“I’m a Writer Now!” The Who, Where, and When of an ELL Newspaper
Summary: Bellino, a teacher of English language learners, describes the process of publishing a newspaper written by his students and talks about how this paper has positively affected readers, writers, and the school.
"What a great idea!" I thought as I turned the pages of a frayed international student newsletter I found stuffed in the back of an old file cabinet in my high school classroom. "But there's no way my students could do something like this."
It was 1974, and I was a new teacher of English language learners, fresh from graduate school with three years' experience in the Peace Corps in West Africa. The newsletter that impressed me was a product of the International Club a few years earlier. It contained international news, exquisite drawings, and short explanations about different customs in countries represented by students in the club. It was impressive but seemed not something I could do.
As the years passed I gained experience and confidence in my teaching and from time to time toyed with the possibility of producing a newsletter just like the one in the back of my file cabinet. But it was an idea that was easy to push aside. I didn't know how to do it, and I didn't think my students wrote well enough to produce a school publication.
I was not thinking how much getting published in a newspaper would give students positive feelings about themselves and their lives in this country.
In the mid-1980s, however, I was beginning to run out of excuses. In 1984 Maryland implemented a writing test that was required for graduation—a test that my English language learners were actually passing. When many of my students said, after passing the test, that they didn't need to write anymore, I knew I needed to give them a real purpose for writing. I wanted students to know that we don't write simply to pass a test. We write because we have something to tell people. As I learned more about the process of writing, I began to believe that my students really would be able to produce the kind of writing that others in the school would like to read.
Another obstacle—how to do it—was beginning to fade. Computer technology that was creeping into the schools started to offer software to simplify newsletter production. In 1986, I saw an advertisement for Newsroom, a computer program designed for our new Apple II+ computer, which I was just beginning to feel comfortable with.
Also by 1986, when the population of English language learners in our school approached 15 percent of the student body, I thought we would be able to get enough support from the teachers and students to produce multiple issues of a newsletter. I applied for and received a $250 grant from The Washington Post that allowed me to purchase the computer software I saw advertised, and Silver International, the seed that was planted when I first noticed the International Club newsletter many years earlier, began to take root.
Cultivating the Seed
For the past nineteen years Silver International has grown and flourished as a publication for English language learners in our school and many other schools around the world that subscribe to it. It's called a newspaper, but there is not much news in it. Yes, there are a few articles about things happening in our school and other schools, but there are also a lot of essays, poems, drawings, personal messages, and letters written by English language learners—students who rarely have the opportunity to see their written work in print. Writers enjoy sharing their personal stories full of pain and hope. Readers love skimming the paper looking for something about their country or an article written by a friend.
Originally intended for our school's English language learners only, the paper now has a circulation of 4,200 copies. It is distributed to 3,500 students and staff in my high school, Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, and is mailed to more than 700 students, teachers, parents, and friends around the world. A number of teachers in other schools have class subscriptions and submit their own students' writing for publication.
The first year was overwhelming. Somehow I managed to find a group of students brave enough to write the first articles, collect a few writing samples from skeptical colleagues, and learn enough about the computer software that we could put together four decent-looking issues. Remembering the many problems we had to overcome that first year, I know that it was only because of the need to write a final report for the grant we received that I pushed the students to do what we set out to do. Often I told myself that our first year would also be our last.
But then the paper would come out, and we would all be overwhelmed with positive reactions from every corner of the school and beyond. Any talk of not continuing another year was met with comments like, "You can't do that! It's too important to the school!"
By the end of the third year, we had worked out an arrangement that allowed Silver International to publish with the school newspaper as a separate pullout section. This would make it possible for us to distribute the paper to students in other schools, allow the entire school to receive it, and give our English language learners complete control over its production.
Today these students have their own journalism class, which I teach. We produce three issues a year printed on tabloid-sized newsprint. A typical issue is twelve pages long and might contain the writing of from fifty to seventy students. Articles may be only one paragraph long or may fill an entire page. Our February issue, the most popular of the three issues we do each year, has a Valentine's Day section with hundreds of one- or two-line messages to parents, teachers, and friends written by students in elementary school, middle school, and high school. (See Figure 1.)
We have also created a Web version of Silver International. Normally, by the first week of May each year we have completed our final print version of the paper. Then the students work in teams to convert it to a format that allows us to publish on the Internet.
For about four years, the school system paid all the printing costs of the paper through a minigrant that we received. However, when the minigrant program ended, we lost all school system funding for the paper. We have resisted selling advertisements as other school newspapers do. Instead we rely on subscription sales, grants, donations, and our own fundraising projects to get the $3,000 a year needed to print the paper.
The Seed Bears Good Fruit
My main reason for starting Silver International was to provide English language learners with reading material related to their lives and interests, and also to give them models of good writing. My hope was that somehow this would help them improve their own reading and writing in English. The best way to illustrate that the paper has been successful in doing this is to tell the stories of Miguel and Vichea.
Miguel was an extremely quiet, sad, withdrawn student from El Salvador who struggled with English. Yet even though his English was not very good, he had a story he wanted everyone to know. One day he handed me two sheets of paper and said, "I've been reading the stories in Silver International by the students from Vietnam and Cambodia. I want to tell my story, too."
I glanced at his paper and sighed to myself—four pages in pencil, one paragraph, no periods, many structural and mechanical errors. But I started to read it, forcing myself to pull meaning from the mass of words he had put together, asking for help with the more confusing sections. I realized that Miguel did have a story to tell, a story that I wanted everyone to know, a story about living through a frightening experience of war in his small village.
