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The sounds of silence

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This is a commentary I wrote while President of NCTE in 2008-2009. In it, I explore the importance of writing in one student's life and what happens when we silence a student's voice.

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The sounds of silence

  1. 1. President’s COMMENTARY by Kylene Beers NCTE President The Sound of SilenceImages the landscape of his bus stop. I look but it was evident that he had offered around: graffiti everywhere; store something important about himself toMarcus is fourteen years old, in eighth windows covered by burglar bars; beer that teacher in that one paper, and hergrade, and lives with his mom and bottles, whiskey bottles, and crumpled reaction that it was “good” was over-younger sister in a three-room apart- brown sacks in street curbs; an old man shadowed by the low grade at the topment in a Houston-area project for with gray whiskers and tattered clothes of the page.low-income families. There’s a small sleeps on a bench, an old army jacket “But you’re still writing in your jour-kitchen—sink, stove, refrigerator—that under his head for a pillow. “This is nal?” I asked.sits at the edge of a main room that’s my world. How’s word-of-the-day and “It’s not a journal. Just a notebook.filled with second-hand furniture and TAKS help with this?” Girls keep journals. [pause] Yeah, Ithe prized possession—a large-screen When Marcus comes home each day, writes in here, but nothin’ like to betelevision. Beyond the kitchen is a he does his homework, shoots some graded, just things I’m thinkin’ about.bedroom that Marcus’s mom and sister hoops in the parking lot with some Nothin’ like with topic sentences.”share. Clothes are folded neatly and buddies, and then writes in his journal, “But you’re writing down things thatstacked on cardboard boxes that serve a spiral notebook that is fat with writ- are important to you,” I said. “That’sas a dresser. The bed—mattresses ing. I haven’t seen what he writes— great.”covered neatly by a white, chenille “It’s kinda private, Miss, ok?”—but he “Yeah, I guess. I mean this kindabedspread—sits directly on the floor. carries that notebook with him in his writing [pointing to his notebook], IBeyond that bedroom is a small bath- backpack all the time. When I asked if don’t know if that’s important. Not likeroom. Marcus sleeps on the couch. he ever wrote in it at school, he shook the paragraphs we do at school, like to Marcus and his sister are always in his head no and explained, “This is the be doin’ topic sentence, that’s probablyschool. His mom makes sure they are wrong kinda writing for school.” important. You know for like at work,out the door and to the bus stop on “How’s that?” I asked. when you get a job. You probably haf totime, and homework is almost always After a moment, he shrugged and be knowin’ how to do that.”done—neatly. His younger sister, in explained, “Like no topic sentences.fourth grade, “loves” school and this This is just my thinking. Like at school, Images in Focusyear, 2008, thinks her teacher is “awe- you need topic sentences.” Marcus is part of the 93% of all teenssome.” Marcus smiles as he talks “So you must really like to write?” I who report doing some sort of writingabout Jasmine, and it’s easy to see the asked, nodding toward that notebook. outside of school and a part of the 33%pride he feels for this sister who all “No, I don’t thinks so. [pause] I who say they write “consistently andbut skips her way to the bus stop. But got a D in writing last year. I turned in regularly” when out of school. He’s partwhen talk turns to Marcus, his face this one paper that it was about the of the 47% of black teens who write inclouds and his words slow. time my dad he come for a visit and a journal, part of the 49% of teens who “Me? I’m not, not so good in school, the teacher says it was good but it had say they enjoy the writing they do out-you know? I don’t like it. [pause] My agreement errors and that was why it side of school, and one of the 98% of allteacher, she’s real nice and everything. had to get a D. [pause] I thought it was teens who understand that writing “isBut, it’s just like nothing we do there better than a D. Like maybe a B.” at least somewhat important for theiris going to change anything here,” he Marcus wouldn’t say any more about future success.” Here’s the tough one:says as he sweeps his hand out across this moment in his life as a writer,14 The Council Chronicle  September 2009
  2. 2. he’s part of the 83% of teens who do not times, with tears in our eyes, we write they have received a great amount ofenjoy school-time writing.1 the memorials of those we have loved. attention. When I went back to Marcus and We write diaries and reminders and The Chiefs chose not to involveasked him what his biggest gripe with instructions; emails and text messages, professional educators’ associations—school-time writing was, he took a Twitter posts and Facebook updates. NCTE, NCTM, and IRA—in the initialmoment before he answered and then And we write about dads who, absent drafting of the standards. This deci-finally said, “What I say don’t matter. or close, always seem to matter. sion makes some observers skepti-It’s just all about is it on the rubric and We write to remember, to explain, cal about both the process and theis it agreement and is it correct. It’s to persuade, to tell, to encourage. We product, a skepticism that has shownnot ever about what you really saying. write to discover what we know and to up in emails I’ve already received de-Write stupid