Power Writers Seminar Fundamentals:

Create a safe place for the students—a place where everyone feels it is ok to express oneself, to be vulnerable, without fear of ridicule or abuse.

Capture a quiet respectful room where the ethics of hard work, responsibility, and shared insight are honored. Not as easy as one might expect.

Build everyone’s commitment through consistency. This means showing up without fail, following up with sincere interactions and doing what you say you are going to do.

“Read & Feed” forms the core of the Power Writers circle. To be literate in the art of reading and feeding, students not only have to read their original writing but they also become active listeners and engage each other with thoughtful and detailed feedback.

Honesty – Gratuitous praise, rote criticism, and a line of smooth bull you don’t really believe in, never pass muster with young people. They get it immediately and respond by disappearing literally or figuratively.

Listening – Everyone needs to feel they are being heard. Our kids have been profoundly short-changed in this regard.

Respect – This means that the “teachers” must be there to learn as well.

Warm support – This cannot be underestimated. If you don’t feel happy about coming to this class as a student or teacher it can’t work.

Empathy – If you can’t feel at least a bit of other people’s struggle, you’re doomed to little more than condescension.

Literacy is taught as a weapon—The work of the seminar is about survival, and as such requires that the students treat literacy as an awesome power, something that must be mastered, something that cannot be trivialized.

One can only teach within a social, political and historical context—Nothing worth knowing exists in a vacuum—what makes what we do valuable, is that we can and do connect it to the world around us.

A sense of fairness – Life has limits and so do the resources of our seminar. Everyone gets a chance and the work you do is what entitles you to the privilege of sharing.

Heavy Lifting is what we call the exercise in tackling the intellectually challenging material we bring to the class. For instance: Over the course of the year we lead our students through a guided deconstruction of the New York Times and other culturally and politically significant publications that our students are rarely exposed to. We understand how crucial it is to learn to connect the dots between one’s own life experience and the wider world.

Commitment to the nuts and bolts of language mastery: Grammar, spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, structure. This is listed last because it is in many ways the most difficult to achieve and for us still remains the most elusive challenge of the program’s goals. Our students have come to us with severe deficits in these skills after years of educational negligence. We work on these skills regularly but the amount of work needed to bring each student up to speed is daunting. We don’t have a good solution yet but we think it lies somewhere in the zone of intensive individual tutoring and mentoring. Mentoring of a type that may yet not even exist. Suffice it to say that many of our students feel a profound sense of shame, practice constant denial, harbor vast reservoirs of resentment, and low-self esteem as a result of these outwardly imposed deficiencies. But for now we continue to work hard at building self-awareness and desire in our kids so that they have the inner strength to confront and challenge their own perceived limits.

This is not about grades or abstract tests – Nothing could be further from our minds—you get credit by thinking and speaking, and writing, and reading in this seminar and the credit you get comes in the form of respect for your ideas and your creativity. Those things cannot and should not ever be turned into numbers or letters!

Come ready to work hard – Nothing truly worth having comes without hard work.
The class cannot get too large. We may have hit our limit as we approach 20-25. The students will get lost and their need to be heard will be undermined.

A high adult-to-student ratio. We usually have at least 3 adults in the room, 4 is better as the class gets larger. Real life is a mix of ages and experiences. Our class mixes kids from all grades and adults of varying ages as well.
The focus on intensive team-mentoring has great impact. By blending the skills, experience, and perspectives of our three co-mentor-teachers, Power-writing has been able to:
a) diffuse the traditional teacher/student power structure—this has encouraged initiative amongst the students—and created a sense of the broad support that comes from a tight-knit family, rather than a top-down hierarchy
b) allow a much closer set of relationships to develop between each individual student and the teachers—The students feel appreciated, heard, understood, cared for and about—Absolutely critical-more one-on-one time is an essential part of the formula.
c) Provide the students with range of adult views and responses to their work. Again this gives the students a sense that their own work merits, and deserves serious care and attention.
d) Offer the teachers themselves a key opportunity to share their experiences with peers. This type of sharing is not born of theoretical discussion nor of outside observation of a class in action but rather more uniquely from the direct, immediate shared experience of each class and workshop. The benefits of this contact, extended over time, allows the teachers to reflect on each others work and support one another.

Retain a sense of humor and playfulness. The work is hard but if you lose your ability to laugh—you quickly become old, boring and mean, and your feet start to smell like fish.

