Because a School Said Yes to Writing

At 8 AM June 2, 2016, at Mott Hall Science and Technology Academy, a public middle school in the South Bronx, the students have gathered for their daily assembly to hear Dr. Patrick Awosogba, the principal and founder of this International Baccalaureate World School, conduct his usual morning address. When he announces it’s Writer’s Odyssey Day, a wild cheer erupts.

Within minutes students who have signed up to write mysteries are plunging their hands into black boxes to guess their gooey contents; those who have selected math how-to guides are combing their notebooks for topics to explain to next year’s students; those who have opted for advice columns are watching hilarious videos as models. They are in the flow and will continue so for hours as they pre-write, draft, exchange feedback, revise, edit, present, and celebrate their work.

I see no student disengaged as I visit workshops throughout the day. Students I know to be troubled– and in turn to cause their share of trouble – concentrate intensely. One has been allowed to listen to music on his ear buds as he writes his handbook on solving for X.

In my peregrinations I see science fiction writers hard at work on their stories under Mr. Davenport’s tutelage. Elizabeth and Jenefa share theirs with me and I notice elaborate plots, tense suspense, dramatic titles (My Parents are Aliens!) Their use of detailed and accurate science terminology is a pedagogical miracle, a meaningful resuscitation of content that would otherwise have been lost to time. I can easily see these young ladies’ names on the covers of best sellers in the not too distant future.

Students in Ms. Christian’s class have adopted the points of view of individuals from different castes and religions in India, to write richly evocative list poems. The atmosphere is monastic with concentration. During share time, Kareem reads the thoughts of his Dalit persona and it is emotionally forceful with the stems, “I will…I love…” A student offers a critique, “I think you should show, not tell…” and provides concrete examples. Kareem goes right back to work using the new ideas.

In another class, Genesia is working on a billboard to counter the racism that oppresses her generation. She is using an image from a recent news reports, found on the internet. Nearby, their teacher, Ms. Guido, is conferring with a student to make his political billboard more credible by finding a quote. “What words will grab people as they drive by? I think you need to do a little bit more research.”

Apprentice writers in Mr. Kantor’s info-graphics workshop are making graphs of the data from their student surveys of features of teen life: “How many sneakers do you own? How many animes have you seen?” A boy says, “This is actually interesting.” Mr. Kantor points to instructions and exemplars on a carefully prepared power point when the students hit roadblocks in their work.

Teacher preparation is evident everywhere: well-chosen exemplars, step-by-step instructions, stimulating resources. Each teacher has laid out a purposeful agenda for the day. For their breaks, other teachers have been not only been scheduled to cover them, but have been given plans to carry projects forward. It’s clear that the teachers are as enthusiastic as the students.

This is one well-oiled voice-producing, meaning-making, community-enriching machine, with a hefty byproduct of teacher satisfaction. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the best that public schools have to offer is being realized here.

How did it come to be? I give credit to the word yes.

In the fall of 2014, Principal Awosogba identified writing as a high-impact skill in need of development. In response I proposed a creative writing initiative that would involve every teacher as a master writer. After an assessment of the interest of the staff, Dr. A. (as he is known) said yes and the project was initiated.

I proposed that we develop capacity through a series of rigorous workshops that would take up hours of professional development time. Dr. A. said yes.

During the workshops, when teachers were asked to reflect on their experiences as writers and build new experiences, they embraced the challenge with an unhesitating yes.

When the teachers recommended that a design team for the initiative be assembled, Dr. A. said, once again, yes, even though this would pull teachers away from other “core teams” at the school.

When the design team, under stalwart guidance from the beginning by IB Coordinator Yoshie Otomo with Special Advisor Miriam Ruiz, proposed that teachers experiment with using genres as performance tasks to assess content learning and provide feedback for future PD sessions, the teachers, as was becoming their habit, said yes.

And so it went: Use genres twice a year in every classroom as a summative task? Yes. Have each teacher become master of a genre? Yes. Dedicate two entire days per year to the initiative, with all the planning entailed? Yes. Use valuable time at school retreats to learn new genres, share inspiring student work, and plan in teams? Yes. Create an anthology of teacher-written exemplars? Yes. Set aside days from Language and Literature units to polish writing? Yes. Devote energy to a continuous cycle of data collection, feedback and adjustment? Yes. Dedicate summer days and per session funds for the design team to create a handbook? Yes. Create a contest for the students to name the project? Yes. (And what a perfect name they crafted: “The Writers’ Odyssey!”) Set aside PD time for teachers to plan their Writers’ Odyssey workshops? No problem. Request that Writers’ Odyssey Day be extended by a half day to allow more time for revision and presentation? Go for it!

Educators from schools in other cities and even from abroad have come to witness The Writers’ Odyssey in action, and have begun to say yes as well. I am still working on the word why, as in, “Why does everyone, including the students, embrace this project, given the time and effort required?” But yes is a gratifying word to live with until I figure why out.