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Children Writing: The Story of an Experiment

SHOP WITH MOM

I love to shop with mom
And talk to the friendly grocer
And help her make the list
Seems to make us closer.
—Nellie, age 11

THE JUNKIES

When they are
in the street
they pass it
along to each
other but when
they see the
police they would
run some would
just stand still
and be beat
so pity ful
that they want
to cry
—Mary, age 11

Nellie’s poem received high praise. Her teacher liked the rhyme “closer” and “grocer,” and thought she said a great deal in four lines. Most of all the teacher was pleased that Nellie expressed such a pleasant and healthy thought. Nellie’s poem was published in the school paper. I was moved and excited by Mary’s poem and made the mistake of showing it to the teacher who edited the school newspaper. She was horrified. First of all, she informed me, Mary couldn’t possibly know what junkies were, and, moreover, the other children wouldn’t be interested in such a poem. There weren’t any rhymes or clearly discernible meter. The word “pityful” was split up incorrectly, “be beat” wasn’t proper English and, finally, it wasn’t really poetry but just the ramblings of a disturbed girl.

My initial reaction was outrage—what did she know about poetry, or about Mary? But it is too easy to be cruel about the ignorance that is so characteristic of the schools today. That teacher did believe that she knew what poetry was, and that there was a correct language in which it was expressed. Her attitude towards the correctness of language and the form of poetry was in a way identical to her attitude towards what sentiments good children’s poems ought to express. Yet language is not static, nor is it possible a priori to establish rules governing what can or cannot be written any more than it is possible to establish rules governing what can or cannot be felt.

NOT LONG AGO when I was teaching a class of remote, resistant children in a Harlem school, as an experiment, I asked these children to write. I had no great expectations. I had been told that the children were from one to three years behind in reading, that they came from “deprived” and “disadvantaged” homes and were ignorant of the language of the schools. I had also been told that their vocabulary was limited, that they couldn’t make abstractions, were not introspective, oriented to physical rather than mental activity. Other teachers in the school called the children “them” and spoke of teaching as a thankless military task. I couldn’t accept this mythology; I wanted my pupils to tell me about themselves. For reasons that were hardly literary I set out to explore the possibilities of teaching language, literature, and writing in ways that would enable children to speak about what they felt they were not allowed to acknowledge publicly. Much to my surprise the children wrote a great deal; and they invented their own language to do so. Only a very small number of the children had what can be called “talent,” and many of them had only a single story to write and rewrite; yet almost all of them responded, and seemed to become more alive through their writing. The results of some of this exploration are presented here.

I have subsequently discovered other teachers who have explored language and literature with their pupils in this way, with results no less dramatic. The children we have taught ranged from the pre-school years to high school, from lower-class ghetto children to upper-class suburban ones. There are few teaching techniques that we share in common, and no philosophy of education that binds us. Some of these teachers have tight, carefully controlled classrooms; others care less for order and more for invention. There are Deweyites, traditionalists, classicists—a large range of educational philosophies and teaching styles. If there is anything common to our work it is the concern to listen to what the children have to say and the ability to respond to it as honestly as possible, no matter how painful it may be to our teacherly prides and preconceptions. We have allowed ourselves to learn from our pupils and to expect the unexpected.

Children will not write if they are afraid to talk. Initially they suspect teachers and are reluctant to be honest with them. They have had too many experiences where the loyalties of the staff and the institutional obligations of teachers have taken precedence over honesty. They have seen too much effort to maintain face, and too little respect for justifiable defiance in their school lives. I think children believe that there is a conscious collusion between all of the adults in a school to maintain the impression that the authority is always right, and that life is always pleasant and orderly. Unfortunately, the collusion is unconscious or at least unspoken. This is dramatically true in slum schools where the pressures of teaching are increased by understaffing and a vague uneasiness about race which is always in the air.

I was assigned to a school in East Harlem in September 1962 and was not sufficiently prepared for the faculty’s polite lies about their success in the classroom or the resistance and defiance of the children. My sixth-grade class had thirty-six pupils, all Negro. For two months I taught in virtual isolation from my pupils. Every attempt I made to develop rapport was coldly rejected. The theme of work scheduled by the school’s lesson plan for that semester was “How We Became Modern America,” and my first lesson was characteristic of the dull response everything received.

