Teaching through Publishing
“I’ve had very few epiphanies in my life, but this was definitely one of them.” Erick Gordon is recalling his first publishing project with a high school class. It was during his last year of college in San Francisco. Gordon himself had been dabbling in the emerging ‘zine scene and was thinking about a career in publishing. Then his writing teacher, who also taught high school English, asked Gordon if he would visit her class.
“I thought we’d do some sort of publication project, but I was thinking of it just in terms of the physical book we’d put together,” he recalls. “Then these kids found a gallery downtown where they could read their work. They made fliers and posted details in Bay Area weeklies. The shift in motivation was unmistakable. Still, there was this one kid who was terrified by the idea. I spent weeks coaching him for the reading. Then watching him at the podium that evening, making eye contact with him when he finished—I knew then that this was for me.”
“This” is the vocation that has since become Gordon’s life work—a unique, project-based approach to teaching in which middle- and high-school students write, revise, publish and publicly read aloud their own writing. At Teachers College, where Gordon earned his master’s degree in English Education in the early 1990s, this work has expanded into the Student Press Initiative (SPI), which Gordon co-founded in 2002 with his mentor, TC Professor Ruth Vinz.
Breaking with the traditional “literary magazine” model, every student in the class participates and is published. SPI teams have produced more than 100 student publications, including the annual Killing the Sky anthology of oral histories written by young Rikers Island inmates at the prison’s Horizon Academy; Turning the (Periodic) Table: Chemistry Regents Review Raps, by students at NYC Lab School; and This Is Where I Need to Be, an oral history compilation by Muslim students in New York City schools. This year, SPI has been working closely with New York City’s District 79—a non-geographical entity that serves recent immigrants and students seeking high school equivalency degrees—to create a publication of oral histories by English language learners (see story on page 20).
“Publishing has always been part of my teaching,” says Gordon, who taught high school in Manhattan for seven years after earning his TC degree. “And by that I mean publishing in the broad sense—not just a book, but a process that connects writers with an audience.”
The books that students produce through SPI are beautiful paperback volumes that, in addition to being distributed to general interest readers, are used in other classrooms in schools across New York City and elsewhere as teachable texts. But Gordon emphasizes that these anthologies are ultimately a means to an end.
“The books are just a tool to drive the processes that I think are most valuable,” he says. “It could be a book, a play, a stump speech given at a cardboard podium. Ultimately it’s about connecting with audiences and how that contributes to students’ understanding of communication. It’s wonderful, because kids who wouldn’t normally consider revising something they’ve written do it over and over again because they realize, ‘Whoah, this is going out there.’ I’ve had heated arguments with students about a seraph font on the title page, and that’s so wonderful. They’re truly invested in what they’re creating, and that’s rare in a school environment.”
The most difficult challenge he faces, Gordon says, is raising money to do the work. “It can be tough convincing people that this can be the curriculum, and not just an add-on to the curriculum. People seem to think creative work is the reward after the real work has been done. But we’re saying, combine creative thinking with rigorous academic work, and that becomes the curriculum, in ways that not only meet but surpass all the testing standards.”
Gordon, too, becomes personally invested in all of the SPI projects, but perhaps most of all in the anthologies produced by students at Horizon Academy, the high school for prisoners on Rikers Island.
“The Rikers work has always felt closest to my heart,” he says. “Almost every single student we’ve worked with there has dropped out of high school and then, once arrested, decided to come back. Most, if you asked them to point to a positive learning experience, couldn’t tell you one past second grade. And not to sound cheesy, but when we do the readings, seeing these guys standing at a podium, reading original writing to a packed auditorium—something that many of them claim to be the proudest moment of their whole lives—it’s thrilling.”
Rikers is a holding facility for inmates awaiting trial, and thus many of those who work with SPI subsequently are sent to prison for years.
“It’s always a terrible reminder of the challenges and limitations of what we’re working with, but I feel we give these guys something positive to hold on to, no matter what choices they make afterwards,” Gordon says.
In March 2010, Gordon and SPI completed an anthology with inmates at a maximum security prison in Minnesota.
“Most of the class were lifers, and they were writing letters to their younger selves,” Gordon says. “It was unbelievable. They very much had in mind younger guys in similar situations, on the verge of making decisions that could determine the rest of their lives.” The prisoners’ despair was mitigated, at least a little bit, by the knowledge that the anthology will be used in high schools.
“They know we get letters back from people, written to them,” Gordon says. “The books, at least, have a rich life after we publish them.”previous page