Publishing student work validates young voices
We all probably remember struggling — more than once — with writing a paper for a class at school. You might have prepared an outline or perhaps you just started scribbling (or typing) away, letting the ideas flow out as best you could. If you were a diligent student, you probably spent time looking for spelling mistakes before submitting it to the teacher. But what happened to all those papers after they were graded? They probably ended up in the trash can or recycle bin.
Recently, a Montreal teacher has made it his mission to rescue student writing from the province’s blue boxes. Michael Ernest Sweet, an award-winning English lanugage arts teacher at Lester B. Pearson High School in Montreal North, has created a program called Learning for a Cause, which publishes books of work written by students. Sweet, who won the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in 2009, began the program five years ago in an effort to show young people that their thoughts and words mattered enough to be published. (The books are available for purchase online or can be found in schools, libraries and in Archives Canada in Ottawa).
“We look at real-life topics and we become engaged in thinking and writing about them,” explains Sweet. “Then, when we publish their work, young people have a sense of accomplishment and excitement because their writing is being shared with an audience. There’s a value to the fact it is being read by others.”
Learning for a Cause has published six books on topics such as social justice, the environment and the meaning of community; the books showcase stories, poems and essays. This spring, three new titles will be published: Five, an anthology celebrating the group’s fifth anniversary; We Who Listened, which has students’ reflections on the Holocaust and Flash, writings by special education students at John F. Kennedy High School in Montreal.
Every year, Sweet asks each of his students to select one of their writings for inclusion in the anthology. The pieces are reviewed first by a student editorial board and then by an adult editorial board, made up of Sweet, other teachers and a poet from Vermont who loves the project.
Thinking about ideas such as social justice and then writing about them helps young people develop into more thoughtful, engaged citizens. “It’s about strengthening the imagination, which is vital for good citizenship,” says Sweet. “If we want to bring about change, we have to see beyond what is and look at what is not yet or what can be.” Students want to be part of society’s dialogue about how to address issues like poverty, violence and racism. “The young people we have in our classrooms today are the leaders and visionaries of tomorrow,” he says. “They need and want to be part of the discussion about the future.”
Writing, he adds, also helps students know themselves better. “Kids are all individuals with hopes, dreams, fears and histories,” he says. “Part of public school education should be to make room for students to become themselves and to celebrate the ways in which we are both very different and very alike.”
Michael Sweet has a website, michaelsweet.wordpress.com, which includes links to articles he has written about the challenges of teaching as well as information about his poetry and plays. For more information on Learning for a Cause or to order their books, visit www.learningforacause.org.