Once a week after school for about five weeks, before he went to work, Miguel and I met to go over his story. I helped him find his sentences and paragraphs. I helped him see where he needed to use past tense and where present tense would be better. I helped him understand direct and indirect speech and was able to get him to use quotation marks and commas correctly.
When the paper finally came out, and he saw how his story completely filled one page, it was the first time I saw him smile. Miguel was a different student after that. People knew Miguel and they knew Miguel's story.
Vichea had recently come to the United States from Cambodia and was in a high beginning English class for nonnative English speakers. I knew that Vichea also had a story, a story I only knew small bits of, but one that the school needed to know as well. Since I didn't think his English was developed enough to write the story himself for Silver International, and since the paper did not at that time have skilled reporters who wrote about others, I talked to the advisor of the main school newspaper and suggested they do a story about Vichea. A few days later Vichea came to me. "Mr. Bellino, why didn't you ask me to write my own story?" he asked.
"I didn't think you knew enough English to do it yourself," I answered. "But if you want to, that would be a lot better."
About a month later, Vichea handed me his story. As I skimmed through it, I was surprised at how good it looked. There were a lot of grammatical errors, but it had periods and paragraphs, and, most surprisingly, he had used dialogue correctly. I knew this was not something he had been taught in his high beginning ELL class. "Who helped you with this?" I asked.
"No one," he answered. "I did it all myself."
That evening I read Vichea's story more closely and noticed amazing similarities with Miguel's story. I could not help but wonder if he had taken sections from it as his own. Both stories took place in villages that were attacked by rebels. Both writers were held at gunpoint by boys they knew from their schools. Both engaged their captors in dialogue and questioned the usefulness of their captors' actions.
The next day I asked Vichea about the similarities between the two stories. Vichea explained that he himself was surprised at how parts of Miguel's story were so much like his own. "But the same things happened to me," he said. "I knew the boy who was holding the gun at me just like Miguel wrote about in his story." But Vichea had also been able to learn a lot about correct written English, especially how to format dialogue, by reading Miguel's story. "I used Miguel's story to help me with mine," he said, "especially with the talking part because I didn't know how to do that."
Things I Have Learned
I started Silver International expecting that it would help students improve their writing. I was pleased but not surprised when Vichea talked about the things he learned by reading Silver International. But other things have come from the newspaper that I did not expect.
I was not aware of the therapeutic value of the paper for children of war and other traumatic experiences. Miguel's story was one example, but there are many others by students who found relief knowing that others knew some of the terrible things they had experienced. Students have also written about living through hurricanes and earthquakes and have told stories of personal tragedies. Students who write these stories often comment on how much they appreciate the positive reactions they receive from teachers and classmates.
I was not aware of how much the paper would help staff members learn about the school's international students. After an early issue, a school counselor came up to me and grabbed my hand excitedly. "I need to shake your hand," she said. "That paper is amazing. It made me realize that these kids don't just come from across the street."
I was also not aware of how it would affect students who were not English language learners. When we started to distribute the paper to the entire student body, I wondered how it would be received. While I saw many native English-speaking students throw it aside, I also saw many reading it. When one staff member of the main school newspaper saw me in the hall one day, she said, "I like some things in your paper better than ours. It's more like a magazine."
I did not think that articles students wrote would actually effect change in the school. However, after our second issue I realized that the paper has tremendous power. As the head of the English language learners' program in our school, I was concerned about the low grades the students were getting in science. I had talked with the head of the science department and suggested they have additional sheltered science classes, classes designed for the English language learners that would make the subject more accessible to the students. "We can't do that," he said. "We don't have enough teachers for the smaller classes it would require, and no one wants to teach them." I tried to offer suggestions, but they had little effect.
I mentioned the problem to the Silver International writers and explained how a majority of the English language learners had failed science. One of the students wrote an article about it that included a chart of the grades the English language learners received in science. The information surprised many of the science teachers. The following year the school created additional sheltered science classes designed to help English language learners achieve the science objectives.
I was not aware of how work students did on the paper would guide them in related career pathways. One former Silver International editor who had a part-time job working for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees became the editor of their newsletter when they realized that she had the computer and editorial skills needed to produce their own publication. Another group of students started a Spanish language newspaper at the University of Maryland. Another student studied journalism in college, and one is a graphic artist using computer skills he perfected during his four years creating illustrations for Silver International.
I was not thinking how much getting published in a newspaper would give students positive feelings about themselves and their lives in this country. One day after school I was paged over the intercom to go to the office to take a phone call from a teacher in Arizona. As I walked to the office, I wondered what the teacher would be calling about. She had had a subscription to the paper for a number of years, and we had communicated in letters, but we rarely spoke on the phone. "I had to call you," she said, "to tell you an amazing thing that just happened." She started to tell me about one of her students whom she referred to as a "do nothing." He would come to school but rarely completed assignments. However, she had noticed that he was starting to do his work after a poem he had written was published in Silver International.
That morning she saw him with a pen in his hand surrounded by a group of girls. "I asked him what he was doing," she said. "He answered, `I'm giving them my autograph. I'm a writer now!'"
Silver International can be viewed on the web. For a free sample, write to Silver International, Montgomery Blair High School, 51 University Blvd. E., Silver Spring, MD 20901. Silver International is supported by a grant from the National Writing Project.