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Will My Name Be Shouted Out? Reaching Inner City Students Through the Power of Writing.

It's hard not to like Stephen O'Connor's Will My Name Be Shouted Out? because it's hard not to like Stephen O'Connor. He's an earnest, reflective teacher in New York City middle schools, and his mission, as the subtitle says, is to "reach" inner-city seventh graders "through the power of writing." It's a worthy experiment, one that promises both liberation and art, and it's told by a man who is putting his liberalism where his mouth is. But in the end, both his pedagogy and the book suffer from a problem too common in teaching today: It's too much about O'Connor's and our appreciation of the students' art, and not enough about school.

O'Connor's writing class works like this: Write what you want, as long as you want, using whatever language leaps to mind. Eventually, we suppose, the confusion of adolescence and inner-city living (as well as that of nouns and direct objects) will resolve itself into some kind of order. Order like this:

I am New York. I am the

chimnees that puffs out smoke

into the air I am the earth

quakes that rips trough the ground

under the houses all around

I am a building being torchered

by a crane banging and banging

until I'm all gone. I am New York

a very unpeaceful place.

The book is full of work like this, and it's usually a pleasure to read. Free writing (as such no-holds-barred lessons are usually called) is an essential part of any English curriculum: You can't convince a 12-year-old of the importance of commas and semicolons without giving him somewhere meaningful to put them.

The question, though, is meaningful to whom? In the first few pages, O'Connor provocatively asks whether writing can matter: "...not just charm adults or conform to current literary fashion, but matter to my students. If I couldn't help them see the value of writing in their own lives, how could I be sure it had any value at all?"

The answer, it would seem, is that it doesn't. After a year of free writing, his kids are just as bad-mouthed, confused, and headed for disaster as they were on page one. To be sure, their problems are enormous--dead siblings, drug-addicted mothers, murders on their doorsteps--and writing can't change all that. But you expect some progress: a greater range in feeling, a more sophisticated thought, a change or two in someone's life. Otherwise, stop--and try a different approach. Instead, O'Connor goes back for another year, with the same program.

For a time, one student's grades go up a bit, but then slip right back. One kid lands a part in a movie, but the rest of them slide toward huge, anonymous high schools, where they often fall apart. They shock him with how nonchalantly they can toss off a gripping monologue about a brother killed in a gang war. But the only person who seems to care about what they've written is O'Connor. "Since it was clear to me that many of my students didn't think they had much cause to celebrate themselves," he writes, "I thought that I had at last discovered what writing could give them that they really needed. The problem was that I don't think a single one of my students ever bought it."

Why not? Part of it, I think, is that such beautiful poetry and storytelling is easy to come by, and his students know it. Plenty of anthologies, TV shows, and movies spotlight the work of inner-city kids, and the culture expects them to perform this way. It's hip for them to be shocking, and for us to be shocked. The problem is that O'Connor, and many liberals like him, get caught up in the aesthetics of the situation without figuring out ways to change it.

That change comes in the mundane form of basic schoolwork. O'Connor's students just don't have the tools to make sense out of their writing, let alone their emotions. The writing hasn't taken them anywhere; it's merely expressed what they already knew. O'Connor's book, if it had followed through with its first question--can writing matter to these kids?--could have been a proper indictment of education in our cities.

Instead, because of this dreamy quest for beautiful art and expression, it winds up being more about O'Connor, and us, than about the students. Far too much of the book falls, sadly, into guilt-ridden, white-voyeur traps: "I was ashamed," he writes after visiting a housing project, "of my anxiety, which seemed irredeemably middle-class, racist even." Who cares?

One reason the poem above is so interesting is that it's so grammatically tortured. It's a nice artistic effect, but it's going to ruin the student. This may be art, but it isn't education. Such appreciation of poetry from children headed for disaster is a sin of omission. While 12-year-olds in New York are writing beautiful poems they don't care about, their peers in Scarsdale are getting the basics under their belts, learning to make sense of their lives even as they learn to express them.
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Author:Mayo, Michael K.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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