My students were hard at work outlining the first essays for their self-published magazines. They were writing about cars, gymnastics, football, teen fashion, traveling, music, cooking, skateboarding and whatever else grabbed their fancy. This project would carry them through the rest of the semester, and because they get to choose the topics for their magazines, they usually enjoy the work. Writing is an art, and the more freedom and power I can give my students, the better. Every year, though, there are a few students who struggle to find a topic for their magazine.
Jessi is one of them. A shy student who barely completes most assignments, Jessi appears uninterested in most of the work we do. When I try to talk with her one on one, she swings her black, stringy hair in front of her face, looks away and shrugs her shoulders. Since she needs to choose her magazine topic before she can move on to the writing, I ask her to join me for lunch so we can work on it together. She sighs and rolls her eyes, grabs her backpack and moves to a desk next to mine.
“So what do you like to do after school?” I ask, unwrapping my sandwich. She shrugs again, her face blank and unreadable. “Do you play any sports?” Jessi shakes her head ‘no.’ I sigh a little myself, frustrated with the apathy that so often afflicts my students. “How about movies? Or food? You must love to eat!” But no, not even food catches her interest.
“Has anyone ever gotten in trouble for what they put in their magazine?” Jessi asks, her make-up smudged eyes making contact with mine for the first time this year.
Now I know she really has a topic in mind, but she’s too afraid to ask about it. “Well, since I read the drafts of the magazine pieces before they are published, I usually know what the magazines are about. What are you thinking of?” I set down my sandwich, lean forward and look into Jessi’s sad eyes. This may be my only chance to show a lost student that she really does matter, that those thoughts swirling through her confused adolescent mind are the ones she really should be writing about.
“Well, what about Prop. 8?” Jessi’s eyes twinkle a bit, her narrow chin juts forward and her face reveals a bit of a challenge as she waits to see how I will respond.
“What are you thinking about Prop. 8?” I ask, urging her to own the topic.
“I just think it’s dumb. My uncle is gay and he has been with the same guy for years and they want to get married but they can’t but my parents are divorced and they hate each other and why can’t people who are in love just get married?” Jessi pulls back, as if startled by her own words, caught off guard by her own honesty. Her eyes hold onto mine, though, and she seems to hold her breath in fear she will be reprimanded for her voice.
“Jessi, that’s a wonderful topic for a magazine!” I assure her, smiling wide and clapping my hands. She smiles too, her posture softens and she laughs at my glee. “What would you like to focus on for your first essay?”
By the end of the lunch period, I am overjoyed at the new Jessi that I see. No longer hunched and silent, frowning and apathetic, she has outlined her first essay and has a vision for her entire magazine project. She has a passion for her topic and the guidance and freedom and power to explore what she thinks. Maybe, just maybe, this will be the ticket to keeping her engaged in her own learning for the rest of the year.
Sadly, when it comes time to assess what she has learned this year (and to assess how I have performed as her teacher), Jessi will be asked to read short, unrelated passages that range from fiction to informational to historical to poetry, and she will be assessed on her ability to correctly bubble one of four possible answers. Even her writing skills will be assessed this way, as she will be asked to choose the best revision of a sentence pulled from an excerpt. She will have no voice, no passion, no interest in the topics at hand, but she will be expected to engage in the process as if it really means something to her.
And this is the disconnect I face in my classroom every year: I am a writing teacher because I love the written word and I love empowering teenagers with their own words. I am a writing teacher because I know the value that writing has, both in our professional worlds and our personal lives. I am a writing teacher because I know that if we write about what we are learning, we learn what we are thinking. And I am a writing teacher because, yes, we can get in trouble for what we write, and that may be the best reason of all for writing. So, yes, Jessi, write about Prop. 8 and your uncle and love and marriage, and write about what makes you angry and happy and sad and scared and delirious. And maybe you will get in trouble and maybe you will change the world. But please don’t stop writing just because at the end of the year it all comes down to a multiple choice test. Please remember how writing made you smile and sit up straight and laugh with your English teacher. Please don’t lose your voice or your passion just because the state tries to silence it with #2 pencils and bubble forms.