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October 1, 2004
Vol. 62
No. 2

Lifting Voices in the City

Urban writing programs reach out to help frustrated city youth find power through writing.

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Jason, a 6th grader in an inner-city middle school, regularly reminded his teacher that he did not write. On the few occasions when he managed to scratch out a few lines, his pencil markings were almost invisible, his handwriting illegible, and his spelling incomprehensible. More troubling, Jason did not communicate clearly through speaking, either. Because of a speech impediment, Jason's stuttering voice sounded louder than he liked, and he generally refrained from speaking in class.
Jason's self-proclaimed identity as a nonwriter and his resistance to speaking in class could have been interpreted as signs that he did not have much to say. On the contrary, Jason had strong, thoughtful opinions unusual in 11-year-olds. But instead of using language effectively, he communicated through unpredictable outbursts, intense stares, and thoughtful gazes. Not surprisingly, those around Jason often misread his intentions. Jason might have eventually given up trying to communicate at all and taken a self-destructive path had he not begun to tentatively find his voice as a writer halfway through his 6th grade year. The transformation occurred when Streetside Stories, an independent, nonprofit writing workshop, came to work with students at Jason's school.

Empowering Students Through Writing

As a teacher and a teacher educator in urban school districts, we have seen cases in which students like Jason found a voice and a sense of self-worth through writing. We have also encountered many students who struggled in vain to express themselves through writing, and whose struggle led to a sense of powerlessness and drove them to communicate their frustration through unproductive behaviors. Although writing is not the solution to all instances of urban frustration, students can learn to use writing as a tool to exercise their voices and articulate their stories. We promote teaching writing to urban youth with the hope that fewer youth will turn to violence and more youth will turn to the power of the written word.
In discussing the history of writing instruction in U.S. schools, James Moffett depicts writing as an enormously powerful act. Moffett encourages teachers to empower their students through purposeful, self-directed writing. He boldly suggests that youth empowered with the written word can “transform rather than transmit the world we know” (p. 23).
Successfully introducing students to their own power as writers is sometimes difficult for urban teachers, who are often overburdened with a variety of demands. Curricular mandates, overemphasis on preparing for standardized tests, and insufficient time and material resources are just a few of the challenges that urban teachers face in trying to effectively teach writing during the school day. Although some students seem to naturally embrace the power of their written words, others resist writing and view it as tedious and unproductive. Sadly, many students who share this negative view of writing come from poor families or are academic underachievers or English language learners—those who could most benefit from the power that writing offers.

Urban Writing Programs Defined

In our search for strategies to make students effective and enthusiastic writers, we have found insight, inspiration, and a means to reach students like Jason through collaboration with community-based urban writing programs. Such programs are independent of specific schools and districts, work exclusively with inner-city youth, and strive to help young people use writing as a tool for personal expression. Most urban writing programs offer both in-school writing workshops in collaboration with classroom teachers and workshops held in after-school programs or in such locations as public libraries, juvenile detention facilities, and community centers. Many offer paid internships for youth and professional development training for teachers.
Independent urban writing programs exist in most urban areas. Teachers, administrators, and education researchers generally overlook these organizations and regard the contributions that urban writing programs make to the socialization and development of urban students as peripheral to academic studies. But some urban teachers collaborate with urban writing programs to improve their chances of helping students become writers.
Because they focus exclusively on helping youth create, share, publish, and perform their own writing, and because they work with small groups, community-based writing programs can give young people individualized attention, leadership training, and a tool for relating writing to their own lives. They provide opportunities for inner-city participants to see themselves as responsible, contributing members of a reading and writing community.
Many urban writing programs operate successfully in the San Francisco Bay area. We have spent much of the last year investigating how three groups—Streetside Stories, Youth Speaks, and WritersCorps—help young people become effective, enthusiastic writers. (Youth Speaks runs programs in New York City and Seattle as well as in San Francisco, and is developing one in Los Angeles; WritersCorps has affiliates in New York City and Washington, D.C.). Each of the programs provides a safe place for urban youth between the ages of 6 and 21 to develop writing skills and confidence and to publish their work.
All three programs recruit and serve students who are in trouble academically or living in poverty—or both. Social workers and teachers often refer students in high-risk situations to Writers Corps because they know youth will receive individualized, positive attention and peer support there in addition to tutoring in writing.
Collectively, Streetside Stories, Youth Speaks, and WritersCorps reach more than 20,000 Bay Area students each school year. Streetside and WritersCorps work with several hundred students in small workshop settings. Youth Speaks organizes school assemblies and poetry festivals that reach thousands of students at once.

