Some Conclusions and an Addendum…

What do these three writers tell use about the challenges facing high school writers working right now in Durham?

We’ve done a fair bit of work here, no? Before we we even met our students we considered what it means to be a good writer. We asked some of the greatest literary minds what they believed about the topic, and they intimated that a good writer is not made of incantations and midnight spells, but of hard work and sticktoitiveness  enough(if I can borrow from my favorite high-school coach) to inflate that balloon with that bike pump.

Once we met M and D, with whom we spent the majority of our time, we considered whether and why either of them could be considered good students. I suggested D’s candidacy for the status of good writer based on those characteristics  and  wanted to withhold it from M based on her lack of those qualities.

Later we suggested that it is definitely beneficial to have had a childhood that made writing or its brother, reading, a valued commodity. Mr. Sellars attributed his success in writing to that kind of background, and M emphatically indicated how important it was in her childhood.

D had a different experience with writing. The emphasis in his home was put on math skills, and he attributes his successes in math classes and his perceived deficiencies in humanities to that emphasis. I was ready to stop there and claim that students who had success with writing as children would continue to build upon it until R came into our investigation and changed the game. She demonstrated a great deal of perseverance and resiliency, overcoming not only a negative experience with writing in academic settings, but a distaste for reading writing so strongly that she “loves” reading today, and enjoys success in AP History as a freshman.

So what can we say are these kids greatest challenges?

Frankly, themselves.

These students’ biggest obstacles to success are their own attitudes and predispositions. With practice and attention to the revision steps that can turn writing from “shit” as Hemingway eloquently identified a first draft, to gold, any of these three students can achieve great success at writers, both at this level an the next.

Cartman and I both think there is work to be done in these classrooms. The question remains: how best to reach them?

It is here that educators can make a great difference, fostering these sensibilities, facilitating self and peer revision, and ultimately showing students that they can succeed as writers, with or without my help. We can play games and have comptetitions; we can reward with easy grades for every step of the process: either you do it, or you don’t. At the end of the day, teachers interested in students’ literacy at any level have to reach them and get them engaged in the process of writing, get them to identify writing as a skill that can be improved with practice, like M’s dance, or D’s improv. As with any great endeavor, the devil is in the details.

I suppose it is unreasonable to expect every student to “get it,” subsequently join the school newspaper staff or start a literary magazine, then grow up to be published often and in a variety of forums, but I hold fast to that expectation, somewhere deep inside. The work that I and every other literacy (read: English, Comparative lit, History, Drama, Poetry, etc) teacher does in every secondary school in the country is crucial for creating the next generation of Pulitzer and Nobel prize winners, sure, but I think we also do work to guarantee that there will be people who can articulate themselves in writing, and whose practice with writing and revision give them the confidence to share a finished work with the world.

The right beliefs and habits will create a new super-breed of writers. As teachers, it is our power, our responsibility, to create them.


Addendum: A bit of perspective

There are students in Durham whose obstacles are a bit lower on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Many of them might not write because they are hungry or homeless, or, lacking suitable supervision outside of school, are involved with gangs and drugs. With resources enough and time, I would have interviewed these students and included them in this study. I may have needed to expand my parameters; there are far fewer of these students at the magnet school which was my base of operations than there are, percentage wise, in most of the other Durham county schools.

Even though this school isn’t a “true” magnet, even though admission is a blind lottery from the applicant pool, students are much more likely to come from homes where their largest obstacle to writing success is something akin to putting math skills at a higher premium than writing skills. The simple fact of being aware of  (no less correctly completing) the application to this school separates families  along lines that pretty closely match Socioeconomic status and overall academic achievement lines. In other Durham Public Schools, where as many as 70% (or more) of students are on free/reduced price lunch (and indicator of a school’s poverty level) the obstacles are greater, and a teacher’s task is more challenging and more rewarding. I know it may feel like a cop-out to have left this to a brief addendum, but the scope of my project would have been drastically different if I tried to take these socioeconomic challenges into account.

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