National Writing Project

Seeing Students, Seeing Culture, Seeing Ourselves

By: Jane Zeni, Joan Krater
Publication: Voices from the Middle
Date: September 1996

Summary: The authors of this article devise strategies to improve the writing skills of their African-American students. They learn that the most important of these is "getting to know our kids and letting them know us."


Reprinted with permission from: Voices from the Middle

When you see a black male teenager, do you see "a future Jesse Jackson or a drug addict?" This question to teachers by Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu (1986, p. 19) has troubled and challenged us. When our project began, we saw the low test scores, the erratic work habits, and the streetwise teenagers who fidgeted, dozed, or acted out in our classrooms. We didn't always see the strengths in oral language, in personal voice, in a cultural heritage that was not our own. Our students were largely invisible to us just as Ralph Ellison had described in Invisible Man (1952, p. 3):

I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar AlIan Poe: nor am l one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bones, fiber and liquids-- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows. It is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings themselves, or figments of their imagination-- indeed, everything and anything except me.

But we were willing to learn, to see the '"fiber and liquids" that made our students who they were. Nine years ago, a group of English teachers in the Webster Groves School District embarked on an action research project that eventually led us to Kunjufu's question. But, as so often happens in action research, we began with a different (and more superficial) question: How could we improve the writing of our African American students? We had watched with distress as the holistic scores on two annualwriting assessments showed a disproportionate number of black students scoring below the mean. Although we knew this pattern had been reported elsewhere, we did not find it acceptable in our schools.

Covering five suburban municipalities, the Webster Groves School District educates some 4,400 students, roughly 1,100 of whom are African American. Nearly all the rest are white. Most of our black students are residents, but about 400 transfer from the city of St. Louis through an area wide desegregation plan. Though most district families have incomes in the broad middle range, they vary from marginal workers living in subsidized housing to affluent professionals. Eight percent of the district's teachers are African American.

The teachers who started this project were all female-- one African American and seven European American. Most of us might be described as middle-class, middle-western, and (with a few exceptions) middle-aged women. The significance of our own characteristics, however, wouldn't become clear to us until the project matured. We were concerned at first only with the low scores of too many African American students.

Supported by a small Missouri Incentives grant, our teachers spent two weeks in the summer of 1987 doing background research with the help of a university consultant from the Gateway Writing Project. We found that the available literature focused on language issues--the history of Black English Vernacular, the importance of oral practice, the controversies over years of responding to the dialect (Should we accept it as a valid language? Should we insist on standard English in the classroom?). When our team did a close reading of 500 papers written by low-scoring black and white students on our district's assessments we" discovered that dialect was not a major factor. Our study also showed us a more promising area to explore. We found that even the weakest papers by black students had a" conversational tone and a personal involvement-- a voice that was lacking in the stilted prose of most low scoring papers by white students (Zeni & Krater-Thomas, 1990). This was a real lead, a strength rather than a deficit.

What other insights could we find? Our most useful readings were Charlotte Brooks' Tapping Potential (1985) and Farr and Daniels' Language Diversity and Writing Instruction (1986). We also invited consultants Jackie Royster and Geneva Smitherman to work with us. Using our new research and our own experience, we drafted a list of principles to guide our teaching. Our premise was simple: We would "fix" the writing by "fixing" our methods, We believed that using better teaching strategies--especially those advocated by progressive African American educators--would lead to better writing.

But how could we be sure that we were using the most effective teaching methods? How would we document the work of multiple team members? Our approach was collaborative action research.

The Webster Grove Writing Project

Over time, our team has ranged from 6 to 15 members, with a fairly consistent core, For nine years we've recorded voluminous field notes and shared them in monthly study sessions. To simplify the task of writing field notes, each teacher focused on two or three low-skilled African American students. They were to be the barometers by whom we would judge our own success or failure. We documented their reactions to projects, their writings, their attitudes--anything that might show us what was working (and what was not). The case study writers were not singled out in the classroom, They' took part ill daily classroom teaching, usually in heterogeneous groups, and the team's strategies were used with all our students. We told our classes that we were doing a research project to improve our teaching of writing, so they might see us jotting notes. Even the first year, we were thrilled (and surprised) at the progress of our case study writers.

Each spring, every teacher reread and pulled together the year's field notes in a report to the team. We shared these reports in a three-day marathon study session, com- paring, for example, how each of us had employed cooperative learning or how each of us had built on the strengths of African American culture. Our consultant combined our reports into a team "synthesis" of 50 or 60 pages and distributed them to all members. (As we became more experienced in action research, the team leader took over this task; today the annual synthesis is co-authored by teachers on the team.)