Streetside Stories In Action

The approach and methods of Streetside Stories, profiled in greater depth here, typify the strengths of urban writing programs: high teacher-student ratio, a focus on individual voice and personal experience, and an emphasis on helping students publish and perform their writing.
Each year, Streetside conducts two-week writing workshops in seven San Francisco public middle schools, working within existing language arts classes. Ideally, Streetside would work with every language arts class in a school that requests a workshop, but sometimes a lack of funding forces teachers to decide which classes will get a turn in a given year. Over the course of the two weeks, Streetside facilitators lead eight two-hour workshops, during which students complete the first draft of their narrative autobiographies. Streetside also leads after-school workshops that students attend on a voluntary basis. Encouragement is key. Maria Rios, a facilitator with Streetside Stories, tells hesitant students thatYou're going to be great at this because you're the only one who knows your story. Nobody can tell it better than you.
Because several facilitators, the regular classroom teacher, and often one or two volunteers run Streetside workshops, students receive considerable one-on-one support.
To help participants loosen up, Streetside's workshop facilitators (many of whom are writers and actors) engage students in storytelling, brainstorming, performing improvisational skits, freewriting, and reviewing one another's work. Every day, the workshop begins with a dramatic and usually humorous performance by the facilitators that dramatizes modern fiction, folk tales or myths, or stories written by the facilitators themselves. Facilitators use modeling and mini-lessons on character, setting, and dialogue to help students write descriptively.
Streetside workshop facilitators insist that students write true stories about themselves. Each year, student writing revolves around a different theme. Most recently, students wrote about overcoming problems in their lives; the subjects ranged from losing a gerbil in the house to witnessing a parent getting shot.
Urban writing programs generally promote student voice above writing mechanics and conventions, believing that meaningful writing and individualized attention will promote skills development. Like Youth Speaks and WritersCorps, the Streetside program focuses more on developing writing fluency. Students are encouraged to write freely without dwelling on spelling and grammar. There is even a rule posted: “Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar.” At the end of each workshop, students participate in a single peer review, and teachers edit final drafts that will be submitted for publication in the Streetside anthology.
Following the workshop, the students' regular classroom teacher guides them in reviewing and revising their stories. Once all students have completed their drafts, the teacher selects approximately 10 stories to be published in Streetside's annual anthology of student writing. The names of all participating students, even those whose stories are not published, are listed in the anthology, and all participants receive a copy.

Forums for Self-Expression

Initially, student resistance can be an obstacle, even in voluntary after-school programs like WritersCorps and Youth Speaks. Some students freeze up, not knowing what to write or how to begin a story. Streetside workshop facilitators have a bag of tricks that help break through students' resistance or insistence that they can't write. Maria Rios asks questions that subtly bring out students' stories: “Where do you have a problem? Oh, with your grades? When did that happen? Write that down, exactly what you just said.” In some extreme instances, Rios describes, “I'd literally lift a pencil and start writing for them, and then say, ‘Now you finish.’”
Some students refuse simply out of force of habit, claiming that “I don't do work in class.” Facilitators show students how writing can reach beyond schoolwork and become a way to make their voices heard, both to their peers and to the broader public.
All three writing programs we studied focus on getting student writing to real audiences through books (made available in Bay Area bookstores and libraries), recordings, and online media. They provide forums through which young people can speak their minds and engage in dialogue with diverse peers and community members. Performances of student work, such as poetry slams, readings, and festivals, afford opportunities for students to literally lift their voices and share their work. Such outlets reach beyond the classroom and workshop environments and into the community at large.
Program facilitators not only arrange for many youth to be published but also encourage students to write for their peers, reminding them that they are teachers for other youth. Participants see the workshops as safe places where they can open up, express themselves, and learn from one another. Students gain insights into the lives of their peers, which leads to mutual respect. One girl wrote in her evaluation of her after-school workshop,We don't have respect problems here because we know each others' stories, and what happened to [other students] could happen to me—has happened to me.
Urban writing programs often become long-term sources of support in young people's lives. A Streetside program director noted that many of the students who enjoyed in-school workshops during their 6th grade year voluntarily attend Streetside's after-school workshops as 7th and 8th graders. WritersCorps and Youth Speaks both have paid internship programs that train youth in leadership skills, preparing them for adult responsibilities. Ben Pike, program director of Youth Speaks, explains:Some of [our interns] stay on and become long-time staff members. And some of them go off in the world and remain friends with Youth Speaks and come to our events. Some go on to college and start writing programs there.
By developing youth leaders who express themselves and their beliefs through words rather than violence, urban writing programs act as sociocultural change agents. Jason, who started his 6th grade year hating to write, changed considerably after his workshop with Streetside Stories. Although by the end of the workshop Jason had written only a few lines of his autobiography, the writing clearly meant something to him. He spent several afternoons sitting with his teacher, slowly finding the words to tell his story. Weeks later, he had written a story describing how his mother counted on him to take care of their family. Jason became increasingly willing to craft language to express himself and to use his voice to reach his chosen audience.
With the support of education leaders, urban writing programs and classroom teachers can continue to work collaboratively to motivate and empower students through the written word.
End Notes

1 Jason is a pseudonym.

2 Moffett, J. (1989). Introduction. In A. Dyson (Ed.), Collaboration through writing and reading: Exploring possibilities (pp. 21–24). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

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