The following is Katharine Atkins-Pattenson’s elaborated speech for the WritingisThinking.org Leadership Lab hosted by Teach to Lead, the US Department of Education, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards on Friday, June 26th, 2015.
Tell me your story. What if others told it for you and you were never given the chance? What if the labels and codes ascribed to you by the public education system spoke for you? ELL. IEP. Low SES. Communication impairment. ADHD. Austistic. When our students’ stories go untold, these terms usurp their identities, and we fail to recognize the intellectual capacities and unique abilities of Andy, Wilmar, Shabin, Genesis, Andre, and Zion. All students are capable intellectuals who deserve to tell their story and for it to be heard.
Tell me your story. My story begins with this very question and two students: the Aguilar twins. I met Noe and Claudia the fall semester of their senior year of high school in rural Adams County, Pennsylvania. Noe and Claudia had crossed the US/Mexico border four times and numerous state borders with their mother following agricultural work. Their guidance counselor didn’t know what to do with two English Language Learners who had interrupted schooling. I met with Noe and Claudia to discuss their post-secondary plans and both expressed big dreams of attending college. Noe envisioned himself as a probation officer and a football coach and Claudia dreamed of becoming a pediatrician and helping immigrant families raise healthy babies. Neither of them had taken the SAT’s or the TOEFFL, or had met with a guidance counselor yet. I told them they would have to write a college essay, and it would be essential to tell their story. Claudia looked at me quizzically and said, “No one has ever asked me to tell my story.” For homework that night, I asked them to go home and write the story of how they got to be where they are today.
The next morning when I arrived at school, Claudia and Noe stood waiting outside my office door, clutching several sheets of lined paper. Their drive to go to college was so great that they had each written five single spaced, handwritten pages that detailed their journey. Sitting at the table in my office, I read each of their stories aloud with them. I only made it through two paragraphs of Claudia’s essay before tears pierced the back of my eyes and slowly rolled down my cheeks. Claudia’s words painted images that lept off the page of the two of them as five year olds playing under a shady tree in Texas while their mother picked fruit under the scorching summer sun. Noe’s anguish and assumed male responsibility when his father left their family gripped my heart. Although their writing had errors in grammar, syntax, and word choice common in students learning to speak and write in standardized academic English, thematic threads of sacrifice, humility, perseverance, relentlessness, and drive were woven throughout their stories. These are the ingredients that every college admissions counselor seeks in a prospective college student. Noe and Claudia’s stories prove that all students are capable intellectuals. This picture, taken on the day Noe and Claudia signed their college acceptance letters is framed on my dresser and I look at it every morning as a reminder of how high the stakes are if our students’ stories go untold.
Senior year is too late for students to begin telling their stories to engage communities of intellectuals. The themes of Claudia and Noe’s college essays are common to many immigrant and first generation college students. My 7th graders spend the year exploring the theme of survival and focusing on the essential question: How do individuals survive in challenging environments? We begin our 7th grade year reading Linda Sue Park’s novel, A Long Walk to Water, and analyzing how geographic environment and access to water impact the war torn tribes of the protagonists Nya and Salva. Then, we travel to 19th century Lowell, MA. Whilereading Katherine Paterson’s novel Lyddie, we meet the protagonist, a 13 year old factory worker in a textile Mill. We make connections across time and place between the working conditions and labor organizing in the textile mills of the industrial revolution, Cesar Chavez and the UFW, and our responsibility as consumers today. We end the year, examining what gives stories enduring power, and transforming excerpts of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative into children’s books that deliver messages about the power of literacy.
My students consistently rise to the challenge of identifying common themes and connecting their character traits to the protagonists in the novels we read. Writing is their access point. Their first assignment of the year is to write an I am From poem and to share it with their class. We map where we come from and keep this map and our poems up for the entire year as a living, breathing primary source document. Through this project every student in my room successfully publishes a piece of writing and develops a voice in my classroom. These poems are sources of strength that we draw upon over the course the year: a reminder that we are each capable writers, and to make connections between our stories and the character traits and themes in the stories we read. We began today’s presentation with student voice and I think it is fitting to end with it as well. This is an I am From poem written and performed by Junior Polanco, a 7th grader in my class this year from the Dominican Republic.
Teachers must own this passion that our immigrant and second-generation students possess. In teacher preparation, all teachers must be writing teachers because student voice will be the voice of our society in the future. Developing student voice and equipping students with the tools to tell their stories in ways that are appropriate to audience and purpose trains students to be future teachers, city leaders, and community organizers. It equips them to talk back to the status quo with confidence and persuasion. It buys them a seat at the table, from where they can create relevant change from the inside, not from the outside. As teachers we must recognize and honor this passion in each of our students and capitalize on every moment of instruction to accomplish this goal.