Teacher as Writer Teaching Writing

Publishing Students’ True Stories

When I graduated with my Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction, I decided to leave college teaching and return to teaching high school. Part of my motivation was to introduce students to the fresh approaches to writing that I had encountered in my studies. However, nothing prepared me for the explosive response I received when I exposed students to the largely unexplored genre of creative nonfiction, that is, the writing of literary journalism, memoir, reportage, biography, and similar subgenres.

Almost immediately, these students were no longer writing primarily for grades or to please me. Instead, they were writing real stories about events in their lives that mattered to them. Now, through their writing, they finally had the opportunity to share those events with a larger audience.

With this success, I began my campaign to establish Maryland Voices, a biannual journal designed and edited by high school students and devoted to publishing creative nonfiction written by Maryland teens. The journal has filled a publishing void, providing opportunities for young writers to tell true stories in a creative way—and have them published.

The business plan to establish such a publication is a lot easier than readers might think. Here, for the benefit of those considering a similar project, are the steps I went through.

1. Education: Spreading the Word to Teachers and Students

As we got started we needed to inform others as to what creative nonfiction was all about.

Philip Gerard, author of Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life (Story Press Books, 1996), defines a piece of writing as creative nonfiction if it contains the following five characteristics:

  1. It shares a good, narrative story that contains a defined setting, a solid plot, and strong characters.
  2. It has an apparent subject and a deeper subject.
  3. It tells a timely story that is also timeless.
  4. It offers a sense of reflection on behalf of the author.
  5. It pays careful attention to the craft of writing.

For my students, I add a sixth characteristic, one that is both upheld and broken by many established writers: the work tells the truth. Nothing is made up, no poetic license is practiced, no events are rewritten to carry the story. We tell our contributors that, if their story contains untruths of any kind, it crosses the hard line between fact and fiction, and thus becomes a work of fiction that is based primarily on actual events.

As my own students developed a grasp of the genre, I charged them with spreading the word about creative nonfiction. Our most effective workshop included a dynamic multimedia presentation designed and delivered to our entire faculty by our four student editors. They wanted to educate all our teachers about creative nonfiction and the Voices journal. In just 20 minutes, they inspired these teachers to find ways to integrate creative nonfiction into the existing curricula. After a few small-group meetings that took place in the days following, the genre had taken root in our school.

2. Support: Spreading the Word

We then looked for help beyond the school. “Network, network, network” became our mantra. We talked to parents, community leaders, local business groups—anyone who had any interest at all in supporting the publishing of student writing.

We went directly to the school system for support. We showed them the success that Maryland students had already realized, and shared with them the benefits that would be available to our students and the larger communities in the school system and, subsequently, throughout the state.

Our goal has been for every high school in the state to be aware of Voices and the publishing opportunities it provides. We solicited help from writing project sites in Maryland, encouraging them to spread the word about our Voices publication via email listservs and newsletters, educating other TCs and opening the doors for volunteers. This outreach has allowed us to increase the number of targeted schools with each new volume of Voices.

Our three-step plan looked like this:

  1. Volumes 1 and 2: We used the team at my school (Centennial High in Baltimore), where the Voices publication has its headquarters.
  2. Volumes 3 and 4: We solicited help from other editors at other schools in our county.
  3. Volume 5 and beyond: We solicited support from regional editors across the state. We divided Maryland into six regions and designated specific teams for each region, thus lightening the demands on our staff’s time and energy and ensuring that each county in the state, as well as Baltimore City, received fair and equal treatment.

3. Staffing: Putting ‘Em to Work

At Centennial High, we were fortunate to develop a strong editorial Voices team in one of my publications classes. These students (three seniors and one junior) worked relentlessly to establish the journal’s foundation. These four students had four to six hours a week dedicated to Voices and devoted needed time outside of class to meet their deadlines. We could have developed a club that met after school two or three times a week, or established a team of dedicated writers/editors recommended by TCs from other schools. The first option has the advantage of getting to know an editorial team intimately. They’re on their home turf and can be tracked down at any time during the day, should the need arise. Establishing a team from other schools has the alternative advantage of greater outreach. I tried to keep in mind that my goal was to set up a statewide publication. I wanted a structure that allowed growth naturally.

4. Finally Funding: The (Simple) Foundation of a Successful Publication

We learned early on that if we stayed simple in the beginning stages our publication would not incur outrageous expenses. We networked through email, word of mouth, and a website (check out ours at www.marylandvoices.com). We found a local printer interested in supporting our immediate school community who also recognized the potential exposure he would get from a statewide audience. When we offered him free advertising in Voices, he was eager to work with us financially.

We have always been on the lookout for minigrants. Our school system awarded us $2,000. We’ve learned that there are plenty of small grants available for projects like this. The Grants Support Services division of our school system provided a list of some of these opportunities.

Finally, we published within our means. We realized that if our goal was to offer this publication to students throughout our state for many years to come, starting small and successful was much better than trying to woo the world with a 400-page book that would put us in the red before the third volume ever went to print. Our students were just as excited to be published in Volume 1, a low-budget, 32-page, stapled journal, as they were in Volume 2: a 128-page bound book that took our breath away. Publishing is publishing, and going about it slowly but successfully is the only way to ensure that kids keep ending up in print—for a very long time to come.

