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September 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 1

Life Ain't No Crystal Stair

Young authors find their authentic voices by listening to powerful stories.

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When I worked as a teaching artist at Martin Luther King Middle School in Trenton, New Jersey, I brought two things with me, one visible and the other invisible. I carried 100 pens, because students rarely brought pens or pencils to class, and I brought stories—folktales from around the world and literary tales. For more than 25 years, I have been using storytelling and creative writing to teach at-risk students, operating from the belief that oral tales can inspire, motivate, and teach reluctant writers.
The Martin Luther King (MLK) school sits in a neighborhood marked by poverty and violence. In the 2005–06 school year, only 21.6 percent of MLK's students achieved proficiency in language arts on standardized tests, and no student scored as advanced proficient. Math scores were even lower, with only 7.7 percent scoring as proficient. And yet, the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders I worked with from 2004 to 2006 did not fail in poetry writing and storytelling. Rather, they succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. Although at first they were hesitant to take risks in writing, they became easily the best writers I have ever worked with.

Finding Clear Images

I started my time with MLK students by sharing Langston Hughes's short story "Thank You, Ma'am," published in 1933. It's about a boy who steals a woman's purse. Luella Bates Washington Jones, however, is no ordinary woman. She grabs the boy, drags him all the way to her house, and—once her anger cools off—tells him, "I have done things too, which I would not tell you, son—neither tell God, if He didn't already know. Everybody's got something in common." She shares her dinner and sends the boy home with $10 to buy the shoes he wants and a warning: "Shoes got by devilish ways will burn your feet." Every word of this story is carefully crafted, and I don't read it, I tell it. As they listen, students hear the voices of the powerful Mrs. Jones and the unsuspecting Roger.
After I looked at these students' first writing samples, I could see how much they needed a model like Hughes. I was dismayed by the lack of life and detail in their writing: It was general and sentimental. I needed to get them to clearly picture something they remembered and put it into writing. To give students a model, we considered the first few sentences of "Thank you, Ma'am":She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but a hammer and nails. It had a long strap, and she carried it slung across her shoulder. It was about eleven o'clock at night, dark, and she was walking alone, when a boy ran up behind her and tried to snatch her purse. (Hughes, 1933/1996, p. 223)
I asked students what they knew about this character from these lines. They realized that they knew Mrs. Jones's general shape, where she was, what she was doing, and what she was carrying.
Next, I asked them to think of someone they knew well and to imagine—and jot down a description of—that person in a place where he or she would often be found. "Picture something this person is holding and imagine something this person might say, and write it down," I told them. Suddenly, the room was filled with energy and a whole bunch of characters. Students generated such descriptions as these:My grandma is a small woman with a round, squishy belly and small black moles on either side of her nose. In her hands, stiffened with age, she holds a wooden spoon and metal tongs. "Eisha, your brains, you're walking on them," she says.My mother, a tall stocky woman, holds a child the size of her arm. "It was just the grease, hold still," she says, as she straightens my hair. One time she told me, "Never bring any babies home."
It's not difficult for anyone to imagine a person at a specific time and place. Details drawn from these imaginings give the writing life, and students' individual perceptions give the writing flavor. Reading these descriptions, I felt as though I had entered my students' kitchens and living rooms.