Make sure the students eat well. Instill a sense of adventure in the act of eating—and be mindful of healthy food without being a fanatic.

Team teaching – With three primary ‘teachers’ in the room there is a lot of intuitive skill required. What we have learned and continue to learn is how to compliment each other—too much is intrusive and confusing and too little inconsequential. It is a delicate balance and perhaps the closest thing to magic that occurs in our room.

Flexibility – Each week we come prepared with a plan and a focus, and each week we have learned to be ready to relinquish it to deal with the important needs of the moment.

Testing what’s learned in class against the outside world – Without this component I think what we do is completely wasted. The students need to see if what we are saying and teaching has practical, applicable value in their lives. And we as teachers need to hear what works for them and what doesn’t.

Respect for the “Standard Tongue” – History and cultural contributions without losing perspective about the oppression embedded in it. Conversely, appreciation for the language of community, in our case its called Bronxonics.

Celebrate everyone’s genius. This is not some simplistic, hair-brained, utopian vision that “We are all wonderful.” We have come to believe that genius is by far the most common stock in humanity. By recognizing this, and acknowledging it when observed, we build a critical positive momentum in our classroom, one that becomes self-sustaining.

From “WRITING IN RHYTHM: Spoken Word Poetry in the Classroom”

by Maisha T. Fisher; Teacher’s College Press, 2007

Joseph R. Ubiles

Just a brief reminder, the do-rags are not the minds; the backward hats are not the hearts. What a difficult task it is to teach literacy in 21st century America. As a people, we have not reified our core values of liberty, fraternity, equality and justice. These failures return like Marley’s ghost to haunt us. Our internal contradictions imperil us all. Do we, as Dewey argued a century ago, bring the world to our students, or do we accept and abet the ascribed and oppressive circumstances that constrain our pupils’ perceptions of literacy, its structures and their functions? We remain a class society, and as such, our ideas, our worldview, and most important, our language are shaped by our class positions and the rigidity of still-prominent ethnic, racial and economic barriers.

As yourself: Is your class a sanctuary, a temple of knowledge, an arena within which your students can earn the skills of critical thinking and contemplation, analysis and postulation, the science of the language and the exploration of the rich mother lode of literature? Do we understand the complexity of modern English in America? Is this understanding manifest in defining the work that we do and the methodology of such work? Does society at this time really desire a literate citizenry, or do many of its structures depend upon an ascribed culture of silence, illiteracy and political impotence?

Do we ever stop to ask ourselves how it is that we achieved literacy? Why to was important to do so? What circumstances made such effort and achievement possible? These are the real “how now, brown cow” questions of transference, assimilation and acculturation into the realms of the literate. The answers to these questions are the force of history in motion. Let us examine our own class experiences-how information was acquired by our families and passed on to successive generations. Where did we acquire our ideas about information and knowledge?

When I think of the students with whom we have worked in Power Writing over the past several years, the first thing that comes to mind is the importance of encouraging young men and women to tell their own life stories and to model the skills that are the prerequisites to this most important endeavor. The manifest function of our writing circle is to have our students acquire the ability to examine the world, to analyze and speculate as to the order of things, to problem-solve and to articulate their perceptions through the writing an public speaking. We create a physical and ideational sanctuary where all voices are of equal value, where form and function serve only to build community and to make communication possible. The one cannot exist without the other.

Our students deserve and demand literacy and a safe space in which to acquire and rehearse the elaborate and complex convergence of the written and spoken word. They all want to speak to and for the world, to reveal what is real to them, their triumphs and their sorrows. On short, they all wish to be heard beyond the modalities of silence and violence.

The choice to use creative writing, specifically poetry, as the driving force behind the literacy project has very much to do with the conventional and fallacious perception of the role of poetry in our society as a secret doctrine, the esoteric of the elite. The poetry of the blues, of jazz and of American popular music contradicts this assumption of literary exclusivity and serves to remind us of the elemental importance of the spoken word. We are all Americans and what we speak is American English, as what we live are American lives. The work then becomes a process of redefining and refining our students’ relationship to the language. Print is more than encryption of the auditory form and thus requires a cognitive mapping. We must identify a path for our students and a rationale for the arduous task at hand, the acquisition of literacy. English class for me will always be a call to arms.