Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
The Untapped Potential of Student Stories
In September of 1988, a high school student of mine turned in a piece of writing that changed my professional life and provided me with the most rewarding experience I ever had as a school publications adviser.
Every English teacher knows that in writing ordinary homework "compositions," students often turn in autobiographical stories that are funny, poignant, revealing, and sometimes, dramatic. Often teachers ask the writers to read them aloud to the class, but that's as much of an audience most of them ever reach. (Note: If you're not an English teacher, please read on. This is for you, too, no matter your subject or grade level.)
It was that way with me, too, at Edward R. Murrow High School, here in Brooklyn, until Angel Rodriguez, a student in one of my sophomore English classes, handed in that story in 1988 about how he became blind. It was Angel's response to my traditional first writing assignment of each semester, given on the first day of class, in which I asked students to tell me something about themselves so I could get to know them more quickly.
After Angel explains how he became blind as a child, he writes about his anger, depression and self-pity, and how his father changed his view of himself as helpless and pitiful. The day after his father intercedes, Angel leaves the house without telling anyone:
I awoke early the next morning and got dressed. I was going to try to walk to the park by imagining what I used to see when I was able to see. I wanted to do it by myself. I was a lot faster at getting down the stairs. When I got outside, I stopped and closed my eyes. In my mind I saw my neighborhood. I started the seven-block walk. I was still afraid. Nothing was going to stop me, though. When I got to the corner, I listened for oncoming cars.
Meanwhile, Angel writes, his mother is going crazy, not knowing where he is, and telephones his father, from whom she is divorced. On his way to the park, meanwhile, Angel crosses several streets, bumps into a tree, finds the park entrance and sits on a swing.
I sat on it proudly. Somebody sat on the swing next to me. It was my father. He said, "Good job, kiddo. That's the fighter I raised."
We hugged each other and cried. We cried because we were happy. Since then, I haven't been afraid to go on living my life. I've taught myself how to use my hearing and other senses. Now, I'm a part of a club called the Blinks. There's only one other member, my friend Michael Cush. We're both Blinks. I'm happy the way I am. The only thing I can't do is see.
Angel's story was so eloquent in its simple telling, so vivid, and so arresting, that I submitted it, with Angel's approval, to the school's literary magazine, Magnet, which I advised, and whose editors agreed that the story was great and needed a wider audience than his class and his teacher. It appeared in Magnet with the words "a true story" beneath the title, since every other story in the magazine was fiction. And when I saw it in the printed magazine, I realized that had I not been its adviser, it would have gone no further than a classroom reading.
And then it occurred to me. As an English teacher for almost 30 years, I had read thousands of first-person stories by students that were interesting, striking, entertaining and memorable; stories that sometimes even sparkled with literary merit. What about a school magazine composed entirely of first-person stories assigned as homework, and though not intended by their writers for publication, were indeed publishable?
Thinking at that moment of all the wonderful autobiographical student writing I had read through the years, I decided to create a Murrow journal devoted entirely to the kind of memorable autobiographical writing that emerges from ordinary homework assignments.
And so, the Murrow journal First Person was born. And the reason I've asked teachers of all kinds to hang in and continue reading here is that it doesn't take an English teacher to initiate a publication like this. Any teacher can start one, and with just one or two student editors, and perhaps a co-adviser, can bring it to life. This is how I did it.
First, I needed an editor, and asked Vanessa Santaga, a sophomore student of mine. She was smart, mature for her age, an excellent and insightful writer, and a warm, outgoing and deeply genuine human being, someone whom I knew would read the work of other students with interest, enjoyment, insight and understanding. And who had the judgment to edit them just the way I thought they should be edited for First Person — with a minimum of change, leaving them as close as possible to their writers' original work. Indeed, the biggest changes she made were to cut from many stories the "I'll never forget the time when" openings and the "As you can see" endings.
Fifteen-year-old Vanessa was the editor, but I might as well have been working with a professional — she was that good at selecting and editing the stories, deciding their order within the book and editing their writing, leaving them as intact as possible to reflect as clearly as possible the way they had been written. In the preface for that initial First Person, in June 1990, Vanessa wrote that she wanted its readers to "be affected by what they read," and that she "felt a sense of human relation" while reading each submission. "I read each with unbiased eyes," she wrote, "and looked for a special quality that would enable it to be printed." You know something important about Vanessa from her saying in that preface that reading the submissions and choosing the ones to print was a "privilege."
