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Breaking it down

It's an early Tuesday morning, and my spirits are soaring as I drive from Cary to Wake Forest. It's got to do with the sunshine and warm weather, coupled with the sounds of "Romantic Warrior," my favorite jazz-fusion classic by Return to Forever. I've got that tingly "let's do this" feeling that comes over me when I'm about to tackle something new and challenging.

Wake Forest-Rolesville Middle School's local PTA has asked "experts" like me to conduct workshops to help seventh-graders prepare for the state's end-of-grade writing exams. Since last fall, the kids have been engrossed in the tasks of writing complete sentences, using correct grammar and structuring five paragraphs, five sentences each. They've pretty much mastered these mechanics, I'm told, but their creativity needs a boost, basically because teachers have been snared in a catch-22.

"You have to focus so much on the testing that you forget there's a creative side where the kids figure out who they are and what they think about things," says language-arts teacher Amy Purvis. "You keep thinking about these 3s and 4s," she says of the passing scores on state tests, "and you forget there's a lot of fun to writing. If you can't deliver the results on the test, it looks like you're not doing your job."

Unfortunately, doing a good job can sometimes make for bored students. Forrestine, a poised and confident seventh-grader, says she's "tired of learning proper sentences and where you put the periods--like we didn't learn that in second grade." While she understands why teachers place such an emphasis on testing, Forrestine says a break from the usual drill would be nice. "I wish we could have a day out of the week just to learn what we want to learn," she says, "so we can get ready for the future."

While classwork might be too routine for students like Forrestine, her school has been rated as "exemplary" by the state Department of Education. For the past three years, Wake Forest-Rolesville's test scores have risen--sometimes dramatically. For instance, seventh grade reading scores soared between 1998 and 1999, from 73 percent passing to almost 84 percent.

That makes the school's overall performance look good, but it doesn't make students any less weary. "Teachers are making it more stressful, saying 'This test will determine if you pass or not,'" says Forrestine. Still, her promotion to the next grade could very well hinge on mastering curriculum standards--thanks to the state's new Student Accountability Standards, which put students who fail state tests at risk of failing their grade.

Over a three-day period, I'll visit with 13 different classes and meet more than 300 students who are facing that challenge. Some of them I'll see twice. My goal is to try and help the students see writing as something other than pressurized, sledgehammer drudgery. I've got a can-do attitude and--with no "3s or 4s" to worry about--more freedom than teachers to experiment with creative exercises. But while I'm full of ideas, the classrooms are full of kids with different social backgrounds, personalities and learning abilities--stiff challenges for the best teachers, much less an untrained novice.

I enter the school on day one and immediately get sucked into that chaotic wind tunnel otherwise known as the seventh-grade corridor. In the crowd of 12- and 13-year olds, shoulders brush, lockers slam and loose papers are quickly retrieved from the floor before they get trampled upon. By comparison, the flurry of New York's Grand Central Station is a walk in the park.

After the first-period bell, classroom doors swing shut and another day's learning begins. Today, however, the kids in language arts are told they are in for a treat. A "real" writer is in their midst, ready to unlock the doors to the creative kingdom. The response varies. Some students give an eager look that says, "Bring it on." Others don't bother to stifle yawns.

How to get everyone's attention? For starters, I tell the students that--guess what?--we aren't going to write, we're going to talk about writing, because one way to give our words more zest on paper is use our natural voice. After all, I ask, don't we use descriptive language that appeals to the five senses when we speak? "Uh-huh," they chorus. And don't we juice it up when we're giving a friend the lowdown during a conversation? "Yep," they say in a dull monotone that plops on me like a cold water drop on my face.

Already, five of my 45 minutes are gone, and that tingly feeling is fading fast. I know I haven't got the students yet. Maybe I'm sounding too much like a teacher. Maybe they need to know I'm really an ally who--where's a cliche when you need one?--feels their pain.

"What do you all think I do as a reporter?" I ask. "You write," quips a yawner. "You write and give it to somebody who tells you what you did wrong," offers another student. That was the opening I needed.

I write like nobody's business, I tell them. Sometimes 12-hour days: straight, no breaks. Like theirs, my work is "graded" by an editor who rips apart my first draft--not because of grammatical errors, but because I need more imagery, more gripping portrayals of subjects, better clarity on my topic. Also, I've got the pressure of a deadline, similar to how they must feel when being tested.

Suddenly, the air changes. I'm one of them. But rather than cry in our soup together, I suggest an exercise to help spark the kind of creativity that pleases our respective "powers that be."

I ask the students to tell me what they're thinking at the moment, what they would change if they could, using a single sheet of paper, filling one line each. The exercise, I assure them, will show how powerful (and painless) written communication can be. A few highlights (spelling and grammar left intact):

"Did not take medicean today. I am hiper."

"I have someone on my mine. I have a song stuck in my head."

"This kind of boreing."

"This is getting interesting."

"I'm thinking about my brother because he is in the pen and I miss him so much."

"I'm thinking about if I will pass my grade or not."

"I am in big, big Trouble!!"

"Chicken tastes good."

"If peope say they can relate, they are lying."

"I hate school."

"I am going to fall asleep. I hate language."

A mixed bag of ideas and opinions--a bag that gets bigger with each of the six classes I meet that first day. But all the kids enjoy it, laughing as the lists are read aloud. The trick, I'm seeing, is getting them accustomed to hearing their own "voices" when writing, above and beyond focusing on the mechanics. In other words, to feel creative.

By the second day, I know the hallway drill: Stick and move, duck and jab. But what I also know after my first day is just how much energy it takes to try and make learning interesting for these young folks, class after class for upward of five hours.

