My presentation focuses on what we sometimes call authentic writing. The remarks that follow are personal stories that I tie to literacy research and what I see when I visit schools. Like most of you, I spend many hours each week in schools observing teachers and helping novice teachers apply what we know about teaching and learning. I have done this for over a quarter century, since I first began as a Penn State graduate student in the late 1970s. And like many of you, I have never seen such a focus on testing and assessment. In fact, when I return to schools in January all of my interns teaching English in Cincinnati high school classrooms will be helping their students prepare for the Ohio Graduation Test. The curriculum, already sidetracked throughout the autumn, will now be completely derailed during the early months of the year.
Hardly a day goes by in the United States without talk of testing students to higher standards as a means to improve our education system. In The Testing Trap, George Hillocks (2002) puts this logic to the test. Through interviews with over three hundred teachers and administrators, Hillocks examines whether state writing tests in Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, New York, and Texas do what they are supposed to do: improve education. Ultimately, Hillocks argues that the majority of existing tests actually have a harmful effect on the way we teach students to write.
In his book, Hillocks (2002) demonstrates how the structure of assessment is responsible for the low level of thinking encouraged and reinforced in classrooms. It is his contention that although politicians call for excellence, the tests that are created to support their rhetoric, and the formulaic writing they accept as measures of achievement, are actually intended to produce mediocrity. In this way, bureaucrats achieve their objectives and our children suffer the consequences.
With this, I begin my story about evoking authentic writing, or in other words, writing for genuine purposes. It is a story in three acts.
Act I: Mrs. Brett and the Death of Peter Fechner
Do you recall teachers in your school years who made a difference? Mrs. Brett, eleventh grade English, Altoona High School, made a difference in my life. She wrote with us and created assignments that mattered. One of her most memorable assignments was asking us to consider the death of Peter Fechter.
It was early in my junior year and Mrs. Brett pulled us out of our oblivion to world affairs by telling us the story of Peter Fechter, a bricklayer from East Berlin, who at the age of 18 became one of the first victims of the Berlin Wall’s border guards. I had turned 16 that spring and the story she was telling came alive for me. I could relate to this young man who was just two years older than I was then.
Some of you perhaps remember the story and the headlines. In August 1962, Fechter bled to death at the base of the Berlin Wall in what was called the "death zone" (a strip of land running between the main wall and a parallel fence). Guards shot him in the back as he tried to escape. Although bystanders in the West tried to rescue him, men with guns prevented them from giving Fechter aid. The East Germans designed the Berlin Wall to prevent East German citizens from escaping into West Berlin and seeking political asylum. Armed border guards, under shoot-to-kill orders, manned the wall.
About one year after the construction of the wall, Fechter, with his friend Helmut Kulbeik, attempted to flee from East Berlin. Their plan was to hide in a carpenter's workshop near the wall in Zimmerstrasse. After observing the border guards from there, they hoped to jump out of a window into the death zone, run across it, and climb over the six-foot wall topped with barbed wire into the district of West Berlin near Checkpoint Charlie, which was a well-known crossing point between East and West during the Cold War.
Peter and Helmut scaled the wall and the guards fired at them. Helmut succeeded in crossing the wall, but Peter, still on the wall, was shot in the pelvis in plain view of hundreds of witnesses. He fell back into the death-strip on the Eastern side, where he remained in view of Western onlookers, including journalists. Despite his screams, he received no medical assistance from either the East or the West side. After about an hour, Peter had bled to death.
Hundreds in people in West Berlin formed a spontaneous demonstration, shouting "murderers" at the border guards. Mutual fear resulted in a lack of medical assistance for Peter. Western bystanders feared the guns and did not assist him. A second lieutenant in the U.S. Army received specific orders to stand firm and do nothing. Likewise, the head of the German Democratic Republic border platoon was afraid to intervene, because of an incident just three days earlier when an East Berlin soldier had been shot by a West Berlin soldier. An hour after he had fallen the East German border guard retrieved Peter's dead body.
