National Writing Project

La Pluma es Lengua del Alma: Using Writing to Chronicle the Soul's Journey

By: Bobbi Houtchens
Publication: California English
Date: Summer 2006

Summary: Teachers must lead their students through literature by authors from many cultures to provide the inspiration and models necessary to master the written word.

 

Untitled Document N. Scott Momaday stated "Among the stones of Rainy Mountain cemetery . . . I could sense [the vitality in myself] but could not take possession of it until I translated it into language." As conscientious teachers, we must help our struggling students find a way to use words to express their souls. We must provide our students with models for translating their vitality into language; literary texts to stimulate topic imagining; and literature to analyze for language, style, structure, and technique. They must read, analyze, evaluate, and apply literature by authors from many cultures to find those who sing to them and give words to their lives.

The writers in my junior college prep English classes have traditionally been undervalued and underdeveloped by the educational system. Most read at the sixth grade level and few can craft a well-organized essay. Sixty percent are mainstreamed English learners, speaking Spanish and some indigenous languages, and are immigrants or children of immigrants. The recent immigrants believe that school is their ticket to the American Dream and search for relevance in an alien system. Many who have lived in the U.S. for most or all of their lives, speak limited Spanish and find little personal relevance in school - they belong to the barrio or 'hood more than they belong in school. Few have been offered a chance to read authors who share their languages, cultures, or experiences and therefore their voices have become invisible, invalid, silenced. My students have seldom seen their experiences or lives reflected in writing valued in the classroom and find little pleasure in the written word.

My students often freeze when faced with a writing task. Even Ernest Hemingway, when asked what was the most frightening aspect of writing, answered: "A blank sheet of paper." Teachers must lead their students on journeys to discover many topics, styles, and techniques so that they do not have to face down a blank sheet of paper. One way to accomplish that task is to use a variety of literature to serve as inspiration and models for the students, literature which reflects and expands upon their experiences.

Unlike developing writers, professional authors draw upon the voices of others to surpass their own personal experiences and ultimately perfect their craft. When they write, shadows of both their individual experiences and shadows of the words they have read enter into their writing and provide depth and flavor to their work. If these authors have not lived a particular experience, then reading beyond their personal knowledge provides their writing with three-dimensionality. We see evidence of this in Hemingway, Shakespeare, Mora, Momaday, Cisneros. This is the path down which teachers must lead their students if we are to bring them all to mastery of the written word.

Finding Space in a Rigid Curriculum

My district's rigid pacing guide for the first nine weeks of school requires the study of seven pieces of early American literature as well as production of a 1500 word essay. Sequencing and time spent on each piece of literature are fixed, with only six days to produce an autobiographical essay using the writing process during the third week of the quarter. Our writing journey this quarter lasted the entire nine weeks, however, and included an additional 10 model autobiographical essays layered on top of the required readings. While studying each piece of literature, we analyzed it as writers, searching for perspectives, styles, and techniques to inform our own writing. I encouraged my students to focus on the journey leading to writing rather than on the writing produced at the end of the journey, to examine how each step in the process led to new discoveries, opened new paths of exploration, stimulated new topics and approaches, validated experiences, and encouraged risks.

We discussed the practical applications for this assigned essay: senior portfolios, college and scholarship essays, employment applications, etc. In addition, we brainstormed the benefits of writing these autobiographical incidents: reflecting on our own lives to discover lessons learned, valuing our experiences, lives, cultures, and relationships. In addition, we would develop writing skills to transfer to other writing.

We began the year with a variety of self-reflective activities: Paper Bag Me, selecting alliterative adjectives for our names, personal experience timelines. They now needed a variety of models. I followed the pacing guide, using the required readings, plus autobiographical essays from the anthology. Because most of my students are Latino, I included additional essays by Latino authors, such as Rudolfo Anaya, Pat Mora, and Luis Rodriguez.

