I’m fresh off my tenth summer teaching writing in the Crimson Summer Academy at Harvard. My students are high-achieving young people who attend public high schools in Boston and some surrounding cities. Nearly all are BIPOCs, with limited financial means. These are young people that are proficient at “doing school.” They do their homework, will often complete multiple drafts of a project, complete their required readings, and are often viewed favorably by their teachers. They are dreams to teach.
When we meet early in the five-week course, they are already uneasy, as they’ve heard about my policy of frequent revisions and writing assignments with no prescribed thesis statement. I change the course every summer, but what has remained consistent is that young people generate what they want to write about within the genre of study, topics which have most recently included open letters, ruminations, and Letters of Recommendation (from The New York Times).
Ten years’ worth of teaching in this program, and even longer in urban public schools, has taught me that the writing we do in the summer is quite different from the writing they return to once school begins. Sometimes they email me during the year to report on what they’re reading, or to share something they’ve written, but, for the most part, what happens in the summer stays in the summer.
What I’ve been thinking about and that has gotten much clearer to me is how to bridge that summer work with the work of school. More specifically, I’ve been considering how to raise the level of writing challenge for these talented young people of color who often languish in urban classrooms because they are already competent in many of the skills their peers are struggling to learn.
What do we, as educators, owe them?
Acknowledge their competence: Young people often tell me that they have mastered a range of writing skills: they know how to craft a thesis-driven argument. They might know some grammar “rules.” They have completed the assigned reading and corresponding assignments. They have done their homework. By all accounts, they are doing the work and they are quite good at it. They want us to tell them every now and then that they are doing a good job. One particular young person said she wished her teacher would remember that she’s still a child, too, and that the endless stream of feedback and criticism she receives needs to be balanced with letting them know what they are doing well. I think, too, it’s easy to get caught up in how far behind some students are and worry about test scores and accountability, but we must remember that there are young people in our classes that are performing above grade level, who probably entered our classes that way and, at very least, we need to keep them there or push them higher. Assuming they are competent is a best first step.
Increase choice: High-achieving young people of color know how to do particular tasks well, but they often don’t know how to extend those rote skills to other, higher-order tasks that require a different type of critical thinking. For me, the possibilities opened up once I realized that we could push past taken-for-granted understandings about “writing.” I could have them address a range of audiences and purposes. I could flex their problem-solving muscles through Genius Hour. We could challenge them to read books they wanted to read. I told them the choice was theirs. Initially, they were skeptical because they’re accustomed to following the rules. They rarely were able to state the rules or revise the rules to fit their needs. If we are serious about preparing young folks for the future, I’m committed to making sure they can create and choose whatever future it is they envision.
Read, write, and talk about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and everything else: The numbers of BIPOC young people who have not read more than one core text that centers a BIPOC character remains alarming. I taught Angie Thomas’ On the Come Up and young people felt a powerful connection to Bri. The level of conversation, discussion, and writing was significant, largely because they connected with the text through many diverse perspectives. Also, moving these young people beyond standard discussion measures and assessments–even letting them plan and lead discussions for the class–increases the level of challenge and builds a community of literacy peers and role models. There is nothing more powerful than intentionally creating a literacy community of young people.
Teach them how to stretch: Success should look differently for high-achieving young people of color beyond templates and rote tasks. When I took the time to study sentences and writing craft, they were captivated. Chats about text sets that built on their interests and were of increasing complexity pushed them to expand their reading range. Connecting them to professors of color, public intellectuals in the community, and attending local literary events in the city encouraged them to claim their right to enjoy the city’s feast of literary delights.
Know that what helps some will help all: I’ve always expected my young people to achieve at high levels, no matter who they are. They generally all do. Through careful planning in conversation with young people, consideration of how to expand their understandings, and intentional work on how to do that work, all students benefit. I’m arguing that we should certainly expect and teach for the top rather than the bottom, or even the middle, especially when BIPOC young people are concerned. When we do, the results can be significant. For those high-achieving young people who consistently do the work and are hungry for a new challenge, they are particularly deserving of our recognition, our instruction that moves them far beyond the average, and of our love.
by Dr. Kimberly Parker
Dr. Kimberly N. Parker currently works with preservice teachers as the Assistant Director of the Teacher Training Center at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, MA. She is a co-founder of #DisruptTexts. Twitter: @TchKimpossible