Over the years, our tentative list of teaching methods grew into eight principles, each supported by classroom strategies documented through action research (see Classroom Connections, p. 38). Here is the gist of our approach today:

  • Build on Strengths
    We stress role playing and oral rehearsal for students who shine orally' but have difficulty transcribing on paper, We find audiences and purposes for dialect as well as standard English, affirm the personal voice, and bring African American culture into the mainstream of our curriculum.
  • Individualize and Personalize
    We personalize by getting to know our kids and letting them know us--through personal writings, informal conversations, classroom dialogs and learning style inventories. We make a point of using their names, especially in positive contexts.
  • Encourage Cooperative Learning
    Cooperative learning is not just group work. Using the systematic approach's of Johnson. Johnson and Holubec (1988), we teach kids to work together productively. We try to build a multicultural community in the classroom.
  • Use Process Approaches to Writing
    We organize our classrooms as reading and writing workshops, providing structure as needed by our kids. We balance impromptu writings with process paper's that go through many' drafts and much editing. We share our own work in progress as well as student writing.
  • Increase Control of Language
    We teach usage and mechanics in the context of writing. Instead of marking every mistake, we look for the "critical injury"-- the recurring error that causes the most difficulty for the reader. We use brief individual conferences as well as group mini lessons, for direct instruction in proofreading.
  • Use Computers
    Reluctant writers are more willing to stick with a piece through multiple drafts and are more receptive to feedback if they can I use word processing. During workshop, students may visit the Writing Center or use a computer in the classroom to work on a paper; they also add graphics and create projects with publishing software.
  • Foster Involvement with Writing and Reading
    Students work in groups discussing books chosen from our literature study sets.
    Their responses to reading often suggest ideas to pursue in process papers. The goal is personal involvement with both reading and writing. Portfolios involve kids in reflecting on their own growth.
  • Build Bridges, Expand Horizons
    Scaffolding helps students move from the, known to the unknown. Rather than jump from a personal letter to an analytical essay, we first change just one aspect of the writing--the audience or the purpose. Drawing on the work of Moffett (1992), we design sequences of such lessons that build skills, layer, upon layer into curricular bridges.

Changing Perspectives

Using these eight principles, we wrote a curriculum guide of lessons (Hear You, Hear Me 1992) that had turned on our previously unmotivated kids. But when we proudly shared our methods with professional audiences, we struggled with their gnawing questions: What were we doing that worked specifically' with black students or with underachievers? Weren't these principles just good teaching?

At first we were confused. Since three- fourths of our- students were not African American, we wanted our methods to "work" with all kids. Yet something new was happening that enabled more black students to succeed in our integrated classes. Gradually, we redefined what we were doing. In the early years, we had focused on changes in our students: analyzed their writing, agonized over their failures, rhapsodized over their successes. As time went on, we grew keenly aware of the changes in ourselves. We were changing not only our principles, but our perspectives.

Let's focus on just one principle--the one most crucial to our work--and how we grew to understand its implications for teaching and learning.

The turning point of our work came when we started answering a different question, even though we hadn't formulated it as yet. One principle in our original 1987 list was "Individualize." At the time, we meant diagnosing a student's strengths and weak- nesses and finding the best way to meet each kid's learning needs. After a year of action research, we modified that principle to "Individualize and Personalize"

When we recognized the importance of personalizing, of getting to know students as individuals, not just in academic terms, but in human terms--their interests, their concerns, their backgrounds, their styles--we had taken the first step toward answering the question of how culture shapes the teacher-student relationship. We found that we needed to know each students interest--not just in literature or in writing but in life: to be aware of their concerns--not just about their writing, but about their families, their peers, their future; to recognize their preferences--not just in learning style, but in social contexts; to acknowledge their culture--not just by incorporating their cultural heroes into the curriculum, but by weaving the threads of their culture into the tapestry of our classroom. We hypothesized then, and confirmed over the years, that the students who most improved in writing were those with, whom we had the best rapport, the closest personal relationship. Kids we could not reach on that level did not respond to teaching strategies that "worked" with others.