The Cameos Come Alive

We now had cameo portraits, but I wanted students to further develop their writers' voices by imagining how these individuals in their lives might speak. We again looked to Langston Hughes as our model, this time to his poem "Mother to Son," which begins<POEM><STANZA><POEMLINE>Well, son, I'll tell you:</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>It's had tacks in it,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>And splinters,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>And boards torn up…</POEMLINE></STANZA></POEM>
The mother goes on to encourage her son to persist despite the hardships of the climb. After discussing who is speaking in the poem and what the metaphor means, I asked my students to think of someone in their lives who might want to give them advice as this mother does. I suggested they write a poem in that person's voice, beginning the same way as Hughes ("Well,____, I'll tell you"). I stressed that this must be a real person whose voice they can hear in their own minds.
Powerful poems emerged from this exercise. The 8th grader who wrote the following poem told me that he did not read or write much, but he was consistently one of the strongest writers in the class. When I read his poem to the class, some students cried.<POEM><TITLE>MESSAGE FROM MY BIG BROTHER</TITLE><STANZA><POEMLINE>Dear little bro,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Well, let me tell you,</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Sometimes you have to accept</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>The fact that mom doesn't have a lot.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>You can't just get mad at her.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>It's hard enough on her that I am gone.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Life isn't all about the best clothes</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Sneakers or jewelry</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Cause when you're gone</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>You won't have it any more.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Trust me, I know.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>So the next time she says</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>I don't have any money</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Just bear with it.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>And who knows</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Maybe we'll see each other</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>In the next life.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>P. S. I'll be waiting.</POEMLINE></STANZA><ATTRIB>—W. H.</ATTRIB></POEM>
An 8th grade girl captured the rhythm, tone, and color of her uncle's speech:<POEM><TITLE>UNCLE TO NIECE</TITLE><STANZA><POEMLINE>Well, Niece, let me tell you.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Life ain't no picnic.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>You stumble through school</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Hoping you don't fail</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Then work hard all your life</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>And what do you have to show for it—</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>A social security check and a retirement plan</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>a squirrel wouldn't want.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Maybe that's why I chose the life I did.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Maybe that's why I did the things I did.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>But what do I have to show for it?</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Just do the best that you can do</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>And be the best that you can be.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Work hard and be somebody, E.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Maybe in the end you'll be proud of yourself.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Just promise me you won't be the person</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>I have become.</POEMLINE></STANZA><ATTRIB>—E. T.</ATTRIB></POEM>
This 6th grade girl was one of the few students whose poem didn't focus on hard times:<POEM><TITLE>FRIEND TO FRIEND</TITLE><STANZA><POEMLINE>Well, Ke-ke, I'll tell you</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>That blood wouldn't make us any closer.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Some people say blood is thicker than water</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>But this water that's between us</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Is like blood.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Like we say this friendship will never end</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>And we will be like sisters from The Color Purple.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>We will be like a ring:</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>You don't know where it starts</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>And you don't know where it ends.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>It just goes around.</POEMLINE></STANZA><ATTRIB>—K. J.</ATTRIB></POEM>
Asking each student to write in the voice of someone who was familiar yet had a perspective separate from that of the student elicited authentic voices. There is a powerful, stark honesty in these poems. Many depict images of a hard life; the voices get right to the heart of compelling concerns. One 7th grade boy hears his father telling him, "My feet hurt. My hair is falling out. I did time in jail. Sometimes I have to walk to work so I can put food on the table for you." Another girl recalls her father's axiom, "A woman with an education counts as two women."
I compiled two anthologies of student writing while working at MLK; these collections included many poems written during my workshops. School district personnel were delighted by the student writing from this project because the results belied the test scores, revealing the real learners and writers we knew were sitting in our classrooms. The students, too, were astonished at the results. My 8th grade class was not a chummy group, but as we read these poems aloud, the class applauded spontaneously after every poem.

What Helped Writing Emerge

Although the writing these middle schoolers at MLK produced was astounding, I think what these students achieved could be replicated with any group, no matter how reluctant or struggling the students initially seem. Several key elements of my approach helped my students' voices emerge.

Storytelling, Emotion, and Risk Taking

Beginning with an oral tale is key to helping students open up as writers. I usually choose a folktale that is compelling to teens. A story one person tells another orally captures both intellectual and emotional understanding. Recent studies tell us that the brain cannot easily absorb information without an emotional connection, and listening to a story provides such a connection.
This connection is essential in writing. Beginning with a story opens up channels of feeling and imagination that enable learners to connect to their own memories and experiences. Stories and poetry are an exploration of where we come from, what our world looks like, how people around us talk, and what all that means to us. When students write, they must tune in to the sound and rhythm of the language they speak and pay attention to daily concerns that define who they are. Without this opportunity, students have no voice.
Something else happens when I share a story: I transmit the message, "I'm telling you something important to me." The emotional investment a storyteller makes in dramatically telling a tale makes it a gift and forges an emotional connection between teacher and student that creates welcoming conditions. A storyteller takes an emotional risk—and models how to take a risk. Before I taught the lesson using "Mother to Son," I wrote a poem modeled after this format and shared it with the students. A teacher who becomes fully engaged in the classroom writing process says implicitly, "This is who I am. Tell me who you are."
Another reason that the MLK students wrote well is that they were free to do so. I held no particular expectations about what they would say. Much of what students must write in school is predetermined by the teacher. Writing becomes a guessing game as to what the teacher wants. A writer's voice may become completely blocked if the student senses that the teacher is looking for something in particular, something that "isn't me." We can encourage good writing in school, but we must also allow it.
If teachers want students to write well, we must believe that they have something worth saying. Students have radar for authenticity. They won't talk if they don't think we're listening.
Our students have a great deal to say if and when we give them the opportunity and the confidence to express themselves. We can teach them how words can shape meaning and possibility out of struggle and chaos. As James Baldwin writes in his story "Sonny's Blues":For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness. (Baldwin, 1978/2005, p. 41)

Baldwin, J. (1978/2005). "Sonny's Blues." In R. Bausch &amp; R. V. Cassill (Eds.), The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction (pp. 21–45). New York: Norton.

Hughes, L. (1933/1996). Short Stories. New York: Hill and Wang. (Original work published 1933)

End Notes

1 Students' initials are used in this article to protect their privacy. Student work is used with permission.

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