Teaching For Mastery Protocol

To move my students toward mastery of the necessary academic writing skills, I expanded Dr. Barbara Flores' Backbone of Teaching/Learning Protocol, incorporating Grant Wiggins' Backward Lesson Design to include these steps:

  • Understanding Expectations
  • Tapping Prior Knowledge & Building Background Knowledge
  • Direct Instruction & Modeling
  • Guided & Shared Practice
  • Collaborative Practice
  • Independent Practice

This protocol is not linear. At each step, I checked for understanding and, when necessary, retaught concepts until every student demonstrated increased mastery. I applied this protocol to every stage of the writing process.

Stages in the Writing Process

Stages in our autobiographical incident writing process include:

  1. Discussion of Expectations, Standards, and the Rubric: Class/District/State expectations and the CAP Writing Rubric
  2. Comprehension of Literary Texts: At both surface and deeper levels
  3. Analysis of Literary Texts for Technique: Structure, introduction, reflection, dramatization, flashback, pacing, language, cultural expression, etc.
  4. Development and Exploration of Literary Techniques: Selecting, imitating, adapting
  5. Development of Multiple Topics: Listing and sharing topics inspired by readings
  6. Revisions: Focusing on techniques examined in models
  7. Editing: Wordsmithing, grammar, mechanics, etc.
  8. Publication: Oral and print

Application of the Protocol to the Writing Process

The teaching for mastery protocol was applied to each stage in the writing process, as in this example from the Analysis of Literary Texts stage. After completing the Comprehension of Text stage using a couple of pieces, we looked again at Rita Dove's "For the Love of Books." The students had previously read this piece and marked the margins using codes: a star ( *) for anything that reminded them of themselves, a plus (+) for anything that might be a new thought or a new way to express something, and a question mark (?) for any questions. (Wilhelm, 2001) The codes guided our examination of Dove's techniques. I explained how I found her introduction appealing and demonstrated how I might mimic it, using it as a scaffold to expand my own writing, to try it on for size. After my demonstration on the overhead using Wilhelm's Think Aloud Strategy, the class broke into groups for collaborative practice.

Each group selected a writing technique, rewrote it together to practice the technique, and then presented their adaptations to the class. As homework, students were asked to imitate another author's technique on their own, selecting one that might work in their own essay. These were shared with the class. Although the following students chose to imitate Dove's introduction, their voices are very distinct:

Jessica:

When I am asked what makes you want to be an artist? My answer has always been "art." I am very passionate about art. Since I was a little girl, I would always watch my dad draw. I always wanted to draw just like him and be as good as him. I loved the way he would start off with a blank sheet of paper and end with something I could stare at and imagine what it would be like to be in. I loved the smell of his box full of pencils, and the drawings in his portfolio. I still remember the music he would play on the stereo while he drew: Queen, Pink Floyd, The Eagles.

Alberto:

When people ask me "Why do you get into fights?" I reply "Respect." First, second and third, I hate being disrespected. From when I was a little kid, I looked up to my older brother as a role model; I liked it when people said we looked alike; I liked his lifestyle and how he taught me to never back out of a fight. Winning a fight is my thrill. I even like glancing at the person I had been fighting to see if I had left any bruises on his face - like contemplating my brother's footsteps.

Student Writing Excerpts

In the final essays, it is difficult to discern which students are recent immigrants, which are still labeled English learners despite having lived here many years, and which speak English only. The use of a variety of models of writing, from writers of diverse cultures leveled the field for my student writers. The influence of these authors is clear. The students' writing demonstrates sophistication, breadth of topic, depth of development, and skillful use of literary techniques, as evidenced in these excerpts:

