For the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project
I was inspired and encouraged by Pauline Sahakian to apply for the Summer Institute after I took a 6 week writer’s workshop class from her. It was my first year of teaching. I left a career in marketing and public relations to become a teacher, and was hired as the only Language Arts teacher (also Drama and Art electives teacher) at Lawless Middle School, part of the K-8 Lawless campus in FUSD. I had all 7th and 8th grade students—and the 8th graders had run roughshod over the school the whole year before. This is when I discovered that everything kids know about what’s acceptable at school they learn at school. There were over 400 pencils stuck in the ceiling of my classroom—fired up there with rubber bands. The pages of the dictionaries had been glued together, and I had just 32 7th and 32 8th grade textbooks—for 180 students. I turned to sets of novels from our then-district IMC. The 7th graders thrived, but the 8th graders had learned they could get away with anything, refuse to do anything, fail anything, and none of it would be part of their permanent record—they’d still get to go to high school, and none of this would appear on their transcripts. I had a student who usually wrote “I don’t care” on a piece of paper and turned that in, instead of his work.
The Writing Project workshop series revived me and restored my confidence that what I knew about the English Language Arts from having used them in the real world, outside education, my entire career had indeed prepared me to teach students to do real things. Pauline had a genius for being engaging, provocative and fun, and I took everything I did there with her and her guest instructors (including the late incomparable Martha Dudley) directly back to my classroom and implemented the activities and processes I was learning. I also did the reading Pauline suggested—chiefly Nancy Atwell’s In the Middle, and the works of Linda Rief.
I engaged my students as teachers, working one-on-one with ‘buddies’ in first grade classes. They taught the little kids “The Jolly Postman” and wrote books of letters with their little partners, in the voices of fairy tale characters. I watched the “I don’t care” kid bloom. We read Avi’s The Fighting Ground, and my students wrote letters home from the main character, and then their own adventure stories in epistolary style. A boy who had been a ringleader in the naughty group—on hearing that we had to do something else that period other than write—burst out, “But we can’t leave them just out there!!!” His experience of literature was now that of maker, and it lived large in his imagination (another of the key principles I worked from in my teaching—it didn’t matter what was big in my imagination; what matters is what is huge in my students’). They read Tom Sawyer and wrote parallel novels of their own.
During the Summer Institute, which was run by Ray McKnight and Jim Frey, Pauline mentored me. With her help, I constructed a solution to our problem of enabled student indifference—the “I don’t care and this doesn’t matter anyway” attitude that resulted in a 40+ % academic failure rate. We devised a portfolio assessment program where students had to do all the work, but had the whole semester to revise and refine, and choices to make in a variety of categories for their final portfolio. Each category’s artifacts were fronted by a reflective letter to “Dear Reader:” written to someone who was interested but unaware of our requirements or classroom. Each letter explained the categories, why they’d chosen the specific artifacts and what those artifacts demonstrated about them as a learner, and how the artifacts had been done—on demand, by a process, with feedback, and so on—so that the reader would completely appreciate their work in all its dimensions (which, of course, is what one has to do when one applies for a job).
Pauline Sahakian went with me to the Lawless principal that summer and helped me persuade him that this was in our students’ best interests. It would culminate in a two year showcase portfolio that each student would present to panels of adults from the community at the end of 8th grade. The buck would actually stop, so to speak. He agreed, and encouraged my colleagues to ‘come along.’ All joined before the end of the first year, because they discovered that the reflective writing and thinking process was one that transferred (higher order thinking) so they didn’t have to teach the students to do it, and that what it produced informed their teaching better than any product they could grade.
Because of the necessity to complete all work in order to do the portfolio, and because of the opportunity for revision and improvement of its artifacts, we went from 40% plus failure rate to 9% or less. (This is no surprise—that they did the work, regardless of when, moved them forward on their own developmental continuum towards literacy). The nine percent didn’t get an F. They got an Incomplete, and parents knew their child had the next quarter to do the work and get the grade—but if they didn’t complete the portfolio, then the grade rolled over into an F. Suddenly, for parents, the level of concern was high. They couldn’t say we “gave” the grade—and they could see what caused it: refusal to do the work. Kids were almost never incomplete two quarters in a row. They learned that they could do it now or later, but they’d have to do the work—and it was a lot easier to do it now. Further, since they were engaged in regular reflection, they developed metacognition, and understood how they learned and worked much better.
Pauline added her support when we had to go to the Assessment people at the district to explain the large numbers of Incomplete grades—because, as the portfolios were completed, the grades had to be changed arduously and manually. We needed the administrator’s cooperation. Pauline and Gail Tompkins invited me to present on Portfolios at a conference at Fresno State, and astutely invited the two admin-decision-makers from ‘downtown’ to attend. My students presented their portfolio work. The administrators were on board.
It is fair to say that this experience was empowering to me as a teacher in the best of all ways—I had student work as the best possible evidence of the success of the experiment, and it had been done, not to make life easier for me, necessarily, but to engage my egocentric and immature middle school students in a way that was irresistible. But working with student portfolios has the indubitable effect of giving a teacher irrefutable authority in matters of their teaching and their students’ learning.
Portfolios became the focus of parent-conferences, and once parents saw the thickness of a portfolio where a student was doing the work next to their child’s skimpy portfolio, the discussion was no longer about how I didn’t like their child. It focused on how we, teacher and parent, could team up to motivate their student. Portfolios became the evidence for getting special services for students needed. It enabled me to argue for access to special programs for students that their background might otherwise have excluded them from. Portfolios kept the focus on what was important—what the students do in the classroom each day—day after day. The focus was student work, not what a teacher has posted in the room, or on a lesson plan book page.
In addition to doing many in-services for the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project and founding and running the summer Camp for Young Writers at CSUF, I held leadership positions on the campuses where I taught. I spoke with the authority of authentic experience—even when this was not the party line. I did portfolio assessment with 3rd grade ELD students, 6th grade Manchester GATE students, and with regular and GATE/Honors students at Roosevelt High School where I taught 9th-12th grade students English, ELD, World Humanities, Journalism, and Academic Decathlon for the last 11 years of my career in K-12 education. Since 2012, I’ve taught at Fresno City College as an adjunct English professor, and use them still.
The Writing Project was a “Yes, you can—and let’s figure out how” place, and I am incredibly grateful and humbled that I fell into its embrace at the start of my teaching career. It was there, with guest speaker Peter Elbow that I learned the backbone of any writing program was the quickwrite—the equivalent to the drill athletes do before they play. It was there I learned that literacy is developmental. And there are so many other things I learned. The Project continued to ‘feed me’ with summer meetings, Advanced Institute, speakers—and an open library I tore through. It was always “Now” and never “Then” with the Writing Project and me, and I hope more recent Fellows feel that way too—and realize what a bonanza of rich experience, knowledge, pedagogy, imagination and support they fell into when they were accepted to a Summer Institute.
Pauline Sahakian, Ray McKnight, Jim Frey, Gail Tompkins, Ruth Jenkins, Rick Hansen, Joanne McKay, Kathee Godfrey—this is some stellar lineage. Thank you all. Thank you.