-60 years (or re-recorded/re-mixed in a new style by the same artist). Listen to each version of the song and take notes about the style. Style includes sounds, vocal delivery, pacing, beat, structure, and lyrics. YouTube is a good place to begin your search, because their website also links related songs. Continue reading

4 Poems by Richard Robbins

Four Poems by Richard Robbins


 

 

St. Francis and the Birds

—a painting by Stanley Spencer

 

The parade will go no

further than the wall, where

the gardener shields her eyes,

 

the ducks, hens, and geese scuttle

toward his frock, each dove

and jay leaning forward

 

on the low tiled roof to

watch the boy lead each one,

saint and bird, toward that town

 

his wings would bend for,

blind daylight place from which

his face must turn away.

 

* First published in I-70 Review Continue reading

Peer Reviewed Article 1: Rhetorical Empathy in the Writing Classroom by Erin Kunz

Rhetorical Empathy in the Writing Classroom

by Erin Kunz

When developing a college composition course, content and methodology are always important considerations, but as instructors we also must consider how we can develop good practices in order to foster an intellectual environment. We try to create community for our students, but because of a number of issues—resistance, apathy, and misunderstanding, to name a few, establishing a community where we can openly discuss the human condition is a difficult endeavor. The ideological nature of feminist writing, feminist theory, and feminist politics can make it even more difficult to create community. Therefore, we must be particular about our approach when teaching ideological methods and topics. Continue reading

Approaches to Student Writing 1: Using ‘New Genres’ to Inject Relevance into the Research Paper by Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

Beyond the Research Paper: Exploring New Genres for Original, Authentic Inquiry

by Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

Albert Lea High School

After sequestering myself in my home office for nearly four hours on a Saturday morning—using headphones and a closed door to counteract the distractions of domestic life—I emerge, over-caffeinated but relieved, announcing to my wife and daughters that I’ve graded 10 research papers, my quota for the day.

“How were they?” my wife asks.

“OK. One of them was really good,” I say.

Only one this time, but it really was good. The student’s research question was whether the U.S. should consider a national minimum drinking age (MDA) of 18, considering the seeming futility of enforcing the current age of 21. While dangerously close to some of the topics I refuse to allow students to write on anymore—abortion, legalizing marijuana—she made the topic her own. Her first exposure to the topic was a 60 Minutes episode she’d watched online in which a chief of police, a former college president, and the parents of a college student who had died of alcohol poisoning all (surprisingly) argued in favor of lowering the MDA. These voices, she acknowledged, had shaped her original position. But after doing her own extensive reading, an interview, and exploring her own family’s experiences with alcohol, her position shifted completely. She not only ultimately argued that the MDA remain 21 in every state, but also offered ideas regarding other cultural and educational changes that could help promote responsible alcohol consumption, that the law itself was just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Continue reading

Approaches to Student Writing 2: A Fresh Look at Peer Response by Neil Witikko

A Fresh Look at Peer Response:
Improved Writing and Talk that Hits the (Common) Core

by Neil Witikko
The College of St. Scholastica

The Students
Five minutes have passed in third hour, and the students in Composition I are hard at work in teams of three and four. Most groups are scattered around the classroom, finding what privacy they can away from the other peer groups. One team of four is working just outside the door of the classroom in the hallway. Any comments about the excitement of last night’s hockey game have faded in the first three minutes of class, and the only sounds now are comments about the papers that the students are sharing with each other.

It is a day for feedback on their cause and effect papers. Each student has had the opportunity to take their peers’ papers home, read them, and generate some ideas for response, based on a project rubric that guides the students’ writing. Now they have time to share those ideas in talk. Continue reading