We finally realized that the students we had been losing were often those with whom we, as white female teachers, had the least shared territory, those who differed from us in race, gender, and class. African American males were our "mirror images: the ones we were most likely to misread. We began to ask how our own cultural assumptions might be blocking these relationships. Such toxic assumptions can be hard to recognize. They are an integral part of who we are, shaped by our own experiences and culture and are therefore difficult to isolate. We turned again to the literature and made new discoveries. We found resources by African American educators that addressed such topics as teacher expectations and "rumors of inferiority" (Howard & Raymond, 1985; Steele, 1992), bringing black culture into the curriculum in more than a token way (Smitherman, 1977, 1994; Kunjufu, 1986; Dandy, 1991), balancing skills and process in teaching writing (Delpit, 1986; Siddle-Walker, 1992), and learning styles typical of black students (Gilbert & Gay, 1985; Hale-Benson, 1986).

As we read and talked, we tried to monitor our own behavior, but were we really changing? We had to see ourselves from another perspective. Jane, our university consultant, visited our classrooms and took part in study sessions. Just as a three-way mirror gives new perspectives on an image she offered new perspectives on our work. Because she also supervises student teachers, Jane could contrast our teaching environments, attitudes, and strategies with those she observed in classrooms outside our district. One such comparison reinforced our attempts to "personalize."

Jane often watched teachers standing at their doors, greeting students as they entered. In many schools, she noticed telling differences in body language. A white female teacher might stand near her white students chatting personally ("Great game last night" or "How's your mother): she might interact more stiffly with black students and, especially with black male's, keep her distance. By contrast, Jane noticed that we conversed with our African-American students, in a personal interested way, just as we did with our white students. It seemed that our action research was teaching us some of the cultural patterns the ways of communicating "I care," that successful African-American teachers would use intuitively (see Siddle-Walker, 1993).

This had not always been true. Initially when we looked at black male students in our classrooms, what we saw was a reflection of our own fears, assumptions and frustrations--along with the masks the kids themselves put up for protection. Gradually through the process of collaborative activism research, we began to see through the "Invisible Man" to the diverse individuals--living, breathing, and yes, writing--in our classrooms. Looking back today, we see our own transformation as teachers. We, too, had been invisible, and we, too, have emerged from the shadows, When our research began, we thought we could observe our- African American students from a "neutral," "objective" stance, without putting too much of ourselves in the picture. But our students saw through this mask of cultural invisibility. We realized how much our own experiences, our contacts--or lack of them-- with people who differed from us, must color our perceptions. An "invisible" teacher can't see her own role in a problem.

How do we know we've had some success? While most of our students showed much growth on the annual holistic assessment, our case study, writers showed much greater gains. The district assessment papers of one case study writer, an African-American male, will show rather than tell the story.

As an entering seventh grader, Daniel produced just 53 words (including the rough draft) during two class periods. The prompt had asked for a letter to the principal telling the qualities to look for when hiring a new teacher (see Figure 1). The next spring, Daniel write three drafts, and his first sentence displayed the strong voice we have so often found and nurtured: "...they should look you right in the eyes and say, Dr. Fredstrom, I'm the teacher you've been looking for'" (see Figure 2). In the fall of eighth grade, Daniel responded to the prompt, "Write about an object you treasure and explain why it is important to you." He chose his fishing pole (see Figure 3). We see the skeleton of a beginning/middle/end, the seed of organization ("My fishing pole and I had some good times together"), and vivid verbs (wiggle, plopped). Daniel's writing skills were improving. But the gains he made in two years show quite dramatically on the spring assessment paper (see Figure 4). A full paragraph introduces the clearly stated organizational details ("the 12 pound 3 ounce channel catfish") and he even attempts humor. Daniel thinks of himself as a writer, and has confidence in his abilities. The reader can sense this confidence even in the artificial context of an assessment. Today, Daniel and many other case study writers have gone on to college.


Dear Dr, Fredstrom,

If you were to hire a new teacher the qualities you should look for in that teacher should be a person with a good sense of humor. Pick someone not to old under 60 or be low, someone that makes the homework and class assignments fun and interesting. A good teacher is someone with a good personality and...


Dear Dr, Fredstrom,
The qualities you should look for in a teacher is that she should look you in the eyes and say. "Dr. Fredstrom, I'm the teacher you've been looking for," You need a teacher who is hard working and work for that pay check, and someone who is kind, likes to help people and someone who has patients because you need patients to work with this class. We also need a teacher who went to a well known college and one who stands up for their rights.


My first fishing pole was given to me by my grandfather. My fishing pole and I had some good and bad times together. I remember when I had a 10 pound catfish on my hook, The catfish fought for about two minutes, then I got it up to the bank ready to take the hook out of its mouth, I tended to wiggle off my hook, ploped on the bank into the water and swam away. My fishing day was spoiled.