Models of Creative Nonfiction
Before Van Westervelt’s students write creative nonfiction, they read accomplished writers in the field. The following writers provide strong examples of the creative nonfiction genre:

English (personal essay, memoir)
Noted creative nonfiction authors in this field include Frank McCourt, Mitch Albom, Annie Dillard, Maya Angelou, E. Ethelbert Miller, Wil Haygood.
Students write about an event important to them that is appealing in some way to a larger audience. Most memoirs and personal essays focus on growth through some kind of learning experience—in other words, life lessons we all invariably encounter.

Social Sciences/History (travel writing, biography, personal essay, reportage, immersion journalism)
Noted creative nonfiction authors in this field include Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, David McCullough, Paul Wilkes, Thomas French, Susan Orlean, Leslie Rubinkowski, Walt Harrington. Students assume an important role in capturing the lives of others, in story form, without altering or obliterating the facts. They cover events, people on the move at their school, or any other topic that interests them within or outside of their own community.

Math/Science (nature writing, ecological studies)
Noted creative nonfiction authors in this field include Edward O. Wilson, Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, Lisa Knopp, Diane Ackerman, Robert Finch. Creative nonfiction writers in the sciences write pieces that make a difference to a larger population. Students can explore the natural or scientific aspects of their community. What stories emerge? What do they have to share that has yet to be written about in that community?

Here’s an example of creative nonfiction from Maryland Voices:

Everything is Going to Be Okay

By Elizabeth Dobbins

The obscure night was illuminated by the blurred light all around me. As my family and I quietly drove down the thick, busy street filled with advertisements and insomniacs of the night, I drowsily awoke from my nap in the middle of the back seat. I felt like an outsider in this strange world of luminescence and people, and I momentarily forgot where I was. I didn’t fully understand why we were going to the airport, but on that night, at 3 in the morning, Riyadh International Airport was where we were headed.

After what seemed like an eternity, the lights of the street began to decrease. Eventually the small street began to descend on a slight decline, and our Crown Victoria stopped slowly under a covered entrance. On my right, a blinding light shone through a set of double doors, and Arabic letters spelled out across the glass, along with the Saudi Arabia crest of a palm tree and two swords. As my sisters got out of the back seat of the car, I slid out as well, feeling the hard cement meet my little, sandaled feet. It was August in Saudi Arabia, but the night breeze was surprisingly cool and we welcomed it. I looked up to see my father talking to a Saudi man who took the keys to our car, and I was slowly ushered inside the brightly-lit building.

This airport seemed nothing like those in America. Saudi couples moved emotionlessly around the tiny airport lobby, and it looked like a hotel lobby more than an airport check-in. It was quiet here, and I saw a single check-in desk to the right of me which my father was standing at, checking us in. Ahead of the check-in desk was an up-escalator, and my mom began leading my two sisters and I toward it.

“Where is daddy?” I thought aloud.

My question hung in the thick, humid air, refusing to be answered. My sisters’ eyes read that they wondered the same thing, but no one replied to me. My mother wouldn’t meet my questioning, innocent eyes, and I felt completely helpless and desperate with anxiety.

Finally I found my father. As I was moving up the escalator, he stood at the bottom, waving. Even at 9 years old, I found the tears rolling down his cheek. He looked too strong in his military uniform, with metal stars screaming his bravery, and yet I saw him defenseless. Why was he standing at the bottom of the escalator? What was going on? Questions pressed against my brain, building pressure that forced hot tears to rip down my cheek.

Speechless, helpless, I watched him grow farther away. The evil, rough, soulless escalator tore my heart as it ground upward, increasing the distance between my father and me. I tearfully tried to choke words out of my mouth, but the knot in my throat suffocated me.

As the escalator leveled off at the top, I stepped off and continued to look over the edge, down at my father who kept waving. After what seemed like an eternity, I heard my name being called across the room by my mother who beckoned me over to be with her and my sisters. I tore my blurry eyes from my idol, my father, and slowly trudged over in misery. On my way across the room, a Saudi man touched my shoulder and smiled down at me. I had never seen him before but somehow I felt familiar warmth from him.

“Everything is going to be okay,” he said to me in perfect English.

As soon as I felt his hand lift from my shoulder it seemed like he vanished, and I went over to my incomplete family, whom I noticed were crying too.

I knew why we were evacuating from Saudi Arabia. Terrorists had bombed American compounds and embassies in Daharan, a neighboring city to Riyadh, where our navy base was. All of the military families were ordered to go home by President Clinton, but the soldiers had to stay. Two years of my life were spent in Riyadh, and I wouldn’t see my dad for an entire year after we left.

On the long, sleepless, uncomfortable plane ride home, I looked out over the moonlit ocean and dreamed of a bomb on the plane and how I didn’t want to go home. There was no home waiting for me in America. My home was in Riyadh, in my American compound, playing with lizards and my foreign friends.

As I struggled to find myself in the midst of chaos and unfamiliarity, everything made sense to me. Now, in 2004, with that horrendous day of 9/11 three years behind us, I feel the pain of thousands deep in my remembering heart. I understand terror, and I empathize. Although 9/11 was one of the few times that middle-eastern based terror organizations targeted America, this evil has existed for centuries. In Saudi Arabia and in other countries, terrorist attacks shook foundations far before 9/11. Tragic and wasteful, terrorists can only succeed if they cause terror. The innocence of a child cannot protect anyone anymore.

To overcome terror and promote peace, we must be brave and help others as well as ourselves and not use terror tactics to eliminate terror.