Authenticity Works

By Debra Schneider, District Literacy Lead and Librarian, Tracy, CA:


Students in the Senior Odyssey elective writing class were slowly building community, but a few students were still on the periphery, quiet, not participating in reading their informal journaling aloud to the class. I worried, always, about whether the class would gel, knowing it would determine whether or not the students achieved the course goals, to answer “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?”

In Writer’s Workshop, we were moving toward more formal sharing of writing, in twice-weekly Author’s Chair sessions. Students volunteered to read, and I taught and enforced a very simple response protocol, focusing on positive and constructive affirmations to build trust and support risk-taking. Kee, a young man who struggled with writing and rarely spoke at all in class, volunteered to read near the end of the period. To be honest, I was apprehensive. Was he ready? Would this build or break him? Kee sat on the stool at the front of the room and his classmates sat facing him with the handout of response frames on their desks, ready for use. He looked up, holding two pieces of paper in his hands, and began to read.

The piece was autobiographical and a metaphor, about a struggle through conflict, war, fire, and more. Kee—and his immigrant father—were reaching with outstretched arms through flames, but unable to make contact, held distant by culture, life experiences, generational difference, and much pain. His hands shook a bit and his papers began to shake, too. He explained nothing directly, but his meaning was clear and it reverberated with adolescents who were trying to forge relationships on new grounds with their parents. The further Kee read into this story, the more vulnerability and emotion he expressed, the more his papers rattled, but his classmates and I remained spellbound. His story ended. The class was quiet for a beat.

Belle, a lovely, caring student sitting to my left, swiftly turned to me and said, “I’m going to break your rules about responding.” I looked at her with some alarm. Then she turned her body back to Kee and, pointing to her chest, then to him, said, “I. Love. You. I hear you and I love you. You are loved.” Kee was crying. He and Belle held eye contact. I leaned back in my chair, in both gratitude and appreciation for the power of writing and the courage of my students. I knew this year would go well.