Word Warriors

By Bobbie Hasselbring
Under the direction of Linda Christensen, the Oregon Writing Project helps young writers–and those not so young–find voice.

Under the direction of Linda Christensen, the Oregon Writing Project helps young writers–and those not so young–find voice

There’s a quiet revolution going on in many Oregon schools.

Armed with pens, pencils, and paper–as well as the occasional computer–inspired K-12 teachers from health and science to reading and language arts are waging a social justice war for children. Their ammunition is the written word. And leading the charge is educational veteran and writing guru Linda Christensen, director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark.

“So what’s been happening in your classrooms?” asks Christensen. “What’s been working?” It’s 4 p.m. on a Thursday and Christensen is addressing a group of middle and high school teachers taking her in-service course on how to teach writing to children. The 13 teachers have been teaching all day. They have husbands and partners and kids of their own and stacks of homework to grade at home. Some have driven across town to attend. But they’ve come willingly, and their excitement is palpable.

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“Look at the work my kids did,” offers a young African American teacher. Dressed in baggy pants and an oversized athletic shirt and sneakers, he could pass for one of Jefferson High School’s students. Smiling broadly, he passes out copies of the handwritten student papers. “They really got on this literary analysis. I didn’t think they would.”

The student assignment was to write a fictional essay about Mr. Harvey, who tells a Hawaiian girl named Lovey that she won’t succeed unless she speaks Standard English instead of her pidgin dialect. It’s a controversial topic that’s close to kids’ own lives, and it gets them energized.

Lovey’s ashamed of who she is and who she lives with. Like her pidgin English. She’s even ashamed of her family. And Lovey’s ashamed of what she eats. Lovey thought about a new American name like Betty. Lovey also thought about living in an apartment. She would be like everybody else. Those three words, “Everybody else” made Lovey think twice about Mr. Harvey’s “philosophy.”– Adam*

Christensen contends that challenging students with ideas and issues relevant to their lives is key to engaging them to write. “When students can see the connection to their lives, writing becomes relevant and they care about it,” she explains.

The election of Barack Obama as the first African American president provided such relevance, particularly for students of color.

I look up to Barack Obama he is one of my leaders along with Martin Luther King. Barack Obama inspires me to do something good with my life. – Tracey

Principal Molly Chun, whose school, Boise-Eliot Elementary, is paying for three teachers to attend Christensen’s after-school classes, says, “We need to find every way to help children find relevance in their learning, and we start with writing about ourselves, our family, and our community.”

Modeling this personal, relevant approach, Christensen leads the teachers in a “reader’s theatre,” asking each to read a character in an excerpt from Bebe Moore Campbell’s book Brothers and Sisters. The story centers on a young African American girl on welfare who interviews at a bank. The interviewer is an older black woman who disapproves of the applicant’s too-tight clothing, long fingernails, and street slang (also called Ebonics or African American Vernacular English). Should the young applicant change in order to get a job in a white-dominated culture? The question ignites a heated debate among the African American, Caucasian, and Hispanic teachers.

The arguments tumble over one another, and laughter frequently punctuates the air. Christensen orchestrates the debate’s ebb and flow. With a practiced hand, she pulls in those who haven’t shared, refocuses the group when they move too far afield, provokes them with questions. “What about fairness? What about justice?”

“Where I come from, it isn’t about fairness, it’s about survival,” responds one of the teachers, stirring up another round of debate.

Christensen ends the session with a writing challenge. “For the next 20 minutes, write about a time when you were asked to change or conform in order to succeed.”

Suddenly, the room grows quiet except for the sound of pens and pencils scratching across paper.

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Need Outstrips Resources

Christensen, who taught at Portland’s Jefferson and Grant high schools for 22 years and served as the language arts curriculum specialist for Portland Public Schools, became director of the Oregon Writing Project three years ago. The project is one of five programs in Oregon affiliated with the National Writing Project, an effort to improve how writing is taught to children at more than 300 sites across the country. “There’s a natural alliance between Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling and the Writing Project,” Christensen says. “Our philosophies about honoring teachers’ work and students’ work in the schools are parallel.”

Before Christensen took the reins, the Writing Project was headed for many years by writer and author Kim Stafford, director of Lewis & Clark’s Northwest Writing Institute. Under Christensen’s direction, the Writing Project has expanded, reaching out to elementary, middle, and high schools in Portland, West Linn, Newberg, Woodburn, and even Tillamook. The program offers a monthlong summer writing institute for teachers as well as in-service classes taught by Christensen.

In this technological age, writing can seem like a throwback to a different time; however, educators insist it is more important than ever. Gloria Canson, English teacher and reading specialist at Jefferson High School, equates good writing with good thinking. “We don’t emphasize writing enough in our schools,” she says. “Writing and thinking go together. The better you can write, the better you can think.”

The demand to help teachers learn to teach writing far outstrips the program’s resources. “Schools struggle with writing,” Christensen says. “We’ve been swamped with requests for help, and there’s just me as a paid employee of the OWP. We need teachers who can go out and teach this work because they are the ones with the direct day-to-day link with children.”

That’s why Christensen recently launched the Certificate in Writing program at Lewis & Clark. To earn a graduate certificate, teachers enroll in the four-week summer writing institute, a yearlong practicum, and three additional classes. “We invited people into the program who have exceptional skills as writing leaders,” she says. “They’ll have the capacity to go out and do the work in school districts.”