The incident made the cover story of Time magazine on August 31, 1962. I remember seeing it at home and vividly how Mrs. Brett held it up in my class that autumn afternoon. Some of you might remember the cover. It showed a hand and arm, up to the elbow, reaching over a stonework wall. You see Peter’s arm, with rolled up sleeve, inserted between the top of the wall and a tangle of barbed wire. Peter’s other hand is griping the barbed wire. The cover is in blacks and grays with the word “The Wall” written in small white print and the top of a pink wreath at the bottom of the picture (Cover image available online: http://img.timeinc.net/time/magazine/archive/covers/1962/1101620831_400.jpg)
Mrs. Brett shared the cover with us and read the following excerpt from the article:
In flat, open country within the city's northern boundary, the land to the west is checkered with brown wheatfields and lush, green, potato gardens. Eastward stretches a no-man's land where once fertile fields lie desolate and deathly still. They could be in two different worlds -- and, in a sense, they are. Even the countryside outside Berlin is divided into East and West by a vicious, impenetrable hedge of rusty barbed wire and concrete. As it snakes southward toward the partitioned city, it becomes the Wall… (p. 20)
There he lay, moaning "Hilfe, Hilfe," while a growing throng of horrified West Berliners stood gaping on the other side of the barrier. As the minutes ticked past, photographers, cops, even a couple of U.S. military policemen, edged gingerly up to the Wall's western side to have a look at the hideous sight. One conscience-stricken U.S. second lieutenant could stand it no longer, picked up the "hot line" telephone to Major General Albert Watson II, the U.S. commandant in West Berlin. Back came the order: "Lieutenant, you have your orders. Stand fast. Do nothing." Not knowing the reason for the Americans' inaction, an agonized crowd swirled around the command post crying: "For God's sake, go get him." When a German reporter asked why the American troops did not rescue Fechter, one G.I. replied, "This is not our problem." (p. 21)
As Mrs. Brett finished reading, she passed the magazine around the classroom. The Time Magazine article included a photograph of Peter Fechter lying in a trench. The photograph, taken through a tangle of barbed wire, included the caption, “Peter Fechner lies dying after being shot by East German border guards.” Another photograph included the caption, “Peter Fechter, laying shot in the no-man's land between the two sides of Berlin Wall for nearly one hour, screaming for help, before he bled to death.” The last photograph showed helmeted guards lifting Peter’s dead body over barbed wire. The caption read, “East German border guards took Peter Fechter away from the Berlin Wall near Checkpoint Charlie when he was dead.” (Image available online: http://www.zeithistorische-forschungen.de/_ZF/images/default/fechter1.jpg)
By responding to Mrs. Brett’s writing assignment, I began to imagine what it would be like to want freedom so badly that you would risk your life to get it. I became the eighteen-year-old, hopes and dreams, just beginning to coalesce, and with higher education, family, and career still in the faint future. I began to think about why people fought wars and revolutions and defended peace to protect liberty. I thought that Peter Fechter knew how precious freedom was and why he risked his life to get it.
Days later, I remember reading my own essay to the class and recall hearing those of others, in particular, a young man, Gino Simonetti, whose essay was as passionate and beautifully written as the article in Time. This writing assignment evoked something very honest and authentic from me. This assignment and the many others that Mrs. Brett assigned that year convinced me that I wanted to teach English. This brings me to Act II of my story.
Salzman’s True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall
This afternoon we will continue an American Reading Forum tradition, Call to Forum. David Bishop and his group selected two provocative books, Jonathan Kozol’s (2005) The Shame of the Nation and True Notebooks by Mark Salzman (2003). For those of you who have not had a chance to read Salzman’s book, I encourage you to read a few chapters before David’s session this afternoon. In this book, Salzman reflects on volunteering to teach creative writing at Central Juvenile Hall, a Los Angeles County detention facility for "high-risk" juvenile offenders.
The authentic writing of these young men draws me to Sulzman’s book this morning. Many of these under-18 youths, charged with murder or other serious crimes, would end up in a penitentiary, some for life. Sister Janet Harris, of the Inside Out Writers program, convinced Salzman that in spite of his reservations about teaching writing, about being a “white liberal offering art to darker-skinned ghetto boys,” these young men needed to be encouraged to express themselves in writing instead of acting out, needed to feel they mattered to someone. As a result, Salzman started coming twice a week to meet with three boys, although the numbers of the group quickly grew. He tried to structure each session with a half hour for writing followed by each boy reading his work aloud. Although their writing themes are somewhat predictable-their anger and violent impulses, their relationships with parents and gangs, plus a tedious dose of sex, bullets, and beer -- the writing is often personal and honest.