Figure 4

Fishing Pole

Now I guess you're wondering why I pick a fishing pole. On my twelfth birthday, my grandfather gave me my first real fishing pole. When I first got it I was amazed because he got me one of the best reels you can buy it was an Ambassador 5000 red open face reel. Now he brought the pole over. I thought he was going to give me one of his old poles but he gave me a new one instead. My pole and I had some good times and some bad times together. The best times I've had with it is when we went to a small lake. Not a lot of people were catching fish but I caught one that every one dropped their poles and everything to see the 12 pound 3 ounce channel catfish I had just caught. Everyone from around the lake came over to congratulate me on the successful catch.

I recall two other fishermen asking my wonderful grandfather and I, "What secret kind of bait are you fellows using? We both said, "Worms."

The worst time my fishing pole and I had is when my grandfather and his friend Mr. Thomas and I went fishing, The day before I had stayed up all night oiling my reel, putting new line on it and everything. So finally I \vent to bed hoping I was going to catch a lot of fish the next day. Morning comes my grandfather rings the door. Then I went in my garage to my fishing poles and tackle box and put it in the truck. Finally we were at the lake. My grandfather and Mr. Thomas are catching all the fish, So we were packing up all the stuff, ready to go and I got a bite and guess what, It was a 4 inch blue gill.

Our project continues to grow, with seventeen current members. Leadership has changed from Joan Krater to Nancy Cason to Gail Taylor, but all three team leaders have been practicing middle school teachers. In our district, the action research methods and eight principles have been adopted by elementary language arts teachers and are now being adapted in K-12 mathematics. Our work continues to be shared with teachers in other districts through the Gateway Writing Project.

We believe that if we hope to create multicultural classrooms, we must start by looking at our own cultural messages, then exploring the cultures of our students. Action research means learning to look inside as well as outside. With this perspective, the problem moves from "them" to "us." And once we take ownership of the problem, we can begin to find solutions.

Classroom Connections

Build on Strengths

  • Affirm strong personal voice
  • Build on oral language and oral interpretation
  • Create an environment for performance and role-playing
  • Bring Black expressive language into the curriculum
  • Guide students to investigate and appreciate dialects
  • Value African American culture all year
  • Value cultural diversity in the daily curriculum

Use Process Approaches to Writing

  • Allow class time for writing
  • Model process and product
  • Develop papers over time
  • Give credit for process
  • Emphasize revision and multiple drafts
  • Support writing process with word processing

Individualize and Personalize

  • Build trusting relationships
    Share of yourself
  • Know students' lives outside the classroom
  • Orchestrate response to student writing through individual, group, or peer conferences
  • Write personalized comments on drafts
  • Tailor instruction to learning styles
  • Allow flexible deadlines
  • Maintain high expectations

Increase Control of Language

  • Play with language
  • Teach editing in the context of writing, not work- books
  • Distinguish between journals, drafts, and published writing
  • Provide practice in codeswitching between standard and variant dialects
  • Model and use sentence expansion
  • Use mini-Iessons for instruction in common errors Individualize most direct instruction in proofreading
  • Focus on a "critical injury" when marking mechanical errors

Encourage Cooperative Learning

  • Develop a sense of community in the classroom
  • Establish heterogeneous classrooms and groups
  • Build positive interdependence
  • Expect group and individual accountability
  • Create settings for collaborative composing, revising, editing
  • Use peer response, peer tutoring and study buddies

Use Computers

  • Build on students' positive attitudes toward technology
  • Use word processing as an essential writing tool
  • Develop a computer equipped Writing Center-in the school or in the classroom
  • Encourage revising and editing, on screen and printout
  • Model writing processes with computer projection
  • Use desktop publishing for classroom work
  • Explore other technology-telecommunications, interactive software, graphics

Foster Involvement with Writing and Reading

  • Immerse students in reading and writing
  • Discover and use writers' interests
  • Encourage a choice of audience/purpose/mode
  • Make the writing real
  • Affirm personal responses to reading
  • Use computers to increase involvement
  • Develop a reading/writing workshop
  • Use portfolios to involve students in self-assessment

Build Bridges, Expand Horizons

  • Build curriculum sequences-expressive to analytical, oral to written, factual to imaginative (and vice versa)
  • Build from the familiar to the unknown
  • Model a form and "Do it twice" to make new task familiar
  • Build cultural bridges linking school, heritage, and the world community

*From Mirror Images: Teaching Writing in Black and White, by Joan Krater, Jane Zeni, Nancy Devlin Cason, and the Webster Groves Action Team. Heinemann, 1994. Copyright for this figure is held by the authors. Reprinted with perrmission.

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