Teaching is a strange business! It’s a little like gardening in that you plant seeds and hope that they grow and that you will recognize the plant that appears. It’s fair to say that learning will always happen, but that we teachers have little or no control over what is learned.
The concept of Sophomores Speak Out grew out of a frustration caused by horrible assignments such as: “Find a current event and write a review of your event you have chosen.” Year after year, students go to their computers and look up world events finding an article which, to paraphrase British pre-World War II Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, is about a “far away people about whom they know little.” To that phrase could be added “and care less.”
There is a disconnect between adolescents facing a complex world, trying to make sense of what they see, and the cookie cutter assignments which more accurately reflect the interests and concerns of the teacher. How then to harness the passion for justice and fairness which is an integral part of the psyche of teenagers and give them an opportunity to reflect on the world and share what they know? All writers, including fifteen and sixteen-year-olds, need an audience. There must be a point to writing. Will it stimulate others to agree or disagree — or at least think about the points made?
Sophomores Speak Out, a collection of student writing on current events and beyond published in the Gazette every two weeks during the school year, gives our young people permission to be who they are and welcomes their voice. Within that framework, students can raise their voices about what matters to them.
An examination of this years’ columns shows students calling for justice for themselves and for others, and reflecting deeply on their own situations and the life decisions that they must make. One student who has an encyclopedic knowledge of sports can share this knowledge, while another may reflect on her education and learning that has changed she feels about the world.
What is the role of the teacher here? An awareness of boundaries is essential. There can be no carping, cruel criticism or ridicule from either the teacher or other students. Students have been told they have a voice. That voice must be nurtured and respected. The teacher is the facilitator who must demonstrate clearly to the students that responsibility for their writing is their own and should reflect their own interests and passions.
Our young people are often quite cynical about the ability of a teacher to allow them full autonomy and it has been my experience that they wait to see what you will do rather than rely on what you say. Ultimately it is a matter of trust between the teacher and her students, and as trust grows so does the quality of the work.
This year the sense that this was an authentic form of expression grew among the students, and as it did, our young writers began to experiment with ideas and with responding to each others’ thoughts. The response comments were thoughtful and respectful even though they disagreed with the opinions expressed by their peers. What a wonderful lesson to learn, that respectful discourse is the medium through which disagreement can be expressed, and that most important ideas can look very different depending on the perspective of the writer.
Not every student leapt to grab a pencil or a lap top, but eventually even reluctant writers experimented. Some students began to develop particular areas of expertise. We had a resident cartoonist, and one student acted as editor, either with a partner or alone. The sense that this was an authentic, student-driven project grew and our contributions varied widely. We had pieces written about high school life and drama, passionate responses to the tragic events of the Holocaust, Rwanda and Darfur and cautiously worded hopes for the future. Both of the classes involved in the project really looked forward to reading each other’s pieces and took pride in the page. Many of the students were approached by people who had read their work and commented on their particular pieces. “People told me that they liked what I wrote,” said one sophomore girl. A chorus of agreement went around the room from other students who had been surprised by the fact that people they knew in the community had read their pieces.
“People really do read it,” said one young man. “I was really surprised, but someone came up to me and said that I should have mentioned something in my article. I didn’t know anyone read it.”
For me, as the teacher and facilitator of the project, this has been an amazing learning experience. It’s a great day when you learn something new and a really good place to learn something valuable is with your students. I watched the sophomore students begin the project and find their voice. A class discussion about whether the U.S. should boycott the Beijing Olympics resulted in many students researching the issues and writing well-supported opinion pieces.
Similarly, our study of World War II and the Holocaust led many students to write with passion on issues of world peace and justice. But not all the writing was political or abstract. Many of our young writers shared views of their high school experience. They wrote about painful situations with friends, about animals, sports, music and stories that had caught their attention.
Our young writers learned the value of expressing ideas through writing and the magic of seeing those ideas expressed in print. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword and I applaud my students for their creativity, honesty and passion for justice and fairness which leaps off every page they have written. Those voices raised give me great hope for the future. It is in good hands.
Elaine Weintraub teaches the sophomore global studies class at the regional high school. Sophomores Speak Out is in its third year of publication in the Gazette.