  • Christian incorporated her home language in the styles of authors Pat Mora and Luis Rodriguez :
    Then she says you have to work more on your sense of smell if you want to become a chef, because "Así como vas, no lo creo," (At the rate you're going now, I don't think so). I know she is playing around, so I tell her "Yeah, mom. Por eso adviné lo que hicistes de comer, ha!" (That's why I knew what you made for dinner, ha!).
  • Briana's use of interior monologue is similar to that of Sandra Cisneros:
    Slamming the bathroom door and locking it in a panic, I stood over the sink looking into the mirror. I studied my face, questioning myself about the way I was feeling. The hurt I saw in my eyes made me do this terrible thing. I ran the bath water. No soap. No bubbles. Just lukewarm water. I paced back and forth, waiting until the tub was full. I got in, clothing still on . . . I watched the bubbles appear over my head. The longer I stayed under the water, the more I began to wonder. Was I supposed to do this? Is this solving anything? I was afraid of hurting my parents. But the pain I felt inside felt like a million rats gnawing on my heart. I didn't want to live any more.
  • Hans' reflects on an oral history similar to the piece we read by Darryl Babe Wilson:
    At a family picnic, Hans encounters his grandmother in the kitchen. "As I walked by, her story began 'Over thousands of years ago, the Samoan people's lands on the island were taken over. Taken over by the Tongan people. They treated us with cruelty.' 'What did they do to us grandma?' 'They treated us like their slaves. We would do everything for them. They even sometimes ate us . . . The people were scared to fight back, except three guys, Manu, Anhese, and Sio. They killed thousands of Tongans and gave the people courage. . . They fought back 'til there were no Tongans on the island. Tongan free was how it was throughout the years.'

I drank my water and back outside I went. Sitting on the front porch daydreaming. Daydreaming how they felt to be free. How would they be today? . . . Then I promised myself to be my best in everything I do. Never to quit and always fight for my people, just like Manu, Anhese and Sio. I know I am lucky, lucky to be Samoan.

  • Jasmine's pacing slows down the passage of time, similar to Gloria Morales' style:
    At this point I'm confused. I don't know what to do. Should I leave? Should I stay and cry? As I sat there I felt my cousin grab me and hold me into her jasmine scented blouse. Tightly. I don't want to pull away so I just hold her back even tighter. There's no more cheering people, no whistling, nothing. I'm trapped in a different world with a black sky. Then I open my eyes. I don't feel the scorching sun burning the back of my arms or my face. Finally I ask the question 'What happened?'"
  • Janet's introduction and use of home language also reflects Morales' influence:
    It was early morning. The smell of atole and chilaquiles told me that Tia Morrys was making breakfast, making her specialties, the only things she could make without burning. There was a single ring from the kitchen phone. Somehow, it seemed urgent. Although the phone could not tell me, I could feel it. Although I could not hear what my aunt was saying I could sense that something was wrong, that something precious in my life was changing forever.

Publication

Students submitted their final drafts for publication in state publications, as entries for writing competitions, and for publication in a class journal. In addition, they presented their essays orally to the class.

The students also discussed what they had learned about themselves, about others in class, about authors, and about the art of writing. They stated they had read more, thought more, revised more, learned more. They had, in effect, completed a rewarding journey. As on any journey, a thoughtful guide, or teacher, is necessary to promote analysis, reflection, and revision using effective and appropriate models. Use of the Teaching For Mastery Protocol has helped me provide opportunities for my students to discover themselves through writing, to value their experiences, and to use their words to express the languages of their souls.

This article was first published in the summer 2006 issue of California English, journal of the California Association of Teachers of English.

References:

California Department of Education. (1997). Grades 11 and 12 [Electronic version]. English Language Arts Content Standards.

CDOE. (1987). Autobiographical incident [Electronic version]. Writing Assessment Handbook: Grade 12. 11-27.

Flores, Barbara. (1985 February). Bilingual children's socio-cultural construction of knowledge. Paper presented at the California Association for Bilingual Education, Anaheim, CA.

Kinsella, Kate, et.al. (contrib. authors) (2002). Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The American Experience. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Wiggins, Grant, & Jay McTighe. (2000). Understanding by Design. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Wilhelm, Jeffrey. (2002). Improving Comprehension with Think-Aloud Strategies: Modeling What Good Readers Do. New York: Scholastic Inc.

About the Author Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens teaches ELD and English at Arroyo Valley High School in San Bernardino, California. She participated in "The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School" and "Conversations in Literature," two Annenberg public television series produced in collaboration with the National Council of Teachers of English.

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