Composing Screenplays: Youth in Detention Centers as Creative Meaning-Makers

By Pytash, Kristine E. | English Journal, May 2016 | Go to article overview

Composing Screenplays: Youth in Detention Centers as Creative Meaning-Makers


Pytash, Kristine E., English Journal


Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist noted for her works Purple Hibiscus, Half a Yellow Sun, and Americanah, gave a now-popular TED talk titled "The Danger of the Single Story." The "single story" is the story we "know" about others through cultural stereotypes and media representations. The "unintended consequence" of the single story is that we become ignorant about who people really are and life events they have experienced. Adichie contends, "show a people as one thing, as only one thing over and over again, and that is what they become."

A single story surrounds youth who are or have been detained or incarcerated as they are often portrayed as illiterate or, at best, struggling readers and writers. While it has been documented that court-involved youth may indeed struggle with reading and writing (Harris, Baltodano, Bal, Jolivette, and Mulcahy 131), as Adichie contends, "the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete." Because youth in this setting are disenfranchised, the dominant discourse ends up being that they are in need of rehabilitation, particularly in their literate lives. And yet, this detracts from the powerful ways youth can be engaged in writing to share their lived experiences.

This article examines how youth in a juvenile detention facility deconstructed the "single story" surrounding their literate practices during an inquiry-based project with an emphasis on composing with digital media. I provide an overview of the project with a specific focus on youth's engagement when they were asked to compose and record screenplays. Finally, the article examines how these findings may offer directions and possibilities for English educators in guiding their writing instruction for youth who are marginalized, struggling, or reluctant.

Literacy in Juvenile Detention Centers

Youth in juvenile detention centers often receive education that is skills-based with an emphasis on remediating their reading and writing abilities (Pytash, "I'm a Reader" 71, "Girls"). While there are educators who have provided research about creative writing programs or writing programs for emotional well-being for incarcerated youth (Jacobi 22; Smitherman and Thompson 78; Vasudevan and DeJaynes 3; Winn 21), the stigma of youth in this setting as low-ability or reluctant writers often influences the education they receive in their English classes (Pytash, "I'm a Reader" 71). While some educators emphasize a skills-based curriculum to improve their abilities, this detracts from youth viewing writing as a purposeful and authentic activity.

The purpose of the project described here was for youth to view writing as purposeful and relevant, accomplished by grounding the writing instruction in their lives. The goal was for youth to pose questions about their lives, learn about topics they thought were worthwhile, and have the opportunity to write about those topics. This was an attempt for detained youth to explore how writing could call on their unique perspectives and life experiences to amplify their beliefs. By looking holistically at youth's lives and by providing them an opportunity to articulate and voice their stories, the hope was that they would have a chance to author and re-author their experiences and to "imagine alternative possibilities for their own becoming" (Greene 39). Most importantly, the project was an attempt to challenge the narrow and deficient representations of their lives and for them to experience literacies in ways that were personally relevant, locally connected, and rooted in acts of creative meaning-making. Adichie claims, "power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story." At the heart of this project was the belief that youth, particularly those who are or have been detained, need to learn the power of crafting their own stories and have their voices heard. …

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