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Publish & Flourish


The Smile Electric

Eleventh grader Anthony Aviles prepares to publicly read an hral history he has distilled from interviews with a community elder. At rear: Lilien Christmas

On a warm day this past spring, a group of young authors was rehearsing for an upcoming reading at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Co-op City in the Bronx. Like anyone soon to face a live audience, they were nervous. But these writers - 11th graders at Millennium Art Academy, a small public school housed within the vast Adlai Stevenson High School - were particularly anxious to do justice to their material. The book they had written together, Speak to Us of Work: Bronx Oral Histories, is an anthology of the stories of elders from local senior centers and nursing homes. Through a project at TC called the Student Press Initiative (SPI), the students, working with their teachers at Millennium, had interviewed their subjects, transcribed the interviews and then drafted, re-drafted, edited and proofread the finished oral histories. Some students had created original artwork, too.

With a poster of Richard Wright looking down on them from their classroom wall, the students sat with their interview subjects, receiving public speaking tips from SPI Director Erick Gordon, project consultant Kerry McKibbin and several Millennium teachers and staff members.

"So what don't you do when you are speaking before an audience?" asked Iris Witherspoon, Millennium's Director of Intergenerational Programs.

"Mumble," a girl yelled out.

"Stare at the floor," offered another girl.

"Chew gum," said a boy and laughed.

"How about this?" Gordon said, leaning so far over the podium that it seemed about to tip over. The kids cracked up.

"And what about this?" asked Carmen Tieso, a Millennium social worker, reading a passage at such lightning speed no one could understand a word she said. Again, the kids broke into laughter. Next came the tongue twisters and breathing exercises. And then the final exercise of the day--putting all the practice exercises together for an actual reading.

Anthony was first up--a risky choice. Smart, funny and entirely unpredictable, he could do something spectacular or turn the whole exercise into a joke. Anthony paused, took note of his audience and began to read. And suddenly, just like that, he was Mrs. Lillian Terry--not just in his words, but in his diction, tone and body language.

My first job when I was younger was as a bus girl at a rest a u rant called Bi c k f o rd. The only thing I could do, be cause of racism, was to bus the dishes off the table when the customers was finished eating. Clear off and clean and then you would have a corner to stand where you would wait for the next person to finish eating. Then you'd take the dishes off and do the same thing all over again 'cause that was the only thing you could do well there! I started working. Wow! How old was I? 13. I think about 13.

He finished and took his seat. The entire room, including Mrs. Terry hers elf, broke into loud applause.


SPI has its roots in the 1960s-era Writing Process movement that promoted student self-expression, discovery of one's personal voice and collaborative learning. In the spirit of those times, SPI's approach is also pointedly democratic.

"This is not like your traditional school literary magazine where some kids don't make the cut," says Gordon, a full-time TC instructor and TC alumnus with a master's degree in the Teaching of English. "It's about equity--it's all-inclusive. Everyone in the class participates."

While most writers hone their craft with a distant eye toward publication, SPI takes the reverse approach: kids publish as a way of learning to write.

"Students who are more invested in the end product are much more likely to carefully learn the steps that go into it," Gordon says.

By natural extension, that idea puts SPI firmly in the "whole language" camp of writing instruction and at odds with the more mechanistic approaches embraced by the U. S. Department of Education under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"The idea that you write the word, then you write the sentence, then you write the paragraph, and then you write the piece - there's no passion in that. SPI takes a whole language approach, but it is a very directed one," Gordon says. He's quick to add that grammar, punctuation and spelling are by no means given short shrift, but they are taught within the context of the class. "Because we draft and re-d raft rigorously, there's plenty of time for both developing skills and self-expression. But there's so much more. We're supporting students to build knowledge and take real action in the world through writing."

In fact, a short piece in an SPI book is typically the product of at least 10 weeks of work, during which as much as two entire days might be spent on, say, transitional devices and how their use differs in review essays as opposed to persuasive essays.

"We've spent three days on titling alone," says Gordon, "But then we use that as an opportunity to teach relevant skills. I taught assonance, consonance and alliteration all through titling. We were looking at Daily News headlines just as much as more subtle examples to see how language works in titles."

SPI consultants have helped more than 2,000 students create and publish some 30 books at schools across Manhattan, from eighth graders to high schoolers to prison inmates. Before entering a classroom, the SPI team works closely with teachers to figure out the book's theme and the format - review, oral history, profile - that would work best with the strengths, skills and interests of the students and teachers and with the culture of the school. For example, a the Beacon High School in Manhattan, where the mission focuses on art, aesthetic expression and social justice, SPI consultants and teachers chose to assign a class of 12th graders the profiles of 30 public activists. The result was a book, About Face: Portraits of Activism, that included profiles of filmmaker Spike Lee, Columbia University civil rights historian Eric Foner and Freya Putt, student organizer of Students for a Free Tibet. At the New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies, a group of eighth graders was assigned a rigorous analysis of review writing. And at a high school in New Jersey, a group of sophomores wrote guides for incoming freshmen on coping with social pressures at the school.

Students typically take the SPI process from first drafts all the way through camera-ready copy for book production (depending on the technological capacity of the school). Then SPI takes over, using TC student interns and professional artists who have donated their time. The final product is sent to a book bindery in upstate New York for the finishing touches.

