Sunday, September 6, 2009
The Writing Experiment Part 1
Fall is here. You can’t feel it in Vegas yet, but it’s in the air somewhere close by. With fall comes the new school year. School, with all of its changes, challenges, and new experiences, is something I’ve been looking forward to.
One change is a new group of students. The challenge is to get them excited about school and learning. A new experience for me is teaching English to 7th graders. In previous years I’ve taught 7th grade reading, which consists of, well, reading. There is some writing involved, but we mainly read and have class discussions. English, with its grammar and essay writing, is a whole new ball game for me, but a good one I think.
This year my goal is to motivate my 100 or so English students to write, become better at it, and to enjoy it. I think it’s fun to write, but when I ask my students to write, most of them look at me in horror.
Last week I did my song and dance about the exciting topic planned for their pre-test essay. (Write about a funny thing that happened to you or to someone you know at school.) Most of them tell me something funny every day. Why they can’t write about one funny thing is beyond me. To be fair, a few kids caught the enthusiasm, but I wasn’t happy with just a few. I began looking for inspiration.
My department chair, Ms. Isabel Gomez, mentioned a journaling activity she used last year with her 7th graders that worked exceedingly well to inspire them to write. She read 1-2 diary entries a week from “The Freedom Writers Diary – How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them,” by Erin Gruwell and her students at Wilson High School. (You may remember the movie, “Freedom Writers,” based on Gruwell and her experiences as a teacher.)
I asked my students to bring in a spiral notebook that will be their diary (or journal for the boys who think diaries are for girls.) I pumped them up about the book (140+ diary entries from Gruwell’s students who are from all races and have many interesting experiences to share) and I talked about Erin Gruwell and what she did as a teacher. (Only a few of the students had seen the movie.)
After a week of pumping them up about “The Freedom Writers Diary,” I made myself comfortable at the front of the classroom on my thrift store stool, opened the book, and prayed silently that this experiment would work.
I read Gruwell’s diary entry first. My students’ eyes betrayed their distrust of this lady named Gruwell, with her white skin, wealthy upbringing, and her comments about Long Beach, CA. (Her picture is on the cover of the book and all of them wanted to see what she looked like.) I told them to reserve their judgment until I was finished with her entry.
Her diary account deals with an incident of racism on her first day in the classroom. Gruwell was really upset by the sketch of a student being passed around class. She told her students that it was pictures and attitudes like theirs that started the Holocaust. There was one little problem. None of her students knew what the Holocaust was. (FYI: Her entry was from 1994 and her students were in high school. Most of my middle school students in 2009 do not know what the Holocaust was either.) By the time I was done with her entry and explaining what the Holocaust was, most looked interested; a few still appeared skeptical though.
I read Diary Entry 1 next. It was by a student in Gruwell’s class who doesn’t think Gruwell will last a month at her new job as an English teacher. Her writing is honest and sometimes brutal. Language and racial distrust are involved in this entry, things my students know something about. They were spellbound. Each class asked me to read another entry. I declined, reminding them that our time in class was short and that they still needed to write their first entry in their diaries. Hoping for the best, I set the timer for 7 minutes. I wasn’t disappointed.
Most students were done by the timer’s ring. Some continued to write, hunched over their diaries like hungry prisoners guarding food. Others were nonchalant. They weren’t interested or pretended not to be. One student named L--- showed me his entry. It was obvious by what he wrote that he wanted a reaction from me. (He wrote that my class was stupid, the book was boring, and that he hated writing.) I shrugged my shoulders, smiled at him (a genuine smile, not a fake one) and told him that he was welcome to his opinion. After all, that was his journal, not mine. His small brown eyes looked disappointed. Little did he know, I took his actions as a challenge. It’s only September and I’m not finished with the writing experiment. I’ve learned so much with just one day of reading. Imagine what a school year of it will do to motivate my students’ writing.
More to come as the year unfolds . . .