An Innovative Teacher Turns Kids into Writers ; Nancy Barile's Flair for Teaching Has Captured Her Students' Attention - and Just Earned Her an Award from the College Board

By Stacy A. Teicher writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 15, 2006 | Go to article overview

An Innovative Teacher Turns Kids into Writers ; Nancy Barile's Flair for Teaching Has Captured Her Students' Attention - and Just Earned Her an Award from the College Board


Stacy A. Teicher writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Most of the hallways in Revere High School are lined with skinny, sherbet-orange lockers. But outside Nancy Barile's classroom, her sophomore lit students have placed a stately row of poster-board gravestones, complete with epitaphs, for the characters who died in "Hamlet."

Ms. Barile knows how to hook the CSI generation. But it's her flair for teaching them to write that earned her a recent award from the College Board.

On this particular morning, the teens in her "Mysteries" elective class focus intensely as they draft their own suspense stories. Barile has already led them through the criteria she'll be looking for, and the priority today is imagery - part of "Standard 15" measured on statewide tests.

"What's imagery? Language that appeals to your senses," Barile says as she writes on the whiteboard. "What does it smell like out in the woods? Is there a smell of decay?" she suggests with a mischievous grin.

"Out of all my classes, this is the most exciting - she captures your attention while she's teaching," says senior Phillip Longo, who first encountered her in an after-school class for students who had failed English.

Loved as she is for handing out creative assignments, never "busywork," her students also give Barile credit for insisting they put their commas in the right place.

"She helps everyone with their writing so much," says Autumn Zandt, a senior in Barile's advanced-placement course. "It's been really nice to have someone focusing on [grammar] before we go away to college."

Teaching in Revere, Mass., for 11 years, Barile has built up a reputation - as a feminist with a voice that more than fills a room; as a stalwart supporter of the school's sports teams, plays, and community-service activities; and as a mentor to students and fellow teachers. It all feeds into her ability to turn kids into writers, which garnered her one of this year's six Bob Costas Grants for the Teaching of Writing from the College Board, a national nonprofit association in New York.

"When students are able to improve upon their writing skills, it builds a kind of confidence that translates into other academic areas," says Sandra Riley, a College Board spokeswoman. With colleges and employers complaining that high school grads too often require remedial writing lessons, the $2,000 awards are designed to highlight effective practices and support teachers' extracurricular projects.

Barile applied for the grant to restart Revere High's literary magazine, Crossroads. For the past three years, it's been the victim of budget cuts, leaving no outlet for the poems, short stories, and foreign-language pieces that Barile used to publish every year.

Her friend, history teacher Bill O'Brien, says the literary magazine attracts "kids you wouldn't expect.... A lot of them use writing as an outlet, and she can kind of channel that."

Revere, just north of Boston, is a gateway for immigrants and a place where many families have long relied on blue-collar jobs. Aiming for college isn't something all of the school's 1,400 students do automatically. But Barile tries to encourage anything that might give them a feeling of success in school. Rather than set the literary magazine up as a competition, "as long as it's not inappropriate, I publish everything," she says.

Brittany Deptula, a senior in Barile's Advanced Placement (AP) class, says she's excited about contributing lyrical poetry to the magazine. She also started writing for the local newspaper after Barile suggested it, and now hopes to study journalism. "She's just one of those teachers that you can have, like, kind of a more personal relationship with," Brittany says.

Melyssia Mansur, a sophomore, says she's writing her own biography because of Barile's encouragement. And Brian Dudley, a senior in her AP class, says he was astounded to find himself sitting around at lunch with classmates discussing "The Awakening," by Kate Chopin, a novel about a young woman that was published in 1899 and repopularized in the 1970s. …

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