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From the Classroom: The Gift of the Writing-Reading Workshop

Lauren Heimlich Foley

I have learned that helping my students grow as readers, writers, thinkers, and people is the greatest gift I can give them. Choice has always been the most important factor in achieving this gift, but I identified another component this past fall.

Maire Lu, author of the Warcross duology, shared the following insight in “How Marie Lu Found out that Fantasy Books didn’t have to have White Heroes:”

Lu’s interview emphasized what I had read in research articles and seen in best practice presentations: the need for multicultural literature in the classroom. Although this knowledge had influenced the novels I read, taught, and book talked, I observed firsthand the power that books can have on students when they recognize themselves in the authors and characters they read.

Emika Chen, Warcross’s female protagonist, left an indelible imprint on Cynthia, one of my current eighth graders. The student’s name is a pseudonym. As a seventh grader last year, I watched Cynthia grow into a confident, young woman. She developed her voice as a writer and found the confidence to engage in conversations with her teachers and peers. As a returning eighth grader this fall, she read Warcross. This independent reading book fostered a new level of agency that I had not yet seen.

While our reading conferences appeared standard—discussing characters, setting, plot, theme, and craft—the novel’s setting and the characters’ names became particularly interesting to Cynthia. During one of our early conversations, she wanted to clarify the change in setting from New York City to Tokyo, and she brought up how Emika Chen’s name revealed her Chinese ancestry. She also wanted to look up the name Hideo Tanaka in order to pronounce it correctly.

As an avid reader, Cynthia has read, discussed, and analyzed many books since September 2018; however, Warcross was the first book that she voiced her interest in the novel’s setting and the characters’ race. Her interest moved beyond simply reading the book for enjoyment to investigating Lu’s style. By studying and understanding the craft and decisions of a fellow Chinese American writer, Cynthia found her own agency as a writer. Cynthia recognized herself in both the protagonist and author which inspired her to make similar writing choices. This influence became evident during our short story genre study, for Cynthia’s final piece revealed a correlation between Lu’s novel and her own writing.

In Cynthia’s previous writing pieces and school assignments, she left her characters’ races and stories’ settings as ambiguous. While I never thought much about this writerly decision—and perhaps neither did Cynthia—this changed after reading Warcross. Seeing Lu as an empowered Asian female writer and Emika as the representation and extension of that authority inspired Cynthia to develop her own writing in a similar fashion. In the weeks that followed her reading of Lu’s novel, Cynthia spent much time crafting her latest short story with Asian inspired names: Ayane Hiyori, Kaito, Ruka Kanon, and Chika Ronshaku. Moreover, the details she included such as “sakura hair pin” and “red and gold kimono” provided the reader with context clues to help them understand that the story took place in Asia. Not only did Cynthia incorporate Asian names and cultural details into her short story, but also she developed her main character, Chika, with similar director traits as Emika. The more power Chika possessed the more confident Cynthia became. She used her writing as an opportunity to explore her own agency through her protagonist.

The manifestation of Cynthia’s authority did not stop with our short story unit but continued to grow during the weeks that followed. In November, Cynthia brought in Frankenstein: Junji Ito Story Collection and Smashed: Junji Ito Story Collection, two Manga books. This marked the first time that she brought in Manga for independent reading. During our reading conferences, we focused on literary elements and craft decisions, and we explored interesting moves made by Ito in terms of the storyline and artwork. Knowing Cynthia is an artist, I asked her if she would be interested in creating her own Manga for her next Self-Selected Writing Piece. Excited about this prospective idea, she shared her Manga with her table partner. Immediately, the two girls became invested in the project. Together they researched drawing tips, began developing possible plotlines, and sketched character ideas. Additionally, the pair brainstormed character names, settling on Ying and Yang for their twin girl protagonists.

With this new writing piece, Cynthia is now sharing her agency with her peers. She is writing herself into existence and finding her real-life director’s role through her ability to create strong Asian female characters. Lu’s work empowered Cynthia to write and discover her own authority in the world.

Choice enabled Cynthia to select books and authors that reflect who she is, yet the invitation to produce and manipulate language gave Cynthia her power. To facilitate my students’ growth, I must support them as they find their voices. This guidance in tandem with choice become the greatest gift the Writing-Reading Workshop can offer, for it allows students like Cynthia to establish who they are and who they wish to become.

How are you empowering your students in your classroom? Please share below!

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