I want to focus for a few minutes on one young man from the book, Carlos Bours, who writes about “why he writes.” Carlos writes the following on his first day in Mark’s class. He explains before reading his piece to Salzman and the rest of the group that he used to hate writing, but that changed after being locked up. “Now I got a different view,” he says. “So today I decided to write on why I write.”
There are many reasons why I write. Some are unexplainable, others I can explain are my way of expressing emotions, my way of getting free, my mental vacation, my way to vent anger, my way to throw emotional blows without using my physical ability, a way that no one gets hurt, a way to get through life and keep the peace. It’s my joy, my shining light. If I had not pencil and paper my mind would fail, with no real vocals top express myself it would overload my brain. My writing is how I maintain. (p. 315)
The writing that Salzman evokes from young men like Carlos is authentic. His assignments were very different from many of those I observe in the classrooms that I visit.
Throughout the book, Salzman (2003) struggles with a question. Why does he spend time working with these young men? Why does he volunteer at the detention center? He comes to realize that it is not because he enjoys it, not because his students enjoy it, but rather, because it was a good thing to do. Mark’s goal was not to save the boys, to improve them, or even to get them to take responsibility for their crimes. “I was there because they responded to encouragement and they wrote honestly” (p.322).
This brings me to the final Act of my story that I foreshadowed in the title of this essay, and my most recent and personal example of evoking authentic writing.
Act III - Corresponding with a New York City Cabdriver
In the autumn of 1999, I lost my mother. My father had died several years earlier. One crisp autumn afternoon, filled with grief and a growing sense of my own mortality, I climbed the steel bleachers at the local high school football field, looking forward to watching my 15-year-old son play soccer. I had also gone through a divorce several years earlier and was dealing with the awkward difficulties that come along with shared parenting. As I passed my ex-wife, she handed me a plain brown envelope. This was a common way of keeping each other informed about child related issues such as medical insurance, grades, and field trips.
I literally sat on the envelope during the first half of the soccer game. It was good protection from the cold aluminum seats of the high school grandstands on that cold October evening. At halftime, I pulled the envelope out from under me. The return address indicated that it was from a man named Ray in Brooklyn, New York. The envelope included a short handwritten letter, a plastic card and a photocopy of a handwritten note. In the letter, Ray began:
Dear Chester [No one calls me “Chester” but my great aunt and my brother and sister!] On the reverse side of this page is a copy of a note found in my mother’s safe deposit box after her passing away in August of 1998. Rebecca was in her 95th year but, as a young professional woman, was once a girl friend of and much in love with Paul Laine.
That was my father’s name. I turned the page and found a copy of a handwritten note:
Send word of my death to:
Paul Mondon Laine
c/o Great American Tea Company
Also send duplicate notice to same person at
RFD Box 187, Altoona, PA
If “Great American Tea Company” and “Rural Free Delivery” are meaningful to you, you are dating yourself. By the way, for those of you who do not know, Altoona is an old railroading town in west central Pennsylvania. I turned the sheet of paper over and finished reading the short letter from Ray:
I was born in 1941 and was about 40 before my mother let me know the last name of my natural father. It wasn’t till this past year, after my mother’s passing, that I found this note with just enough information to find your father’s obituary in the Altoona paper.
Ray went on to explain the circumstances of his birth and finished the short letter by saying:
I don’t want this to be disturbing news to you or anyone in your late father’s immediate family. Such a possibility could, of course, be avoided by my not sending a letter but it would be nice to know more about Paul Laine. . . . This is mostly to close a chapter than to open one and I understand that there are no obligations involved here. I’ll be 58 this December and that’s me in the expired hack license.
I pulled the pink plastic card, a New York City hack license, from the envelope. I often saw these attached to the visor just above a taxi driver or chauffeur’s head.
