National Writing Project

Writing Our Way to Success

By: Andrea Heckner
Date: April 27, 2012

Summary: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Writing Project teacher-consultant Andrea Heckner was a participant in the 2010 NWP Professional Writing Retreat. Writing Our Way to Success, which was begun at that retreat, chronicles much of her first year as a high school special education teacher.


The Basement

I was a new teacher at a large urban high school. After changing careers from mental health counseling to teaching, I spent the last two years teaching elementary special education. I had been hired to teach self-contained English Language Arts to students with Emotional and Behavioral Disabilities. I was led by another teacher in the department to my new classroom; I was shocked at the three worn out textbooks. There were no books, curriculum or resources to use, and I had been told that the district curriculum was too advanced for these students; I felt lost.

I was led by another teacher in the department to my new classroom; I was shocked at the three worn out textbooks. There were no books, curriculum or resources to use, and I had been told that the district curriculum was too advanced for these students; I felt lost.

As I stood in front of twelve students, whose ages ranged from fourteen to twenty, I explained the first paper, a persuasive essay, which they would write. The students looked at me like I had spoken in a foreign language. Confused by their reaction, I began again; this time with a detailed rubric from the district curriculum guide. I barely managed to get through the first part of the rubric when Juan*, a particularly outspoken sixteen year old, repeating his freshmen year, shouted, "What the hell are you talking about?" As I answered, he cut me off, "No, we get the words, but you don't get that we don't have to do no real work!" He continued, "We be in the basement, 'cause we be bad and your job is to keep us down here and quiet."

Questions spun simultaneously through my head: Where had they gotten that idea? Did they all believe it? How was I going to approach this? As all students seemed to begin speak at the same time, somehow my brain kicked into gear and I blurted, "How long has this been going on?" Juan, who seemed to have become the class spokesperson, said "Forever." I naively followed with "When was the last time any of you did any `real' work?" Their answers varied, ranging from early elementary to middle school, but all consistently agreed that since entering high school and being "sent" to the basement, they had not been expected to do any "real" work.

I was so angry I could hardly find the words to continue. I kept thinking about the injustice of it all, and how I had unwittingly become a part of it. I needed time to think and plot my next steps. I surrendered my lesson plans for that day and let the class have free time the rest of the period.

"Real Work"

I needed to find a way to engage my students lest I lose them to yet another year in the basement. I decided to go right to Juan to see what his story was. As we sat and talked, Juan told me that he had not done any "real work" since middle school. He defined "real work" as homework of any kind, papers, and long assignments. In middle school, he was walked to a small classroom which was really a closet and told that he would be there from that point on. He quickly learned what it meant to be a self-contained special education student. He also learned that as long as he didn't mouth off to the teacher and stayed out of trouble, that he didn't have to do much, and he would get good grades. "What kid wouldn't take that deal?" he responded. Juan helped me peer into education through the student lens of one with an Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD).

My next realization was that I needed to proceed gingerly, but ultimately lead the students into believing that "work" would be expected from them that year. I knew their favorite subject was themselves so it seemed the logical place to begin was with autobiographies. I explained the assignment using a district provided rubric. A collective moan rippled through the classroom, along with a few expletives, but most got to work. By the next Friday, most rough drafts were turned in.

After a quick read through of each of the drafts, I was disappointed. They seemed to have been written with some unknown cookie cutter template and were at most one page in length. I did not know how to help them see the problem, and or go beyond it, but I did know I needed to figure it out myself before I could ever teach it and I was not quite sure how to do this.

Teacher and Writer

That summer, I enrolled in the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Writing Project's Summer Institute and took my concerns with me. There I explored autobiography, mentor texts, but more importantly I explored myself as both teacher and writer. I researched writing achievements of students with disabilities and found that they were doing far worse than their peers in regular education. The 2007 NAEP report on student writing achievement related the average score was 108 for students with disabilities versus an average score of 156 for their peers without identified disabilities. In addition the category of students with a disability had shown no increase in scores in the past nine years! I left the Writing Project knowing exactly what I'd missed: I had not heard my students' voices, but now I had a plan on how to proceed.

No one could have prepared me for the stories my students would write. The first step was doing the groundwork so everyone felt safe to write. We established rules and protocols with regard to who would read their work: just the writer and the teacher; the writer, the teacher, and a trusted peer; or the whole class. I weaved writing into other parts of class. We read autobiographies as well as excerpts from diaries, journals, and artful obituaries. We talked about the need for the reader to hear the writer's voice. I scaffolded reading and writing to meet my students at their level, but also helped them envision where their writing could go.

My students' stories made me want to cry, laugh, and scream at times. They learned how to make themselves heard.