Producing beautiful, professional- looking books is, of course, a major confidence boost for the young student authors--but that's not the only reason why SPI makes that investment. As part of TC's Morse Center for the Professional Education of Teachers (MCPET), SPI also focuses on helping teachers improve their instruction. That includes onsite partnerships with New York City public school teachers, a special "teaching for publication" methods course and institutes, and the sale of SPI's student publications for use in classrooms across the country.

Although Gordon has used book creation as a classroom tool for years, it wasn't until he returned to TC as an adjunct faculty member in 2002 that SPI was born. It was then that he started to work with his former advisor and long-time mentor, Ruth Vinz, TC's Enid and Lester Morse Professor of Arts and Humanities, hers elf an advocate and practitioner of using bookmaking as a teaching tool. Vinz had just received a start-up grant and saw Gordon as the perfect colleague with whom to establish the SPI program at TC. Gordon also saw an extraordinary opportunity. "Ruth has this Gatsby- like quality - in the best sense," Gordon says. "She's like a mirror that helps you see your greatest potential."

Four years later, SPI is a Morse Center program. "The big difference now is that since the formal inception of SPI, we no longer have to do it on a bake-sale budget," says Vinz, the Morse Center's Director. Still, she says funding remains a formidable challenge.

"We now have a waiting list of schools and teachers who want to participate, but our staff is already stretched so thin. We desperately need to build an infrastructure, and that costs money."


Meanwhile, Gordon and the SPI team continue to follow the charge that came with the original grant that got the project off the ground: to "honor kids' writing."

One way they are doing that is through their work with students at the Horizon Academy at Rikers Island in collaboration with New York City's Department of Education and Department of Correction. There, on an island in the middle of the East River in New York City, behind a dozen bolted and guarded doors, the SPI team has worked for the past two years with groups of male prisoners, all between the ages of 19 and 21, who voluntarily attend the Academy to complete credits toward their high school diplomas or G.E.D. s.

The focus at Horizon has been on helping the students produce their own oral histories. Gordon and his team interview the young men on tape and then lead them through the process of shaping the raw transcripts into finished narratives. In the process, the students learn about narrative structure and practice specific skills such as verb tense and clarity - all within the context of describing their own experiences.

"What is significant about this way of working is that we start with success. We offer a text that is accessible to the student because it is his own," Gordon says.

The Horizon students, too, work toward a final reading for a live audience. Not surprisingly, their material is often painful and raw. Last year's book, Killing the Sky: Oral Histories from Horizon Academy, Rikers Island, was dedicated to Saint, a Crip gang member who wrote a piece for the collection entitled, "Why Can't Everybody Fear Me Like That?" in which he mused about getting out of the gang life. Days after getting out of jail, he was killed. The collection's title refers to a ritual described in another piece, in which kids go up on the roof of their buildings on New Year's Eve and shoot guns straight up, to honor dead friends or friends in jail who can't celebrate the new year. This past spring, the current class read from its recently completed publication, Killing the Sky 2: Oral Histories from Horizon Academy, Rikers Island. (The books were distributed free-of-charge to prison classrooms around the state.)

The reading took place in a drab room with painted cinder block walls and plastic molded chairs, but the excitement was no less palpable than it was at Millennium. The students read before a packed audience that included their fellow students and inmates, teachers, counselors, the high school principal, SPI staff, officers and others.

The first to read was Phat Boi, a soft-spoken 21-year - old from Brooklyn with an infectious smile. His piece was titled "That's All I'll Tell Him."

I've been in too much trouble in my life. I've been in and out of jail like six or seven times so I really don't want to come back here. I'm tired of this. I see people here - 50, 60 years old - and I don't want to be them when I get older. When I have a son someday, I'm going to explain my life to him, all the things I've been through. Tell him, "Son, you don't need to go thro ugh this. Just do what you've got to do. Go to school and finish. And just think about yourself." I'll al ways keep reminding him nobody's better than him. He's the best because if he thinks that somebody's better than him, he's going to want to be like them. He's going to fall into the traps that I fell in. So if he'll grow up saying that he's the best, he'll think he's the best. He won't need nothing in life. That's all I'll tell him.

Next came Jermaine, a bodybuilder who dreams of opening his own gym. Despite his powerful physique, he was clearly nervous as he read from his piece, "That's How You Get Around."

[My grandmother] was the first person to put me on a plane. I was nervous 'cause I was young when I went. I was, what, eight? So I would think, "Oh, the plane will probably go upside down." So I was nervous. At the same time I was happy, like, "Damn, I'm going to the sky, I wanna see how it is!" But at the same time, I thought it might flip upside down like when you watch movies. I thought in my head I might be dying.

In the middle of his reading, Jermaine suddenly stopped. He seemed about to give up and leave the stage when a voice rang out from the back of the room. "Take your time, we're with you, brother." It was the voice of the warden. Jermaine persevered.

Gordon, who was at the reading, was very impressed by Jermaine's effort. "He showed great courage at the reading; his discomfort exposed such vulnerability," he says. "His piece was an enormous success for him. We try to bring every student to a personal level of success with the belief that publication provides motivation and helps raise the bar for what, how and why students write."

That's one way of seeing it. Or, as Jermaine writes, in the conclusion of his piece:

I'm gonna be honest. I'm going to feel intelligent when I finish with this book - I never wrote a book before. I mean can you imagine the first time you write a book! And you're young? That's unusual! You don't see a whole lot of k ids in my generation writing books like this. So, it's a good experience. I want to write this book.

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