It seemed natural to start by comparing a pioneer home with the modern life the children knew—or, more accurately, I thought they knew. I asked the class to think of America in the 1850s and received blank stares, although that presumably was what they had studied the previous year. I pursued the matter.

—Can anyone tell me what was happening around 1850, just before the Civil War? I mean, what do you think you’d see if you walked down Madison Avenue then?

—Cars.

—Do you think there were cars in 1850? That was over a hundred years ago. Think of what you learned last year and try again, do you think there were cars then?

—Yes…no…I don’t know. Someone else tried.

—Grass and trees?

The class broke out laughing. I tried to contain my anger and frustration.

—I don’t know what you’re laughing about, it’s the right answer. In those days Harlem was farmland with fields and trees and a few farmhouses. There weren’t any roads or houses like the ones outside, or street lights or electricity.

The class was outraged and refused to think. Bright faces took on the dull glaze that is characteristic of the Negro child who finds it less painful to be thought stupid than to be defiant. There was an uneasy drumming on desk tops. The possibility of there being a time when Harlem didn’t exist had never, could never have occurred to the children. Nor did it occur to me that their experience of modern America was not what I had come to teach about. After two months, in despair, I asked the kids to write about their block.

WHAT A BLOCK!

My block is the most terrible block I’ve ever seen. There are at lease 25 or 30 narcartic people in my block. The cops come around there and tries to act bad but I bet inside of them they are as scared as can be. They even had in the papers that this block is the worst block, not in Manhattan but in New York City. In the summer they don’t do nothing except shooting, shabing, and fighting. They hang all over the stoops and when you say excuse me to them they hear you but they just don’t feel like moving. Some times they make me so mad that I feel like slaping them and stuffing and bag of garbage down their throats. Theres only one policeman who can handle these people and we all call him “Sunny.” When he come around in his cop car the people run around the corners, and he wont let anyone sit on the stoops. If you don’t believe this story come around some time and you’ll find out.

—Grace, age 11

My block is the worse block you ever saw people getting killed or stabbed men and women in buildin’s taking dope…

—Mary, age 11

MY NEIGHBORHOOD

I live on 117 street, between Madison and 5th avenue. All the bums live around here. But the truth is they don’t live here they just hang around the street. All the kids call it “Junky’s Paradise.”

—James, age 12

My block is a dirty crumby block!

—Clarence, age 12

THE NEXT DAY I threw out my notes and my lesson plans and talked to the children. What I had been assigned to teach seemed, in any case, an unreal myth about a country that never has existed. I didn’t believe the tale of “progress” the curriculum had prescribed, yet had been afraid to discard it and had been willing to lie to the children. After all I didn’t want to burden them or cause them pain, and I had to teach something. I couldn’t “waste their time.” How scared I must have been when I started teaching in Harlem to accept those hollow rationalizations and use the “curriculum” to protect me from the children. I accepted the myth that the teacher and the book know all; that complex human questions had “right” and “wrong” answers. It was much easier than facing the world the children perceived and attempting to cope with it. I could lean on the teachers’ manuals and feel justified in presenting an unambiguously “good” historical event or short story. It protected my authority as a teacher which I didn’t quite believe in. It was difficult for me; pontificating during the day and knowing that I was doing so at night. Yet could I cause the class much more pain or impose greater burdens with my lies than they already had? How much time could I have “wasted” even if I let the children dance and play all day while I sought for a new approach. They had already wasted five years in school by the time they arrived in my class.

So we spoke. At first the children were suspicious and ashamed of what they’d written. But as I listened and allowed them to talk they became bolder and angrier, then finally quieter and relieved. I asked them to write down what they would do to change things, and they responded immediately.

If I could change my block I would stand on Madison Ave and throw nothing but Teargas in it. I would have all the people I liked to get out of the block and then I would become very tall and have big hands and with my big hands I would take all of the narcartic people and pick them up with my hand and throw them in the nearest river and oceans. I would go to some of those old smart alic cops and throw them in the Ocians and Rivers too. I would let the people I like move into the projects so they could tell their friends that they live in a decent block. If I could do this you would never see 117 st again.

—Grace, age 11

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