I had to accept that, because of their behavior issues and given their history of low academic rigor, I would need to break their writing into manageable parts. The project I created contained seven writings and a culminating exercise to pull them together. I would write beside and with my students, share my writing and thoughts with them, and enlist their help with my story. I talked about my writing struggles, so the students could know that even teachers wrestle to find the right words. We would finish one section completely before moving on to the next. I asked if they had questions about their papers; their concerns centered around one theme, "Would I really let them write honestly and openly about their lives using their own words?" When I responded, "Of course," the "What if's" began: What if I write about gangs? What if I write about sex? What if I cuss...what if...and more followed. I explained what it meant to be a mandated reporter and what I legally had to report, and then told them that other than that, I wanted them to write their life stories. I told them that I knew life could be messy, and we don't always make the best choices, but to truly write their stories, they must write about all of it, good and bad.

I called their first assignment, "My Family's Beginning," because it was uncommon for my students to be part of "traditional homes." We brainstormed what family meant, talked about our varied experiences with being part of a family, and spent two weeks building background knowledge and skills. Throughout this project, I conferenced with students, they worked cooperatively with each other, and they were all expected to complete the assignment within the allotted time. Students utilized writing time of two class periods a week and turned in their drafts within two weeks. The writing happened; their voices were heard. A sixteen-year-old male reveals his honest portrayal in section one:

When I was 6 months old, my mom gave custody of me to my grandma. My grandma was really my family. When I was ten, my grandma went to the hospital. I found out when we got there that she had cancer. She had chemo and radiation treatment. The cancer went away. But it came back, by the end of seventh grade she was in and out of the hospital all the time. She died when she was only fifty-three years old. No one wanted me. I stayed at a friend's house for a few months and then my mom let me move in with her. I once had a family but she died.

My students began to see themselves as writers. They actually began to ask each other about their writing. They started discussions about writing in other classes with other students. They wrote to tell their stories, and for many it was the first time anyone really heard. We discussed point of view and credibility, had long discussions on how others might tell different versions of the same story, and how this made the perspective neither wrong nor right.

The second assignment was to retell an often-told family story, and then get at least one other family member to retell the story, and compare the two. I encouraged them to talk to relatives who knew the story but who they had not heard tell it. To establish a reasonable timeline, I assured them that the writing process takes time to develop; they would have two weeks to complete this section. They worked hard and again turned in work of which they, and I, were proud.

A New Collective History

I continued to read research about students writing autobiographies. Henry Lewis Gates Jr. wrote, " telling your own history, if you're a member of a historically oppressed or narratively excluded group, you can tell a new collective history" (111). My students, all minorities with identified disabilities, could rarely relate to characters in literature selections. Discussing this issue, one student, Missy*, stated "Who would write a story about some badass Black and Hispanic kids?" I told them this was their chance, yet they questioned who would read their stories. We discussed whose lives their writing could impact. They decided that younger kids with similar issues and teachers who work with EBD students might identify with their stories. We continued to work on English concepts, like figurative language, similes, metaphors and personification, which were unclear to my students. I presented these concepts through our reading and writing.

We were ready to move onto the project's third writing about our earliest memories, back to the days when they were "little kids." This part of the project took about a week-and-a-half. As the students prepared to turn in this assignment, one 17-year-old girl, who rarely spoke in class, approached me. "After you finish reading it, can I read it to the class so maybe they can start to understand why I am the way I am?" I agreed, and after reading her piece I knew that for some students, writing was therapeutic. She had endured physical abuse at the hands of her own mother.

I was her outlet. All her anger was vented onto me. I thought it was something parents just did. I began to think that I was only there for my mom to beat. My dad knew what was happening and would tell me that it would stop but then he would do nothing. It was the same with everyone else. There were promises but then everyone would go out drinking with my mom and forget what was happening to me. I became only an image. A painted picture on the wall; the kind of picture everyone looks at in the beginning and then is forgotten.

With my background as a mental health counselor, the concept that writing could be therapy for the students was something I embraced. I felt I could help them know how and when to safely disclose personal information. I worked with the school social worker during this time to help me understand and process their writing; she helped them work through some deeply rooted personal issues. I read Louise DeSalvo's book, Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives (2000), and I began to discuss her ideas with my class. DeSalvo writes, "This book is an invitation to engage with your writing process over time in a way that allows you to discover strength, power, wisdom, depth, energy, creativity, soulfulness, and wholesomeness..."(9). I wanted students to discover positive things about themselves and build upon their newfound strengths to experience personal and academic success.

Ready to move to the fourth writing, we wrote about an early childhood to late elementary school experience that had a sustained impact. Whether positive or negative, it needed to be a vivid memory that had shaped their lives. We set the deadline for a week and got to work. As had become custom, the students were eager to share with each other and me. Fred* wrote this as part of his fourth assignment:

I was five years old when I first started getting in trouble at school. I thought my teacher was real mean because the stuff I got in trouble for, everyone in my neighborhood did. Nobody had told me that you can't spit at school, or shout to get people's attention and play fighting was a big deal to my teacher even though we all did it at home. So, she kept yelling at me and I kept being me. One day she was real pissed at me, she sent me to sit in the hall and called the principal. When he got there, they walked into the hall not far from me to talk. I can still hear her voice telling him "I hate that kid. He is evil. He is ruining my class and I want him out for good." That was the day I decided that school was not going to work for me.