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Making It Safe

Christensen calls writing “thinking made manifest.” For teachers and students, putting feelings, thoughts, and experiences on paper can feel downright scary. When high school social studies teacher Joann Tsohonis enrolled in the Oregon Writing Project’s summer institute, she was terrified. “I thought, God, my peers are going to be reading what I wrote. Linda, this respected writing teacher, is going to be looking at my stuff. It’s intimidating.”

According to writer Jimmy Santiago Baca, being a student writer is like being “a target in the crosshairs of the hunter’s rifle.” It’s little wonder students are reluctant to express themselves. “By the time most students are in middle or high school, they’ve had years of failure,” Christensen says. “The teacher marks everything that’s wrong with the paper. ‘Ten points off for that comma splice.’ ‘Where’s the past tense?’ It makes students feel small and not want to give very much.”

Your lips, your eyes your soul are
Like a work of art, the most effective thing
Is your beautiful heart. If you
Were a painting, no beauty could express the
Beauty deep inside you. A rainbow
Nothing less. – Tanya

The model used by the Oregon Writing Project emphasizes what students do right. After taking Christensen’s classes, Chrissy Lathan, language arts and social science teacher at Boise-Eliot Elementary, threw away her red correction pen. “If we can build on what students are doing right and well, then they’re going to be more willing to change the things that need to be changed,” she says.

Christensen offers this example of Larry, a tongue-tied ninth-grade writer, who wrote about his love for football:

I Realy Injoy the sport. I like Hiting and running. We had a great team and a great year. I would like to encourage all to play the Sporth.”

Instead of correcting Larry’s obvious errors, Christensen wrote in the margins, asking him questions about how he felt, urging him to “show her the movie” of his story. This passage from Larry’s resulting two-page story still has plenty of spelling and punctuation errors, but it’s deeper, richer.

When the halmut toches my Head my body turns
Like doctor Jeckel and Mr. Hide. I become a safage.
And there’s no one who can stop me when this happens.
My blood starts racing my heart pumping. Like a great machine of power. And when that football moves that the time for me to move and get that quarterback.
And anyone who get’s in my way is asking for problems.

At Boise-Eliot in north Portland, 20 seventh- and eighth-grade students–Asian, Hispanic, Caucasian, African American–crowd around desks grouped into tables. The walls are filled with handmade posters: “Feel the burn! Write!” “Explain your subject first, Add supporting information” “The body is the most important part of your information.”

This morning, the social studies class is learning persuasive writing, and Lathan is using the controversial U.S.-Mexican border wall as fodder. Employing Christensen’s model, she’s getting the class fired up before asking them to write. “Should we build this wall?” she asks. “Why or why not?”

Hands shoot up. Shasha, a thin African American girl, says, “If we build the wall, we’ll be destroying an ecosystem.”

“Did you hear how perfectly Shasha executed that?” Lathan says, smiling. “She backed up her opinion with a fact.” The class bursts into spontaneous applause. “Can you imagine someone building a 20-foot wall in the middle of your house? That’s how it is for the animals.”

Alex leaps into the fray. “Yes, we need to build it, but we need to sign treaties with Mexico that make everything better for everyone.”

“Why?” challenges Lathan. “What facts do you have to back up your opinion? You’ve got to use facts from what you’ve researched in order to convince somebody.”

Marquis offers, “We gotta build the wall, but we’ve gotta be smart.”

“Okay, what do you mean by smart?”

And on the discussion goes–students offering their ideas and opinions; Lathan encouraging and challenging them to go further. She praises often, something she learned from Christensen. “Good job, Eva. You used facts to make your opinion.” “That was beautiful, Tyler. Did you see how he made a fact-based opinion?”

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Lathan also uses “code switching,” moving effortlessly between Standard English and street phrases like “that’s whack” to make students feel safe. “I talk in my dialect because a lot of my students are African American,” says Lathan. “I switch and talk in Standard English because they need to learn that skill too in order to succeed.”

When she assigns the essay, she encourages students to simply let their words flow without worrying about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Correcting those will come much later, slowly, one error at a time. “Let your thoughts fall from your head, through your arm and into your pencil,” she tells them. “As you write, thoughts will come.”

Teacher Evelyn Flowers works with academically challenged middle school kids. The walls of her classroom are filled with students’ poems, essays, and even handmade books. Showcasing student work is a strategy she learned from the Writing Project. “Linda gives us lots of ideas for opportunities for kids to get extra credit and display their work,” she says. “And the kids are just running with it. In one of my classes, students wrote for 45 minutes. I swore that would never happen, but they’re feeling like their work is noteworthy and is being showcased. They’re really proud.”

At first when we met, we said hi
Now we’re still friends but we’ve
Said goodbye. I gave you a chance
And you rejected, you said it’s not
Good right now, and you stand
Corrected. You see what you’ve lost,
At least I hope you do – Katherine

Ultimately, teaching children, especially low-income children, to become writers is about social justice. “Writing is about how you process information and how you articulate your thoughts,” says Margaret Calvert, assistant principal at Jefferson High. “When you’re at a place like Jefferson, where a high percentage of students live in poverty and are primarily students of color, there’s a social justice aspect to teaching them how to communicate and how to advocate for themselves.”

Boise-Eliot Principal Chun agrees: “Supporting teachers to help children become great writers is powerful because writing is about giving kids power over their lives.”

Award-winnning freelance writer Bobbie Hasselbring last wrote about Lewis & Clark nanoscientist Anne Bentley. This article makes her want to take a writing class.

* The names of student writers have been changed to protect their privacy.