To help keep the pep in my step, I've added some "juju" to my usual African attire: shea butter rubbed into my scalp for clarity, lavender and rosemary essential oils dabbed on my temples for a purposeful calm. Bells, a personal energy booster, jingle around both my ankles, a cowrie shell choker covers my throat and a gelee head wrap graces my crown. I'm armed.

I've asked the kids to bring in items that appeal to the senses--things that will let them practice being imaginative and descriptive. To help set the tone, I start the session with a deep-breathing exercise, followed by a guided meditation. Without telling the classes what we're about to do, I abruptly click off the lights. Expecting a few chuckles or ghostlike "boo"s, I'm surprised at how composed the students are. Yoga wouldn't be out of the question.

Instead, we go to the beach. Using visual images, we conjure up seagulls flying overhead, a vibrant orange sunrise in the distance and cold water rushing over our sandy feet. For added kicks, we eat hot, gooey donuts while soaking up the scene. When it's over, the "hiper" students seem more relaxed, the bored ones more attuned.

"What did we just do?" I ask, clicking the overhead lights back on. "We used our imaginations," several students reply. "So," I say, "can you do the same thing on paper?" Heads bob. OK, I tell them, let's keep that in mind as you describe your sensory items.

The imagination shown by their choices is striking. Among the items: a lemon, a railroad spike, a dirty sock, a vial of volcanic ash, body lotion, a rubber frog, cotton candy and a voice box complete with imitations of the ghoul from the movie Scream 3. Some students have to be prodded for descriptions more than others, but all of them are engaged. That's not to say, however, that all of them appear to be having fun.

Meet Charlie. Round face, blond hair and the customary outfit for middle-school girls: scruffy jeans and a cropped T-shirt. But Charlie's no average teeny-bopper. She's one of those kids who puts the "a" in attitude, whom teachers frequently tell to "shush" because her behavior is disruptive--even mean. She is intense.

Like the other students, Charlie has her item but doesn't want to present it. "You going to make me?" she says, challenging me. Rubbing my oiled scalp, I reply: "No, Miss Charlie, I won't. But I really would appreciate it if you'd show us what you brought."

To my delight, Charlie has brought a cowrie-shell choker similar to the one I wear. She doesn't know about the shells' African origins, she says, nor their use as money in some indigenous cultures. In fact, she seems totally unimpressed. "Oh, wow, Affffrica," she quips, swinging the necklace around in the air.

The presentations continue, but something in me won't let Charlie go. I watch her from the corner of my eye, thinking I have to try and break through that tough exterior--one I feel sure covers a keen mind.

"Why'd you bring that necklace?" I ask her after the class wraps up.

"It was all I had," she says with a shrug.

"Well, it's beautiful, just like the Japanese pendant you're wearing," I say. "I don't know what it means, but I also love things from different cultures."

Charlie almost smiles.

I don't know what's playing on the car stereo as I drive to Wake Forest that third day, or even whether the stereo's on at all. I've done my "juju" again, but I still feel a tired restlessness. "Am I getting through?" I wonder aloud, scowling at a trucker in the next lane who's staring down my throat.

Over the past couple of days, I've become acutely aware of the struggle teachers face to help kids buckle down with the writing basics--much less fly creatively. Stressful deadlines and all, I feel a new appreciation for my own job. But that doesn't lessen my doubts about what, when all is said and done, my brief time with these students will help them accomplish.

"Just go with the flow," I say to myself heading into the first-period class. My "flow" is to continue the two-part exercises: one-liner "stories" and meditation-visualizations. But the students have other things in mind as well. As much as I've been urging them to use their creativity, they want me to explain mine.

"What's your real name?" asks one young man, no sooner than the late bell has rung. "Afefe," I reply, explaining that I legally changed my name to honor my African ancestry. "So, uh, what's your whole name?" asks another student who'd remained silent the day before. I go to the board, writing as I speak: "Afefe Lana Ogunda Sebek Adedapoidle Tyehimba. It means the wind called Lana, daughter of Ogun (a West African war god) who is a writer and from royalty that unites nations."

"Whoa, dude!" exclaims one among a crew of "booby-pinchers," guys who pinch each other's "boobs." From what I gather, it's all the rage these days, a middle-school rite of passage that apparently helps the fellas bond frat-style. (Girls, to my relief, have no such custom.)

For a few more minutes, I answer questions about my tattoos (all six) and confirm that my eyes are green, courtesy of tinted contact lenses. While talking, I remind the kids to listen out for the descriptive language in what we're saying--the same kind we can use to write. Right? "Uh-huh."

That's how I leave them at the end of three days. But I'm still wondering what kind of impact I might have had. Before I leave, A.J., a college-bound student with humor dripping from his pores, tells me that "guest teachers" like me do help. The key, says A.J., is getting a break from the doldrums and hearing a different perspective. "I'm doing fine in school," he says, "but when they bring somebody in, they can tell you more about [writing] than teachers because they don't have the time to break it down. They just give it to you."

Whatever I've given the students, it's sure taken a toll on me. In three days, my energy has gone from zippity-doo-dah to zip. I've taken back every damning remark I've made about those umpteen teacher workdays in my role as the parent of a fifth-grader.

A few days later, I get a big energy-booster--more than 100 letters from students in Amy Purvis' classes.

"Miss Afefe, Thank you for coming," writes Michael. "I really liked the part where we meditated because it made me less hyper." Kate says she's "much more excited about the coming test because I know I can do well." And Hal's letter almost brings me all the way back up to speed. "You taught me quite a bit about how I can improve my writing," he says, "like writing from my heart and not just the standards." EndBlock

More by Afefe L. Tyehimba


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