The students gave me glimpses into their lives which often answered the question why they seemed disengaged from school. As we neared the end of the first quarter, I felt we had the momentum we needed. I talked to them about writing conventions. This was a sticky subject as I had been asking students to "just write" up until now—free from red-ink responses. I assured them that when I wrote, I got it all down, and then edited, but somehow they doubted me. Each had experienced failure over the conventions of writing. Over the years, their writing had been stifled and squashed by worries over spelling and correct punctuation. Their growth as writers depended on them jumping into these difficult and uncharted waters. Together, we jumped in and treaded water. We talked about what made sense and what didn't. We had open discussions about our weaknesses with spelling, including my own. We played grammar games and messed around with punctuation. I told them editing should never become the obstacle that sinks our writing.

The fifth assignment began the second quarter; we were more than halfway through the project. For this portion, we would focus on middle school years. I invited students to focus on a significant event or series of events, including what led up to it, the event itself, and the after effects. Juan,* who wrote about his experience with a gang, began:

I was what you would call a peewee, a stupid little gangster, out there on the streets doing things someone else wants you to do. To me being with the gang was my life and duty and what I had to do. I went through three years learning all that I could to rise ahead in the gang. I thought I was a badass out there but soon enough I learned my first lesson.

Beyond the Writing Classroom

My students' stories made me want to cry, laugh, and scream at times. They learned how to make themselves heard. Echoing Peter Johnston's Choice Words (2004), I had called my students "readers" and "writers" since school started, and they had evolved into those. I received reports from other teachers in the department that the students I had for English were doing better in all their classes; they were doing more assignments, skipping fewer classes and responding more appropriately in class. My students were developing a personal narrative and formula for success; their confidence as problem solvers grew. When presented with problems, they drew upon accessible tools and familiar steps to solve them. They knew they could be high achievers above the basement as well.

We advanced collectively not only through the project, but also as a class and a community of writers. My students conversed about writing that I no longer initiated. Going about daily housekeeping, I overheard this conversation:

Chrissie: "I don't know, there is just something not right about the sentences—you know, the way they go together. You know like Mz. (sic) Heckner says, 'the flow'."

Juan: "Okay, read it to me again and I will try to help you make it flow."

Chrissie reread her paragraph to Juan.

Juan: "You are right, it is all messed up, but I got an idea how you can fix it. Why don't you try moving the sentences around like this?"

Be still my teacher's heart. They had begun to think and talk like writers. But more than that, they were supporting each other as writers.

Moving on to the sixth writing, the students and I explored events that happened at school that shaped who we are today. As I explained the assignment, their faces contorted and turned strange shades, so I stopped to investigate why. Their unanimous answer was, "School sucks!" Maybe so, I told them. I told them how my junior high school experiences had been really bad and I was going to write about one crappy experience involving braces, bad hair, and the school bully. Cory* told his own middle school story:

I started getting into trouble when I was eleven years old and in the sixth grade. I started to lash out at anyone who stood in my way. I started to blow up at everyone, even my friends. I was tired of the drama at home. I was tired of being neglected and the constant arguments. I was constantly being suspended from school. No one tried to figure out why I was doing what I was doing they just punished me. I wish they would have just asked me what was wrong so I could have kept doing good in school.

When we started this project few students wanted to share. Now, I had to rework lesson plans to allow enough time for all to share and encourage each other. After being absent one day, I returned to this note from a substitute:

"The kids said it would be okay if we did not do your lesson plans." Oh, no, I thought, and then smiled as I read, "They wanted instead to help each other with their autobiography projects. I hope you enjoyed your conference."

The last portion of our project would be about something eventful in their teen years since starting high school. An older student wrote:

I had been in high school for three years and was still a freshmen but that is not what this story is about. I was hanging out with my cousin and his girlfriend. It was his girlfriends' birthday. It was a nice day outside so we decided to have a party outside and it was about nine at night when out of nowhere a car pulled up. As the car pulled up, two people jumped out and started shooting. My cousin pushed his girlfriend to the ground and then me. He got hit in the chest twice. He died before the E.M.S. got there. I would have been killed if he didn't do what he did.

Through writing all parts of our autobiographies, we had laughed, cried and grown as writers. Now it was time to pull pieces together. We looked at the different ways we could go about this: chronologically, starting with a hook, foreshadowing, and other creative versions that students had learned. No more cookie cutter autobiographies. The autobiography projects were a labor of love—of knowledge, labor, and strife. Not only did students see themselves as writers, but also as students—real students, not just kids in the basement.

Many students' autobiographies found their way into college entrance essays, poems, and rap songs. I have successfully repeated the project, but never have experienced the power of discovery like with the first group. I think students sensed I was learning with them, and I was awed by their growth and self discovery as writers. The room in the basement was no longer just a holding room; it became our classroom. The students found success in school, and I found success as a teacher of writing.

* All students' names have been changed.

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