Gathering the raw material was the easiest part of the project. Murrow has four semesters within the school year, called cycles. With five new classes per cycle, Vanessa had an abundance of raw material, cycle after cycle, to choose from. In addition, I asked other English teachers to be on the lookout for First Person possibilities from their own students.
After I read my classes' papers and culled possible First Person stories — I could not give Vanessa over a hundred raw papers to go through each time I received them — I gave them to her to choose from. If a paper I considered a possibility was of a very personal nature, I first asked the student for permission to show it to Vanessa. Otherwise, I waited until after Vanessa had made her choices to ask the writers for their permission, so we wouldn't have to receive it from all the writers, only to reject some of their work later.
Here are basic suggestions for motivating high school students to write stories from their lives that are candid, unaffected and uninhibited.
Give them open-ended topics and titles that they can relate to and respond to — that are neutral and don't lean toward moralizing, preachiness or didacticism — and they will turn in exceptional material. Thus, "I Just Said 'No,' is a poor topic for eliciting honest, real, interesting stories, as is "The Best Lesson I Ever Learned." Here's the most general assignment I can think of. Its instructions can be adapted for almost any topic:
Assignment: An Unforgettable Experience
Pick one experience from your life — any experience at all — and write about it. It can be a good or bad experience, or something neither good or bad that you happen to remember, perhaps for reasons even you don't understand. It can be an important experience or an unimportant one. The only requirement for this story is to tell it as you remember it and as you felt it, so that the reader will know and feel what the experience was like for you. You don't have to say how you felt — often you can show that just by how you tell the story and describe the events. If all you do is honestly show what happened, you will produce an effective piece of writing. The time period during which this experience takes place should be brief, no more than a day, 10 minutes, or just a few moments. If you wish, however, you can bring in background information that is necessary to your story. Make it a minimum of one page. You don't need an introduction, a topic sentence or a thesis statement. From your very first sentence, get your reader involved in this story about your life.
Can you imagine what you will get from that? But students must not be told that what they're writing may be selected for a magazine, else most of them will become inhibited and turn nothing in, or they will strain to write something good and instead write something artificial and stilted; or they'll agonize over their work and stay up all night rewriting and rewriting. For those reasons, too, this should usually be an overnight — or over-the-weekend — piece of work, due at the next class session. Encourage students to create a well-told story, of course, but more than anything else, encourage them to just let themselves go and write the story as they feel it. No professional writer knows what the next words will be that their mind conveys to paper or computer; it's always a remarkable act. And that is why the best advice one can give to a student writer is, "Just start writing, and the rest will come, and when you're done you may marvel at what you've created."
While students' "creative writing" as we see it in literary magazines often seems contrived, this kind of writing inherently lacks artifice because it is a genuine expression of students' feelings and memories; is usually written spontaneously; and, if it's an overnight homework assignment, is written in a hurry, one of the best conditions for generating memorable student work.
Here is a story that came from that "Unforgettable Experience" assignment. I received it from Nicoletta, a high school senior who had done no distinctive writing in my class until I assigned a topic that appealed deeply to her emotions and memories. Vanessa made it the last story in the first issue of First Person.
Singing the final song, I no longer felt as though I really existed. The lights were intense. The heat on stage was felt through the slow dripping sweat on my face. I was unable to move, for that would shatter the moment, the illusion.
As we, the cast, stood close together singing the beautiful lyrics of "The Impossible Dream," the tale felt no longer fictional. I felt as though I was an open book, letting my personal life be told. Yet, still, in reality, it was not my autobiography. I, like my peers, portrayed a written role and spoke its words.
As I stood there on the final eve of our performance of "Man of La Mancha," I felt a force among the cast like no other I had ever experienced.
As the lights slowly faded, we stood in complete silence and only heard the tears among us, never acknowledging the wild applause. We did not want to break away; it was a precious home, something we, in unity, built, loved and shared a special bond in.
Months later, as I stared at the naked stage, preparing for another play, I felt the ghostly warmth, and within the surrounding walls of the theater, I heard the lyrics.
Nicoletta titled her story, "School Experience." For First Person, Vanessa titled it, "Home."
There is, actually, little more to tell about how to get out a First Person of your own. Here, though, are a few topics to offer students — one or several per assignment — all of which they should relate to their personal experience.
