The piece that Madeleine Tsoi wrote for the project, “The Escape”, is here.
The “Push-pull protocol” that Shelby used for writing conferences is here.
Our theme music is “Agassi (Into the Spider’s Web)” by Brother Hershel
This episode’s other music comes from Truxtun Road, which, it’s worth mentioning, was made by students and staff members at High Tech High Media Arts.
[TECHNO MUSIC] From High Tech High in the California Department of Education, this is the Project Essentials podcast. I’m your host, Alec Patton. Today’s story is about Alvarado Intermediate School in Los Angeles County. Shelby Sember teaches eighth grade Language Arts and History there. Last fall, inspired by a project she found in the Buck Institute of Education’s collection, Shelby set her students a challenge. As part of their research into the history of American slavery, every one of them would write a fictional diary from the perspective of an enslaved person. These would be inspired by real first-person narratives by formerly enslaved people, recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, and now housed in the Library of Congress. Here’s the beginning of one of the narratives that Shelby’s eighth graders wrote. This is from, “The Escape,” by Madeleine Tsoi.
“It was a hot day, the sun boring down harsh and hard on my face. Sweat dripped from my brow, landing with a plop on the dry, cracked earth. My bare bleeding feet ached as I toiled and worked amongst the many slaves laboring in the seemingly endless acres of gray dirt. The small wisps of white cotton drifting through the air were few and far between, and as valuable to us as gold. I could hardly speak, for fear of cracking my parched lips further.
The days were longer, and by extension so were our work hours. We, as well as the rest of North Carolina, were in the midst of an unusually dry summer, the many acres of once flourishing croplands turning to dry wastelands of dirt and weeds. What little water we put it on our crops evaporated, quickly leaving the parched soil as dry as a desert. As such, the few cotton plants that survived grew scraggly, leaves shriveled and brown, the cotton fluff sparse and then.
The overseers had, of course, put enormous pressure on us to pick more and more cotton to meet the usual demands, and with the promise of Civil War looming over our heads, were more irritable. They did not hesitate to whip us even for the smallest offense, and I knew that a whipping would await me if I fell even a pound short of cotton today. I had only been whipped once before, and I still winced, remembering the burn of the whip across my back, the rivulets of blood dripping ruby red onto the dust. Though the pain had long since ceased, the scars still remained
At the moment, my current focus was picking cotton. The course burlap sack dug into my aching shoulder, and a dull pain persisted in my arms. I looked into the sack, at the small pile of white cotton at the bottom, enough to weigh the sack down, though still not nearly enough. I’d never thought I’d miss having several pounds of cotton to carry, but now, that sounded far better than having nothing. Before, this would not have been a problem. Before, the fields would have been filled with miles and miles of cotton, white oceans of fluff seemingly endless. Right now, however, there was no more cotton to be seen, only barren stalks, and my sack of cotton was worryingly light.
I thought about my mother on the other side of the fields, wondering if she was faring any better. “God will provide,” she’d say, if she knew about my predicament. She’d always been fiercely devout, a sharp contrast to the older slaves, who still favored the voodoo of their youth. She put no stock into the old gods, nor the traditions of our ancestors, instead turning to a thin wooden crucifix she had made herself. But this was the plantation, and here, God did me just as much good as the dry wilted cotton plants, dead and dust on the scorched barren fields.”
You probably have a lot of questions after hearing that. I hope one is, “What happened next?” And you can find a link to Madeleine’s full piece in our show notes. But this episode is all about two questions. First, how did Shelby get eighth graders to a place where they were writing at this level of quality? Second, how did Shelby do this project in such a way that it increased students’ empathy and the sophistication of their understanding of race in America rather than descending into stereotypes and caricature? I have a personal stake in that second question because when I was a teacher, I would never in a million years have designed this project for my students to do. In fact, I never designed a project with race at the center. Not because I didn’t think it was important but because I was afraid to. So we’ll get to that.
But first, how did the students work get to this level of quality? The answer starts with mentor texts. A mentor text is a text that makes you go, “I want my writing to be like that.” I’ll let Shelby explain.
One thing that I think really drove– especially them improving their writing– was having that mentor text and having the students analyzing it themselves, rather than giving them parameters and checklists of, this is what your writing is going to be. They created it from what they liked about that. And so it was never me saying, you don’t have enough figurative language in here. So they went back and they got to choose, I really like this part of her story, how can I implement that in mine? And it made revisions, and critiques, and conferences so much easier because they came with a plan of what they wanted to improve from that list of strategies and features that they had come up with.
So they had ownership over their revisions, too. I knew what I wanted them to come up with for an effective narrative writing piece. And so I went into it hoping that that’s what they would come away with. And so it took a lot of partner and team conversations, and asking questions. It took a lot of discussion for us to develop that as a class. And so I had my targets in mind and it was really just sharing out ideas with the class and then coming together to categorize what those things are.
What I love about this is that the expectations for these writing pieces were as clear and explicit as they would be in any other class. In fact, the class literally made a list called Characteristics of Effective Writing. But It was the students who came up with the list, not the teacher. Because this project was a shared endeavor from the start, students were in it for the long haul, ready to go through draft after draft developing and polishing their work.
Critique and revision was a big focus for me because I haven’t done a lot of it. When they kept wanting to go back and fix things, that was amazing. I had a couple workshop days and they had options, and they were constantly going back to their writing.
However, as everybody who’s ever taught writing knows, enthusiasm and hard work do not on their own lead to great writing. So Shelby used another technique, one that’s beautifully simple, incredibly powerful, and extremely difficult to make time for.
