I was a junior high writing teacher in northwest Alaska for many years. One of my favorite classes ever was a group of 8th graders I had first period. I know, you’re thinking, writing? First period? 13 year olds? For someone who was never a morning person, I often asked myself the same. But we eased into our day with pilot bread and peanut butter and Bob Marley’s Legend playing on the classroom speakers.
That year the reading teacher and I decided not to track the 8th grade into two groups of “low” and “high.” That’s the politically incorrect way to describe tracking, but that’s what teachers say. And we know what Low Class looks like: more darker skinned students (in our case all Alaska Native), more free and reduced lunch students, more non-conformist students. Lumped together and expecting to do the minimum to get by, the Low Class lives up to it’s label, despite the smart and interesting kids slumped in the seats.
And High Class, the preferred ones, they tend to develop an inflated sense of superiority. They’re better behaved, but just as predictable and not likely to break out of what’s always proven successful for them. They write what they think you want. Both Low and High, stuck in their status quo. What kind of writing will that get you?
That group of 20+ students contained the widest spread of adolescent writers imaginable. We had bright girls who excelled at crafting descriptive stories and loved grammar games. We had thoughtful, creative boys with a knack for writing tight action and comedy. Tough street kids who were raising themselves and often missed the first class of the day, mine, took their place alongside their peers. We had Inupiaq and Yupik students with strong village ties from Little Diomede, King Island, Gambell, Savoonga, Elim, and Unalakleet. We had a few boys who, on a good day, might write a few words.
Freed from their usual class definitions, those 8th graders reached across their desks to each other. Kids had permission to break out of their boxes, and students whose voices typically shrank behind the school constructed images of themselves, found their writing celebrated in an egalitarian classroom. Which is huge, considering that their faces, their realities, their stories are not typically reflected in the school.
I know that Alaska has a growing literature, and as a teacher, I look forward to using more of those resources. But most curriculums I’ve seen come from outside. Where are the stories of Grandma’s fry bread and moose hunting? Snow-machine racing, fish camp, reindeer stew, sighting in a rifle? How about the road blocked by an avalanche, sports teams traveling by small plane, or climate-changed winters turning streets into ice rinks?
It’s harder to teach the untracked class. New alliances rise up to challenge you. High achievers may slack off, and problem kids suddenly want more instruction. You’ve got to work on active tense verbs in a short story with one student, and place periods at the ends of sentences for another.
But what is the public school classroom if not a reflection of our society? Maybe it’s a place where we can create the society and community that serves everyone.
And what is writing if not a fundamental educational right, a core literacy skill with the power to change the world.
And what is the value of having your story told, written, and heard by others? It’s empowering at the deepest level of who we are. And too many in our schools don’t get the opportunity to share their story on an equal stage.
Towards the end of that year, one student, a boy who for two years never wrote one single word, wrote a story about a lost hunter pursued by wolves, looking for his home. It was a beautiful, crazy, run-on mess, a metaphor for the difficult life he lived. The class, along with a community audience, waited patiently, in silence, while he told it, then erupted in a rousing applause. Maybe someday his name will be on a book.
This is the challenge for us as writers and teachers. How untracked is your classroom, your university, your writing group? How do we reach out to support and include those who might otherwise be shunted aside into the Low Class? Aren’t they the ones best qualified to tell their own stories, instead of just showing up as background or characters in ours?
If you’re a parent of an advanced student, can you advocate for untracked classes? And then volunteer in your child’s classroom to help the teacher make it a success. Remember, your child and their opportunities can help to lift up those around her or him, and be enriched in the process. We don’t have to buy into the narrative that they’ll be dragged down instead.
Writers, next time you go into a school, be sure you’re not channeled just to the gifted students or the AP class. You want to muck it up with everyone. See if you can be creative enough to keep the problem class engaged and excited. Because here, in our classrooms, is the next generation of Alaskan writers.
Lynn DeFilippo is a teacher and writer. She’s published a few essays in anthologies. After completing an MFA in creative writing at UAA last year, she’s got lots of submissions out there in the world.