I sat back and stared into space. It took some time for this news to sink in. I read and reread the note and stared at the expired hack license many times during the soccer game. I drove home thinking about the notion of an older brother. When I got home, I read the letter several more times to Missy, my wife. Then I called my younger sister in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and younger brother in Albuquerque. Both were surprised and excited. My sister, tongue in cheek, said, “Oh no, not another brother! Why not a sister!” I read the letter several times to each of them. They wanted to learn more. Ray wanted to know who our father – his biological father – was. Perhaps we had stories we could share. This began years of very authentic writing.
Of course, our level of familiarity changed as the years went by, but, in the beginning, before meeting and getting to know my new brother, I had expectations triggered by what I did know. Ray, a veteran New York City cab driver, born and raised in Brooklyn, triggered expectations for me and my brother and sister. What did I know about New York City taxi drivers? I was born in Manhattan—born on the first day of spring in 1946 at Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital—but, my father and mother moved from Manhattan to Homer’s Gap in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains when I was still an infant.
What did I know about New York City taxi drivers? Of course, I knew the television series Taxi that aired in the late 1970 and early 1980s. Was Ray anything like the handful of New York City taxi drivers who worked for Louie De Palma’s Sunshine Cab Company? Danny De Vito played Louie. There was the Judd Hirsch character, Alex Reiger. Alternatively, I thought of Jim Ignitowski, the aging hippie minister burnt out from drugs, played by Christopher Lloyd. On the other hand, there was Tony, the boxer with a losing record, played by Tony Danza.
On the other hand, I knew the Martin Scorsese film, Taxi Driver, the gritty and controversial 1976 film that made stars out of Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster. I remembered Travis Bickle, the character played by DeNiro. He is an alienated, isolated, depressed ex-Marine who suffers from chronic insomnia and consequently takes a job as a nighttime taxi driver in New York City. I pictured a haggard guy driving around aimlessly through the shadiest neighborhoods of the five Burroughs. I visualized the film's most famous scene when Travis, looking in a mirror, practicing his quick-draw technique says repeatedly, "You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? On Ray’s part, I am sure that Chester Laine, a college professor, living in the Midwest, and growing up in rural Pennsylvania, must have triggered expectations about his new brother. He and I needed to write more about this.
Soon after receiving the letter and sharing it with my younger sister and brother, I made a call to Brooklyn and spoke to Ray’s wife. Ray was working. I talked with his wife for seven or eight minutes and came to understand that cab drivers work at night. Ray followed up with a telephone call and we talked for an hour. I shared some stories from my childhood in foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. Ray told me the little that his mother and aunt had told him about his biological father. He also explained how he located me. Ray told me that the previous July, while traveling to spend time with his aunt in a Michigan nursing home, he visited the old railroading town where I grew up. While there, he searched the newspaper morgue at the local paper and found my father’s obituary. He visited the funeral home and talked briefly with the funeral director, but the funeral director was busy with a client. Before leaving the area, he visited the little country church mentioned in the obituary and drove past the graveyard near the church.
When Ray returned to Brooklyn, he decided to send a letter to one of his biological father’s surviving children, but he did not have much to go on. To complicate matters even more, he was not facile with the Internet. He located a friend who “Googled” me. He found an address for me, but in one of those strange occurrences that happen in cyberspace, my address was the address of my ex-wife’s new husband. In any event, the letter got to me.
From my telephone conversations, I learned that Ray, trained as a chemist, had worked as a taxi driver for 32 years. He and his wife had been married for 35 years. I learned that his wife was from Peru and they had two grown boys. In one of those remarkable coincidences that occur in life, I learned that, without knowing the name of his (our) father, Ray and his wife named their second son “Paul,” my father’s name.
I learned that Ray’s mother and my father met in New York City in the 1930s. Ray’s mother, a chemistry teacher in Manhattan, who did not become certain about her pregnancy until June of 1941, took a hurry-up leave of absence from her teaching position while my father arranged for her to stay at a home for unwed mothers run by the Salvation Army in Hillsborough County, Florida. Most of the women at the facility were from well-to-do or upper middle class families. Ray says that his mother knew that it was over on that day in September when my father waved goodbye from the top of the steps as she descended to the platform to board the Pennsylvania Rail Road’s Silver Meteor to the west coast of Florida.
