The education world is paying more attention than ever before to gaps in our students’ writing ability. What’s helping to close the gap at Roosevelt High School, Oregon’s most diverse high school, is extending writing beyond the classroom.
In 2012, this North Portland high school used funds from its federal turnaround grant to establish a writing and publishing center. While the writing center provides personalized support for writing, the publishing center—Unique Ink—works with teachers to immerse students in a variety of authentic writing projects. Through the program, students have published books featured at Powell’s bookstore and placed in each room of the Heathman Hotel. These publications celebrate regional work by students and adult writers, including award-winning authors.
Roosevelt’s student-led publications include No Box Can Hold, an anthology of personal stories of self-discovery that include issues of sexual and gender identity, race, culture, religion, and ethnicity. Students have also written a humorous guide to navigating scholarship essay writing for students, a collection of children’s books, and a forthcoming book on youth and the law.
These texts are based on real-world concerns. For example, at the beginning of last year, a Roosevelt student was tased by police. As a response, students in a Roosevelt mock trial class and the Writing and Publishing Center collaborated on a book that compiles student writing that aims to give students knowledge of their rights as citizens. Roosevelt students have also created videos and multimedia presentations, including the Freedom Fighter Project, an annual publication and traveling exhibit that honors community heroes. Not only do students strengthen their writing skills in these projects, but they take a deep dive into the world of publishing and business.
Asked what makes Roosevelt so successful at this type of real-world writing, Roosevelt’s Publishing Center Director Kate McPherson says, “We’re a little bit unique at our school in that every day, our teachers are responding to a student body that faces economic injustice. Our staff is deeply rooted in understanding and supporting student voice and project-based learning. For these reasons, our teachers welcome this kind of writing.”
Roosevelt’s approach suggests several things other high schools can do to foster more authentic writing. Building partnerships with community organizations allows the community to be co-educators. Roosevelt’s relationship with the Oregon Historical Society, for example, elevates the students’ work on the Freedom Fighter Project by hosting the opening community reception. The Pacific College of Northwest Art brought in professional artists to elevate the quality of student artwork in the children’s books. Portland State University’s Ooligan Press provided book publishing mentorship. The writing project also captured a $94,000 grant from State Farm’s Youth Advisory Board, which helped pay for publishing software, a printer, and college assistants. These and other partners build the capacity of Roosevelt to create high-quality published products.
Teachers, along with community allies, help to support these projects. Seasoned local journalist and Roosevelt Writing Center Director S. Renee Mitchell brings many ties to the Portland community into the school. “Renee also has real magic in how she works with students,” adds McPherson. In one of her current projects, Mitchell’s journalism class, called Urban Griots, included several Roosevelt students who were falsely accused of shoplifting. Mitchell saw an opportunity to help Roosevelt students shape this experience with racial profiling into a conversation and a media message.
“The students decided they wanted to make a film about it,” Mitchell explains. “I was a guide who kept the project on track, but they were in charge.” The resulting 2.4 minute video was viewed over 14,000 times within a week of posting it on Facebook. Mitchell and her students are organizing next steps in partnership with other Roosevelt classes, as well as doing community outreach to join its #teens4socialjustice campaign.
One of the most exciting things about Roosevelt’s writing projects is that they are expanding throughout the school. For example, students who have struggled to produce a passing writing sample, required by the state to graduate, now meet with Mitchell and other writing coaches in the school’s writing center. They review and discuss student-produced publications and media. Then, they use it as a springboard for exploring their own issues and experiences in writing. Other projects produced in cooperation with the writing center include photojournalism projects about the Tongan culture and micro-aggressions in a multicultural world. “If we give students opportunities to explore things that are relevant to their lives, they will be more inclined to want to write,” says Mitchell.