and get a good grade if it figure out what we don’t; we write to manding that NCTE come out againstbe correct.” entertain and explore, to wonder or ca- these standards. They are frustrated at “Is that your plan? To just write jole, and sometimes we write in anger, not being a part of the initial processthings that don’t matter to you?” sometimes even to hurt. But under- and fearful that whatever we say in “No. My plan is to just write noth- neath it all, we write so we can be heard. response to the standards will not being.” Being heard—we rarely mention that heard. A quick look at his school-time writ- reason for writing to students, perhaps I understand that concern. Recently,ing reveals a myriad of problems with only occasionally admit it to ourselves. when the Texas Board of Educationspelling, formal usage and grammar, We offer purposes for writing—per- revised our state ELA standards, I suading, informing, entertaining, etc.— wrote a letter to the board membersand punctuation. But his voice is clear: suggesting that the direction they“My Dad’s ball swishes throgh were heading with some standardsthe net like he swishes throgh my The ways we read, write, and retrieve needed rethinking and providinglife. Barly touching anything. Butcounting all the same.” information—and then make sense the research to support my state- of the world—are in the midst of ments. I was told that one board transformative change. member tossed the letter in theBe Heard trash without even reading it,On October 20, 2009, the National dismissing me, my credentials, andCouncil of Teachers of English will but underneath any of those purposes this national organization with a tellingopen to the public the National Gallery sits the most basic: to be heard. At remark: “I don’t need some teacherof Writing that celebrates the National times, we want only one person to hear telling me what needs to happen in aDay on Writing. As President of NCTE, our thoughts—ourselves. But whether school. I went to school and I got goodI approach this day with more than ex- the audience is one or many, close or grades because my teachers demandedcitement and pride. I approach it with distant, familiar or global, we need to I learn how to diagram sentences.the vision of what this day can show be heard. We need someone to listen Now, teachers don’t even care if stu-us all—youngsters and teens, parents to what we say. It is in being heard that dents learn to spell.”and teachers, policy makers and politi- we come to feel part of a community, The Texas ELA standards documentcians, principals, superintendents, bus bound to one another. passed with minor attention to somedrivers, lawyers, hairdressers, computer of the issues I addressed, but certainlytechnicians, waitresses, orthodontists, The Consequences of not all the revisions I had hoped for.journalists, and factory workers—that Silence I knew before I wrote the letter thateach of us in every walk of life writes. . . Much is being written right now about some board members wouldn’t read it,or could write . . . each day in a variety the voluntary national standards that would not hear what I had to say. Butof modes and for a variety of reasons. have been created by the Council of I also knew that if I did not write the We write reports and editorials, Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) letter, if I stayed silent, I would not bepoems and songs, stories and novels, in collaboration with College Board,get-well cards and thank-you notes. We heard at all . . . by anyone. I knew that I National Governors Association, and would have a better chance of continu-write love letters and to-do lists; birth Achieve. As of this writing, these stan-announcements and party invitations; ing a conversation with some of these dards are not yet released, but alreadybook reviews and postcards, and some- Continued on page 161 Lenhart, Amanda, Sousan Arafeh, Aaron Smith, and Alexandra Rankin Macgill. Writing,Technology and Teens. Pew Internet & American Life Project,April 24, 2008, http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/247/report_display.asp, accessed on June 3, 2009. national Council of Teachers of english  September 2009 15
  3. 3. President’s COMMENTARY Continued from page 15board members if I at least began it. And I knew that some boardmembers would be open-minded enough to hear our positionand the research to support it. For those reasons, I participatedin the process. By the time you read this, NCTE will be in deep conversationsabout the National Standards. Though they did not ask NCTEto help create these standards, the Chiefs have already (at thiswriting) asked NCTE to provide names of people who can serveas validators of the document and have asked that we help inthe process of providing grade-level benchmarks. The NationalCouncil of Teachers of English looks forward to providing infor-mation on standards and benchmarks that we believe best comefrom a professional organization; we are committed to the ideathat the implementation of standards is best left in the hands ofteachers and local officials. I remain dedicated to being a part of a professional organi-zation that offers its voice, expertise, input, and suggestionsto both teachers and policy makers. We will work to be heard,because choosing not to participate, not to give our beliefs voice,would be to follow Marcus in silencing his own voice in his class-room. That sound of silence serves none.Kylene Beers is NCTE President (2008-2009) and is Senior Reading Ad-visor to Secondary Schools for Teachers College Reading and Writing Project,Columbia University.16 The Council Chronicle  September 2009