Ray was born on December 7, 1941. At the time of this writing, he was celebrating his 65th birthday. The telegram about his birth arrived on December 8 at the Brooklyn residence of Ray’s aunt and uncle. Ray’s aunt did not even know that her sister-in-law was pregnant so the telegram must have been quite a surprise. Ray’s uncle took the next rain to Tampa to see his sister and new nephew. After a few weeks, Ray’s mother returned to New York to resume teaching at the start of the spring term. Ray stayed in the Tampa facility until the following Easter, when an aunt and uncle moved him to a Brooklyn Salvation Army orphanage in the spring of 1942. When Ray’s Brooklyn cousin no longer needed his crib, Ray’s aunt and uncle took him from the orphanage and put into the empty crib in their home. As an unwed mother, Ray’s mother feared losing her teaching job in New York City. She eventually married the man who would serve as Ray’s adoptive father.
Ray indicated that my father wanted to maintain contact with his son, but his mother Rebecca refused. She did not want this man in her son’s life. Her over-riding concern seemed to be a fear of losing her teaching position if the truth of Ray’s parenthood ever emerged. What must it have been like for her? She was alone in a strange place. Her son was born on the day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She was a single woman in a non-traditional teaching field, who found herself pregnant, fearful that she might lose her job, lose her livelihood. Years later, in her 80s, when her social security check did not arrive on time, Ray says that his mother worried aloud, “They must have discovered my secret.”
Ray explained that he never heard the last name, “Laine,” until some time in the 1980s. He was surprised one day when, on visiting his mother at a small home on Staten Island, she pointed to a man in a magazine advertisement, an advertisement for Beefeater Gin of all things, and said your father looked like the man pictured here and his name was “Laine” spelled with an “i” as in the French style. Up until that time, in his family, no one ever spoke the name “Paul Laine,” at least not within Ray’s earshot. Very few people, maybe only his Brooklyn aunt and uncle, knew the name. His mother’s story, even among her extended Pennsylvania Dutch family, was that she had adopted Ray. As Ray looked quite a bit like his mother, he does not think that this story fooled many but it probably stopped questions. Ray has no idea what moved his mother to speak of his natural father at that time. The aunt in Michigan told Ray that her first memory of my father was when he helped Ray’s mother remove an old steamer trunk from a sixth floor apartment in New York. Ray’s aunt told him that the story of Paul and Rebecca’s relationship was verboten among the members of the family. No one ever talked about Ray’s natural father. Ray did not learn my father’s first name until he was 40 years old. Ray’s mother always referred to him as Mr. Laine.
What followed was an extraordinary period of authentic writing for my younger sister, my younger brother, and for Ray and me. I spent the next week writing down everything I could remember about my childhood. I searched through old albums for any photographs that might give Ray an inkling of his biological father. I chronicled every bit of medical history that I could remember. Of course, simultaneously, my younger brother and sister did the same. Moreover, in one of those strange experiences some of you may have had, we compared our letters and found that we often remembered very different childhoods. How could three siblings, born within a span of four years, remember things so differently? In a particularly poignant closing in one of Ray’s early letters to me, he says, “One thing that I found moving in your letter was at the very end where you say ‘your brother.’ I feel somewhat in uncharted waters but, here goes, your brother, Ray.”
As I talked to others, including some of you at the American Reading Forum, I was startled to find out how many people had similar experiences to share.
Of course, the sharing went both ways. Ray began to dig through more of his mother’s papers. He wrote and shared photographs, documents and memories. He added some texture to the lives these two must have lived in the 1930s, truly a fascinating story. This has continued during the intervening 6 years from October 1999 until the present. We dug up old genealogies, photographs, and letters. My younger brother, sister, and I shared newspaper clippings of my father’s assorted adventures as a professional actor and wing walker. These included stories of the time when he and his older cousin crashed their Jenny biplane at the Steuben County Fair and lost most of his teeth. The site of a plane was so unusual at the turn of the century that fair goers left him bleeding while they took bits of the plane for souvenirs. There was the old yellowed newspaper clipping with the headline: “Young Canisteo Native Shipwrecked off Florida Coast.” The news story that followed told of my father’s near drowning while traveling with professional actors.