A Magic Moment of My Childhood
A Moment in My Life Like No Other
A Child's Mind at Work
What Life's Been Doing to Me Lately
An Experience with Prejudice
In the Classroom (or Schoolyard)
At the Store
It Still Bothers Me
Boy and Girl
Grandmother (or Grandfather)
A Brooklyn Story (or anywhere)
An Act of Kindness
I left classroom teaching after First Person's second issue, and served as its adviser for its third, after which Vanessa went off to Dartmouth College and the advisership was taken on for the next seven years by my then colleague Georgia Scurletis, who is currently director of curriculum development for the Visual Thesaurus. Vanessa somehow went from a 17-year-old high school senior during her third year editing that little magazine, to a woman in her thirties today, a wife and mother. She teaches freshman composition and developmental reading and writing at Brooklyn's Kingsborough Community College, a division of the City University of New York. They have a gem.
If you're a teacher who would not ordinarily assign this kind of writing — math, social studies, art, music, science, business — anything — you can assign it with some kind of creative angle suitable to your subject. Math teachers can ask students to write about an experience related to math or numbers; business teachers, an experience they had in a store or a bank, or about anything money-related; social studies teachers, experiences with travel, immigration or government, or with people born in a different generation. Even if they don't ordinarily ask their students for writing of this kind, non-English subject teachers with four or five classes can certainly break the mold and get enough printable pieces for a full magazine. For an even greater choice for the magazine, they can ask English teachers to submit their students' writing. Best of all, perhaps, might be for a non-English subject teacher to co-advise a magazine like this with an English teacher who can regularly assign autobiographical writing.
Although you can't tell students in advance that what they're writing is potential magazine material, you can give them hints that will give you more of what you're looking for, and teach good writing habits, as well. For example, when you're asked, "Well, if I don't have an introduction, how do I begin," you can say, "Start telling your story and go on from there. The story will tell itself."
Jennifer's First Person story began:
During my younger childhood years, I wasn't punished very much. But I will never forget the time I pushed mom over the limit.
It was a warm evening in June. School had not ended yet. The next day I was having a big test on the multiplication tables. There was nothing I wanted to do but go out and play. "Do you have any tests tomorrow?" mom asked. "No," I replied. So outside I went to ride my shiny red bicycle, with training wheels.
The next day came very quickly and unfortunately so did the test.
Jennifer's story continues for another 200 words — she fails the test, hides it under her mattress, is found out by her mother, and is punished. It's all cleverly and humorously told, as is the third paragraph above.
Vanessa made few changes for publication. She lopped off Jennifer's uninformative and schoolish first paragraph (the way most students begin their English class composition work). She made each person's quote a new paragraph. She capitalized "mom" throughout (unless it was preceded by "my"). And she removed the comma after "bicycle" and added or removed punctuation marks further down in the story. Small changes. Professional editors make far more for many bestselling authors. You can see, though, that this is the beginning of a lively little narrative. What a difference in authentic writing it made to begin the story, "It was a warm evening in June." Vanessa gave it an appropriate title, with a double meaning, "Hard Times."
Jennifer's class was not a creative writing class, and the assignment itself did not seem anything special, just homework assigned for handing in the next school day.
Unlike Jennifer's story, Nellie's began professionally. There was nothing to cut. The assignment's title, which Nellie placed over her story, was as general as it could be, "An Unforgettable Experience." For First Person," Vanessa titled it, "In the Schoolyard."
The odor of sour milk permeated the air. Masticated chunks of chopped meat, strings of pineapple, small lumps of soggy bread and French fries swam side by side in a graying puddle of watery chocolate milk. I had puked.
In the schoolyard a crowd had congregated to witness the sight of my retching body. I had only seen them through a haze, so I wasn't aware of them. I began crying, and tears mingled with the sour taste in my mouth.
The little story ends well, with Nellie returning to school the next day, expecting her classmates to shy away from her but, instead, welcoming her back.First Person represented to me what was always most important to me about being a teacher— getting to know young people, all with their own minds, emotions and spirits, many of them struggling, looking for answers, not having an easy time growing up; many of them coping remarkably well with life, often under trying circumstances, yet being sensitive toward others and caring about the world around them. And its contributions came mostly from regular English classes, not honors, not AP. They show what students can do when they write with sincere interest, even passion, elements usually absent when students do their homework just to get it over and done with. Here's Danielle:
We sat alone in the obscure room that still reeked of old beer and stale smoke. The tired radio was still playing in the distance a familiar tune, while the moonlight cascaded across the corners of the basement. It was an unsightly appearance, this forbidden place, yet beyond the worn furniture and the tortured floor stood Richie, and everything else lay hidden beneath my fear.
