Writing In the Durham Public Schools

MichelTharpWebEditor’s Note: Below is Michel Tharp’s brief presentation to the Club about writing programs in the Durham Public Schools in response to some concern after David Robbins program that Durham’s situation might be similar to what David discovered in Richmond several years ago and led to the founding of Podium in Richmond.

Three weeks ago, we had an inspiring presentation by David Robbins from Richmond. Virginia.  He described a very impressive writing program he has organized through The Podium Foundation. This foundation has done a remarkable job of promoting writing in the public schools.  His foundation serves as wonderful model for private groups to create useful and effective organizations that can make helpful and significant contributions to help improve public schools.

Several times in his presentation, Mr. Robbins mentioned that Durham Public Schools might have many of the same problems that Richmond schools have. While there are many similarities (poverty, low performing populations, high drop out rates among minority males, etc), the one area he focused on is his talk was the fact that Richmond schools did not offer any writing classes and that no school had a newspaper or literary journals.  I was immediately horrified that many people in this room listening to his talk might think that this was also true for Durham Public Schools.   As a 14 year teacher in Durham Public Schools, I know that this is NOT true and I feel that it is absolutely necessary for me to make sure that every one here knows this is not the case.

For the past 10-12 year, all DPS schools have worked with  philosophy called “Writing Across the Curriculum” – this program emphasizes writing in every course – English, history, science, math, arts, health, etc –across the entire curriculum. There are training sessions, in-service workshops and continual support for teachers to incorporate writing in their classrooms.  I’ll admit that even though, I personally felt very comfortable and confident teaching writing, as a mathematics teacher, I did have some trouble justify the time that students spent writing how they would solve an equation instead of just going ahead and solving it. But that’s not the point – the point is that district policy places a high emphasis on student writing

Knowing the things that were happening at my school, I decided to check out the other traditional high schools.  Every one of our schools has a school newspaper as well as a student created yearbook.  Many of the newspapers have ongoing connections with “The independent” and “The Voice.  In addition to the writing that is an integral part of ALL English classes, the district curriculum offers courses in Journalism (Riverside offers 5 different levels of Journalism) as well as courses in Creative writing and Critical writing and even “writing through literature”.  At least three of the high schools have had professional writer come in to work with their students this year.  Hillside’s “Book Club” invites members to bring in and read their own poetry.  Other schools have Creative Writing Clubs and Slam “spoken” poetry club.

For the past 5 or 6 years, DSA has produced a Literary Journal entitled “Portraits in Ink” which last year won a “Superior” rating from the National Council for Teacher of English.  That journal looks just like the ones we saw from Richmond with short stories, poems, essays, commentaries, drawing and other art work.

In Durham, developing writing skill starts long before high school.  As a Reading Ranger, I am lucking that I get to spend an entire morning each week with Ms. Jones’s first grade class. Every week, we work on a writing project. It might be a narrative – “My first day at school”, a critique “My favorite part of the book was..”, opinion “I think we should have more or less recess” or personal feelings” My treasure chest would have …”.  In all this writing, these first graders are encourage to expand and develop their ideas and include more and more details – at least 5 or 6 sentences with 6 words or more. As a reward they get to draw picture about their writing and read them to the other students.  The halls of Y E Smith are full of hundreds of other writings samples from this and other classes.

Yes, DPS is faced with many challenging problems and the school system could definitely use the kind of help and support that a Podium Foundation type organization could provide in many different arenas including reading, writing, science, math and other aspects of student growth and development.  But we all need to know that writing and literacy is not dead and forgotten in Durham Public schools but that it is an important dynamic and integral part of the entire Durham Public school system.

Submitted by Michel Tharp

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