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Busting Down Walls to Find Real Audience: Publishing in the Classroom

On our blog, English teacher Corrie White explains how she challenges students to venture beyond the page.
The wall I share with history teacher Dr. Steve Harrison isn’t much of a wall. It’s a new wall, built without insulation after many years of no wall at all, just an accordion divider. We pass each other in the hallway and make friendly conversation about the recent ruckus within our respective rooms. From his AP European History classroom, my students hear the muffled sounds of Enlightenment thinkers on speed-dates. From mine, his class hears a student screaming, “Horror! Horror! Horror!” as a terrified Macduff wakes up a sleeping castle to the reality of a murdered king.  

This is just to say that lately, I’m keenly aware of walls—metaphorical ones, too. Like many English teachers, I ask students to imagine an audience besides me in their writing, a purpose besides getting an A. Should I instead hand them sledgehammers to bust out the walls and see into their future—the gathering of employers, advisors, editors, children, spouses, clients, and investors who will one day depend on the purpose, clarity, and conviction of their written words? The budget is slim for sledgehammers, but there are ways to authenticate audiences, and I’ve tried a few.

The Woman Project:
Last year, I introduced The Woman Project as a culminating experience of English 9. Each girl chose a woman in her community whose life she admired, and once establishing contact, recorded an interview, created a podcast, drafted a journalistic profile, and presented her work on the day of final exams. The girls reached widely into the community and interviewed photographers, therapists, a senior VP corporate strategist, a mayor, attorneys, a crew coach, and a caregiver.

The interviews dove into professional as well as emotional territory—the loss of a child, living out faith, life in the U.S. as an immigrant, the pitfalls of romance, starting a business, regret, and the obstacles of ambition. The girls found opportunity in exiting the walls of GPS, using recording technology (thank you, Will Glass), and representing themselves as credible journalists. It was beautiful to witness ninth-graders take ownership of their writing and foster connections with women in Chattanooga. When the audience of their interview questions and personal conversations extended past 205 Island Avenue, the stakes became higher than a number grade. This year, my students will take part in this experience again, and I plan to work with the marketing department to publish the collection of profiles.

Ten-Minute Plays:
A few weeks ago, my Honors English students stapled and abandoned their Sophocles essays to my desk. Laboring over the logic of arguments, the clarity of syntax, and choosing the best evidence is arduous, indeed, and it was time to sit down for the next task: writing a 10-minute play! In an effort to lock arms with the GPS and McCallie theater departments, I gave my students the option of submitting their plays to the annual Ten-Minute Play competition.

American composer John Cage wrote a list of rules for students and teachers and among them: “Do not create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.” I knew the shift from analyzing Creon’s belated epiphany in "Antigone" to imagining their own character’s repressed secrets and quirks would be a jarring one. Writing a thesis statement is not like writing a character. One requires logic; the other requires empathy. They both require curiosity and risky thinking. Another difference lies in the looming fantasy and fear that their words might show up on an actual stage, spoken by actual faculty and student actors. The horror! The dream?

To train as playwrights, the girls studied the iceberg theory, in media res, cliché plotlines to avoid, and natural dialogue patterns. Aarushi Modi and Ellie Fivas wrote “Star-Crossed Lovers,” a tragic futuristic romance in which the moon falls in love with the sun, only for the sun to explode and leave lonely Pluto alive at the end. Chloe Newman and Charlie Haynes wrote an eccentric and anachronistic play, merging pop culture icons such as Ariana Grande with J.K. Rowling’s Hermione Granger, whose concerns range from surviving the plague and proving the earth’s roundness to achieving a dress-down day at school. Other, more serious topics included a young boy’s struggle with schizophrenia, a widow and single mother finding love again, and pursuing one’s dreams with a chronically ill parent. Whether or not these plays make it to the stage, several of the girls submitted their work—perhaps one courageous act will lead to more courageous acts.

Calliope:
As the sponsor for the school’s art and literary magazine, Calliope, I encourage the editorial staff to consider themselves stewards for student creativity at GPS. A few weeks ago, I watched my ninth-graders write their own sonnets. This means I watched a lot of girls count syllables with their fingers and labor intensely over what rhymes with “energy,” but still supports their love for their dog. Reveling in their process, I reminded them to submit their hard-earned sonnets to Calliope. The prospect shot fear into their eyes, as if Calliope were The New Yorker! To see student work in print elevates the student and the work, even on the level of a school publication.

If I, as a teacher, can bring what seems unreachable closer to my students in order for them to make an initial leap, then how might their confidence shift? I plan to write a Calliope companion curriculum—questions, prompts, and exercises that correspond with the published work. Shared with other English teachers, this curriculum will encourage deeper reading of Calliope, as well as writing at a higher level than they deemed themselves capable.

Isn’t stretching the whole point of learning? Isn’t high school the best time to try and disassemble the walls, first within ourselves, so we can gain the skills to bust through obstacles in the college and professional worlds? Holding closely to this belief, I’m willing to try, fail, reflect, and try again inside the three good walls of my classroom.
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