Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Teaching Writing: Sometimes It's Discipline

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Teaching Writing: Sometimes It's Discipline

Article excerpt

Julie DeGeorge, a creative writing teacher at Wellston High School, lays down the rules to her students: no talk of gangs, no singing of rap songs, and no spoken or written profanity.

And DeGeorge tells her juniors and seniors she has final say on the subjects they write about. She says they give her little static about the rules.

She, and other area writing teachers, have their own approaches to teaching students numbed by TV and real life to violence and profanities.

An approach used by another teacher, Cissy Lacks, got Lacks fired.

The Ferguson-Florissant School Board dismissed her last month for allowing her students at Berkeley High School to use raw street language in their written work. Lacks says she gains the students' trust and helps them build from there.

Jane Zeni, an associate professor who teaches budding English teachers at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, says every teacher has to find his or her own way.

Zeni said she teaches a session she informally calls "How to Teach English Without Putting Your Students to Sleep or Getting Fired." Young English teachers often wrestle with how to teach writing without getting into a "disaster" themselves, she said.

"We suggest that teachers begin with the language their students bring to school, their oral language and their own interests, and teach the students to develop and shape their writing for an appropriate audience," Zeni said. "What's appropriate for a classroom audience may not be appropriate for a school board.

"Teachers must know their own values. We have teachers of all camps in our methods course at UMSL, and I don't try to make those decisions for teachers. They also need to know the rules and standards of their schools districts . . . and decide what risks they personally are willing to take, because they may choose to do some things in the privacy of their classroom that they would not want paraded . . . in front of the school board."

Zeni notes that standards vary wildly from district to district. What's acceptable in University City may not be in St. Charles. Zeni said she knows of one district where students read aloud from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" - a play containing many obscenities - while another district cut a scene from a play that suggested alcohol use.

***** Warning

The area around Wellston High School is poor and predominantly black.

"People assume because of where we are located that certain language is OK and certain behavior is OK, and it's not," DeGeorge said. "Some of our parents are as strict and strait-laced as you can imagine, and they care very deeply about what goes on in their children's school."

DeGeorge's students say they don't feel censored.

"I write what I feel," says Frederick Edward, 18, a senior who has written for the school newspaper, "Trojan Talk. …

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