He sat across from me on the bed, attempting to blind any doubt still lingering in my mind. At that moment, I knew he caught a glimpse of my innocence, for my eyes unmasked the fear I felt inside.
That night we talked and only talked until dusk fell surreptitiously upon us. Any expectations of that evening were left sheltered beneath the cracks in the floor. On that hot and sultry night, we linked together as one, for, in essence, we were one in the same. There would never be an "us,' and there could never be another night that would be the right time. I wasn't ready to give myself completely, and he, in turn, couldn't be happy otherwise.
In my heart, I would always love him, but what he felt for me became an emptiness and a desolation. Richie was my first and only love, and that has yet to cease the painful memory of what could have been and what will never be.
There were many humorous entries in First Person. Susan wrote this in response to the topic, "An Early Memory." Vanessa titled it, "Why I Hate Winnie the Pooh."
We were sitting in kindergarten class and my teacher was reading "Winnie the Pooh" to us, a book I have hated since that day because it caused my whole embarrassing experience.
I kept raising my hand to get my teacher's attention. I was in pain, shaking all around. I had to go to the bathroom bad. I remember she always said, "One thing you don't do is disturb me when I'm reading." I kept raising my hand and calling her name. I got up. She said, "Sit down and stop being a nuisance."
Then I knew I had no choice. I sat down and then the embarrassing part came. I couldn't hold it in any longer. I did it in class and in my pants. And then she said, "That concludes 'Winnie the Pooh.'" And in my mind I said that concludes me going to the bathroom.
Then she saw the floor wet, and had the guts to say, "Susan, why didn't you ask me to go to the bathroom?" I wanted to rip my teacher into pieces and her "Winnie the Pooh" book, too.
Often, the topics I assigned to generate First Person material — topics I had assigned year after year before First Person — were related to the literature my classes were reading. If it was Richard Wright's Black Boy, or Twain's Huckleberry Finn, the topic might be prejudice; if Hamlet, it was indecision; if Thornton Wilder's Our Town, it was family, or life's everyday moments. It is Emily Gibbs's wish at the close of Our Town, after she has died in childbirth and her spirit asks to revisit one day in her life before she forgets life altogether, that helps to explain the deepest reason I felt First Person was an important contribution to the lives of both its writers and its readers: It required them to reflect. As a teacher, I considered my students' reflective writing more important than any other, getting them to think about their pasts, about how they felt about things at the time they happened, and how they felt about them now.
Emily chooses her twelfth birthday as the day she wants to relive, and it is a painful final look at life for her as she realizes the everyday things that were so precious but never appreciated at the time.
As Our Town ends, Emily Gibbs asks the spirit of her mother, who has died earlier, about the deeply poignant and painful view she was allowed of her family on her twelfth birthday, everyone going about their day, unaware of the unrecallable preciousness of each moment, which is the implicit meaning of First Person, too. "All this is important," First Person says on every page. All this, big and small, is precious.
"They don't understand, do they?" Emily asks her mother as she watches her family preparing for her twelfth birthday.
"No, dear," Mrs. Gibbs replies. "They don't understand."
Which leads us to this story by my student Michael. Under Vanessa's title, it appeared in the second issue of First Person.
On the Road
We are driving along a desolate, forlorn road in the middle of the night. I ignore the darkness and cold, and bask in the light and warmth of happiness. The car radio is blaring the top 500 countdown of oldies on 101 CBS FM.
We were traveling to the Berkshires to stay in a large house overlooking a lake. My father was driving, my mother sitting alongside him. My sisters were seated in the middle row of our Colt Vista. I sat in the back. We were singing along to all of the oldies, and enjoying it.
This situation might seem like a classic example of parent-invoked family bonding. The singing and fun, however, were spontaneous. I recall the music and voices, but the most riveting and extraordinary memory is the feeling of pure and absolute joy, a feeling, no doubt, shared by the rest of my family, an enveloping happiness.