Another practice I really tried to focus on in the project is writing conferences to help them with drafting and revision. So I met with students individually and used a push-pull protocol where I told them a couple of areas that they can push their writing in and also some things they did really well in their writing. And our focus is in those writing conferences came from a student-generated list that the students created when they were analyzing a mentor text. So they identified characteristics of effective writing. And as we met for writing conferences we chose one or two of those skills that they would focus on for their next revision. So students got to have a voice in what they chose for revision as well.
There was one more thing driving students to keep going back to the drafts to improve them. At the end of the project, they were going to be exhibiting their work publicly.
The public exhibit really helped push students to increase the quality of their work and put an extra effort. So as students came to me with finished products or writing pieces, I really only had to ask them two questions. And the first one was, did it honor the lives of enslaved people and do it justice? And also, are you proud to show this work on exhibit day? And with those two questions, students constantly went back to revise pieces that they felt needed to be improved. And students even ended up asking for extra critiques when they weren’t happy with the part of their project but didn’t know quite what to fix.
Shelby used a powerful phrase in there that I’m going to play against so that you don’t miss it.
Did it honor the lives of enslaved people and do it justice?
These questions are at the heart of this project. Behind the mentor text, the conferences, the critiques, the revision, was a responsibility to do justice to the stories the students were telling because they were writing fiction. But it was fiction informed by the lives of the millions of enslaved people who lived and died in America. People who were prevented by force from sharing their own stories.
This brings us to this episode’s second question. How did Shelby do this project in such a way that it increased students’ empathy and the sophistication of their understanding of race in America, rather than descending into stereotypes and character? Like I said before, this project scares me a little because it would be so easy for it to go off the rails. To be clear Shelby, isn’t Black.
I’m white, cisgendered, middle class.
And neither are most of her students.
Most identify as Latino and Asian.
Now you’re probably wondering what I wondered. Were there any Black students in Shelby’s class when she did this project?
I have one Black student in one of my– exactly. So that is something I had to work through as well. And I had a conversation with him before we even started the project, just to gauge comfort and to make sure that he and I had an open dialogue of whether I did something that made him uncomfortable, or the topic made him uncomfortable. And just to check in. To be the only Black student in the class talking about slavery can just be super uncomfortable. So I definitely checked in with him.
Eventually all of this made Shelby wonder if she should even be doing this project at all.
I got to the end and I had to ask myself, “What was the point of them creating a fictional character when there are people who exist who have recounted their stories?”
This gets to a fundamental tension of project-based learning. Sometimes what the world needs and what your students need aren’t the same. Does the world need fictional first-person accounts of enslavement written by eighth-graders? Probably not, but Shelby is not responsible for teaching the world. She’s responsible for teaching her students. And this project is just packed with stuff that we all want teenagers to be grappling with, but that most of us are too nervous to talk to them about, starting with really basic stuff like the language we use to talk about race.
There were so many times in the beginning in both of my classes where students didn’t even want to identify someone as “Black” because if you said the word “Black” you were racist. And so breaking down those walls and giving them the language of what you can and cannot say– they didn’t know the phrase “people of color”. And then they would switch it and say “colored people,” which is an issue. So we looked at science from the 1950s during segregation like “colored people not welcome”. And we looked at the connotations of those two phrases and especially in images and pictures. And so they had to get a sense of what the connotation of those phrases were and how they’ve been used throughout history to discriminate.
Once the students had learned how to use the language of race respectfully they had to figure out how to deal with the racist terms that overseers and slave owners use in dialogue within their mentor texts. Then there was a completely different issue that some students had to grapple with.
There were instances where girls felt really strongly connected to some of the stories of women who were enslaved, who experienced assault. And so they kind of grappled with, well do we put this detail about assault in here, or do we not because it’s triggering? But it really happened and it was a big part of slavery. So they grappled with those as well.
And there’s another thing that Shelby did that was important, both for the quality of the writing students produced, and to the depth of their learning,
Our focus was not on just the horrors of slavery, but also the resilience of people who were enslaved. And so that was a big piece, that Africans were not passive victims. There were ways that they maintained humanity and resisted throughout the history.
And of course students made poor decisions in their drafts– their protagonists named after rappers, stories that turn into soap operas, everything that you’d expect from a group of eighth-graders writing fiction. But Shelby had a secret weapon that was so powerful and so, so obvious once you hear it.
I said, “OK, what are your sources? What are you basing off of? What was this narrative really saying? Or, in your other research, what did you find? If someone read this story would they have a good understanding of what slavery was like in this country?” It’s like, “oh, no.” They did not do justice to that the experiences that they had to go through. That was the main question I always went back to, “Did this do justice to what you’ve learned?”
We talk a lot about essential questions and driving questions in project-based learning. This question is neither one of those. In fact, I’m not sure what to call it, but I’m pretty sure every project should have one– a question that you can ask of every draft in every critique to make sure that the work is fulfilling its purpose. “Does this do justice to what you’ve learned?” is such a simple question, but it makes all the difference.
In this episode’s show notes you can find links to the Library of Congress archive of interviews that Shelby used as mentor text for this project, as well as some of the pieces her students wrote, and that push-pull protocol that she mentioned using for writing conferences. This episode featured music from Truxton Road, an album recorded by students and staff at High Tech High Media Arts. You can find the full album on SoundCloud. Our theme music is by Brother Horschel. This episode was produced and edited by me, Alec Patton, with additional reporting by Randy Scheer and Kelly Jacob. Matt Pierson read the excerpt from, “The “Escape,” by Madeline Tsoi. Thank you so much for listening.