I discovered that Ray earned a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Rochester and a Masters Degree in Physical Chemistry from Rutgers University. Before becoming a cab driver, he worked as an R&D Chemist in lower Manhattan. He felt that he would never escape the academic world if he got his Ph.D. His uncle was a mathematics professor and Ray did not want to go into that profession. Ray’s first day as a taxi driver was October 12, 1970. In 1974, Ray did what he never envisioned. He bought a taxi medallion. That made his calling official.
Ray told me in a short note that he often rereads our letters and looked at the pictures “in quiet amazement.” He notes the resemblance between a picture of our father and his own high school yearbook picture. All of us visited the Canisteo Historical Society on Main Street in tiny Canisteo, New York, a sleepy little town in the southern tier of upstate New York, where my father was born. I never had a desire to visit my father’s birthplace; nor my sister or brother. It was not until Ray came into our lives that we made this trip. Imagine the poor elderly woman who tended to the collection, sitting for weeks on end without a single visitor and suddenly, out of the blue, seven visitors enter her little storefront museum and spend the next two hours pouring over old ledgers, diaries and newspaper clippings.
One summer, we even visited the home where my father started a new life with his new wife and raised my younger brother and sister. I do not know if you have ever done this. You knock on the door and tell a perfect stranger that you use to live in this house and ask if you can wander through the old place. Of course, for Ray it was all new.
We learned some very interesting things about our new taxi-driving brother from Brooklyn; our naive expectations fell away as we became a part of our lives. I discovered, for example, that when Ray parked his car in rural Pennsylvania, he engages the ignition lock and places a club on his steering wheel. My sister never had the heart to tell him that she often leaves the house unlocked and never locks her car doors when it is sitting in her driveway. I learned that Ray owns an 80-pound pit bull named Dante. I had heard all of the urban legends surrounding the Pit Bull – their jaws remained locked even in death, they are resistant to pepper spray, they continue to attack even after being lethally shot, and they often ‘turn’ on their owners without provocation. Over time, spending time with Dante, I have come to believe that Pit Bulls make good family pets. Dante is no more or less likely to be aggressive than any other large dog. In fact, when Missy and I visited Ray’s family in October, Dante wanted to climb up in bed with us when we went to sleep.
The writing that has occurred since Ray came into our lives is perhaps the most authentic writing I have ever engaged in. For Ray, he was trying to learn about the father he never knew. My younger sister, brother, and I captured all the memories that we could of the father that we knew so well.
Recommendations for Instruction
I bring this three-act story to a close by encouraging you to evoke the authentic voice, engage your students in writing tasks for real audiences, and work with your prospective teachers to create a space for genuine, purposeful writing in the midst of our ever more test oriented classrooms. Allen (1976) suggested that the basic question is not whether we teach writing, but whether we deal directly with communication experiences.
As Hillocks (2002) and decades of researchers before him have shown, teachers, in their passion for good writing, place too much early emphasis on the mechanics of writing while failing to meaningfully interact with the writers’ content. Thus, in closing I offer points that I think captures how to create such meaningful interactions:
1. First, put emphasis on the content of writing
2. Learning the conventions of the language is critical, but honest writing, writing that is interesting and purposeful is more important.
3. Write with your students.
4. Share your writing with your students.
5. Reveal your multiple drafts.
6. Give students writing tasks that are meaningful.
7. Make students more comfortable while they are writing.
8. Give more frequent and concrete illustrations of progress in writing.
9. Model and point to examples of the enjoyment, appreciation, relaxation and gratification that we can gain from writing.
10. Share your enthusiasm about writing.
11. Attempt to publish your students’ writing.
12. Help your students form and work in writing groups.
13. Use, value, and make useful what your students have experienced, listened to, heard, and said.
Allen, R.V. (1976). Language experiences in communication. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Hillocks, G. (2002). The testing trap: How state writing assessments control learning. New York: Teachers College Press.
Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Salzman, M. (2003). True notebooks. New York: Knopf.
Wall of shame. (1962, August 31). Time Magazine, 80(9), 20-24.