“The human language is too poor to describe the suffering of Jews in the ghettos of 1944. Where would the expressions come from, the descriptions, adjectives, could only superficially describe our pain.” -- Anonymous Boy, Salvaged Pages (p.372)
On the rightmost wall of Mary Ann Zehr’s Twelfth Grade World History class hangs a list of words so familiar they might seem elementary. Holocaust. Nazi. Jews. Prejudice. Each individual word carries weight, but the sum total illuminates a particular time and place in human history, a time and place humankind must remember. A whiteboard at the front of the classroom is arranged with critical thinking questions and objectives: Should witnesses to prejudice, discrimination or atrocities be held responsible? How can writing be a powerful tool to express one’s humanity or to resist injustice?
During first period, students trickle in after the bell and collect into a U-shaped arrangement of seats facing a special guest. Seated at the front of the classroom is Alexandra Zapruder. A former researcher at the Holocaust Museum, Alexandra spent ten years compiling the diaries of young men and women who lived through the Holocaust into a book called Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust. Zehr’s history students have been reading selected entries from the book and are prepared with questions.
“If you were able to change something about the book, what would it be?” asks Francheska.
“I’d make it longer,” laughs Zapruder, “You fall in love with the stories. It’s painful to feel that whatever doesn’t get in the book is going to be in some archive somewhere and no one is going to know about it.”
On this day, I watch as a group of students sit thoughtfully, engrossed in the words of an anonymous boy from decades ago, who reflects on life in the Łódź ghetto. The words resonate.
“I suffer terribly, but still I dream of a better future, of a more beautiful life, free and humane. I dream also of being able to tell the world of my suffering, at least as much as possible. In fact, I should call it our suffering, for never before has suffering been felt so collectively as it is by us in the ghetto.”
The 17- and 18-year-olds in the room don’t chatter or lose interest. While they occasionally whisper to each other, they listen to Zapruder and to one another. They relate to hopes and admonishments of a cruel world. These teens understand fear; many identify with despair; and all can relate to prejudice and stereotyping.
WATCH / Education Week Video: A Lesson in Humanity from Children's Holocaust Diaries, Zapruder articulates the reason behind this reality: "Racism and bias and prejudice and stereotyping are ways of reducing people. Jews are this way. Blacks are this. Irish are this. It's reductive. You ignore their humanity. And that's what's dangerous about it ... that you don't see another person for the human being that they are."
In Zehr's classroom, students are investigators, explorers, writers, historians and philosophers. Their bright minds are given the opportunity to flourish, and they see in themselves dignity and value.
The anonymous boy from the book reflects on a universal longing, “I am sitting here dreaming ... dreaming of floating in the clouds—I am overwhelmed by an indescribable longing for life—life as I understand it filled with beautiful things, spiritual interests, craving for a book, theater, movies, radio... and in this swamp yet.”
Alejandra echoes this idea, “It’s just that I think at our age we should be just enjoying class and learning more and reading books other than facing these things that are not easy at all.”
Books + Inspiration
PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in Schools program is a free literary arts outreach program that brings nationally recognized authors into DC schools, providing over 6,000 free books to approximately 3,500 students every year.
As part of the program, students receive free copies of a work of contemporary literature—sometimes the first novel a student will own—and teachers (86 in the 2016-2017 SY) are given high-quality teaching materials and curriculum support. The author is then brought into the classroom for a face-to-face discussion about the reading.
“We bring books to life.”
This tagline communicates the very simple and straightforward mission of the program, but what it doesn’t fully convey is the impact on students who have the chance to participate.
The opportunity to engage with a novel written by modern-day authors, meet and learn from an author whose work they’ve studied and ask questions of their own is more than another classroom experience. It can signify potential, confidence, self-respect and hope.
“I didn’t believe in myself until now.”
After a class discussion with author Yolanda Young about her book, On Our Way to Beautiful, one student described a powerful experience: “[It] helped me realize that anyone can be more than one thing in life. I didn’t believe in myself until now.”
"I didn’t realize that a story could resonate so much with my life."
“I too am a person who wants to become a lawyer and a writer. I have been writing poetry since I could talk. Your story inspired me and made me think of how I could relate to people with my poetry,” the student explains to Young.
“I’d never met a writer before until I became one,” admits George Pelecanos, one of the program’s participating authors, best known for his work as producer of The Wire. “To me, I always felt like, “that’s another person completely than I am. How am I ever going to do that?” But by bringing authors into the classroom, Pelecanos explains, “you take the mystery out of it,” and it becomes a real possibility to students.
By introducing writing that touches on modern and relatable themes, the program de-mystifies literature, making it more approachable to students educated in an urban context.
“I’ve never felt this way about a book before. I didn’t realize that a story could resonate so much with my life,” reflects one student.
Another participating author and DC-native, Dwayne Betts explains the process, “They bring the author in, and they give the class a set of the books. They’re pushing the conversation. They’re not just pushing the act of holding a book in your hand, but they’re pushing the act of reading a book and letting the book become a part of your every day living.”
“They put a book in a child’s hand and say, this is yours, this is what’s open to you, and you can’t put a price on that,” says Betts.
When Text Comes Alive
Back in the classroom, Alexandra Zapruder explains the meaning of vernacular to help her listeners understand Yiddish—one of four languages employed by the anonymous boy in his diary entries (Polish, Hebrew and English are the other three). One student lights up as she points out that she speaks a Mayan dialect.
The authors in Salvaged Pages describe life in Western Europe under threat from the violently anti-Semitic regime. Their stories communicate the banal and quiet moments of growing up, of young love and family strife even while each writer “lives in fear of the knock at the door,” says Zapruder.
All of Zehr’s students are immigrants and come from other countries, such as El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Learning about history in a language that is not their native tongue brings many obstacles. But Zapruder's words bridge the barrier, connecting these students with young people of history who are, in one sense, learning English as a second (or in some cases, third) language. This shared understanding puts them in a unique position to relate to and connect with the author’s experience as a writer and an outsider. It makes the reading come alive.
“How did you find all the [diaries]?” inquires a brown-haired girl, eyes curious.
Zapruder responds, “I was born and raised in the area and worked at the Holocaust Museum.” Another connection registers on students’ faces—Zapruder is a DC-native herself.
“It was really like detective work,” Zapruder continues. “I was doing this research in the 1990s, so that was before…”
“… you were born,” interjects Zehr, eliciting laughter from her students.
Mary Ann Zehr has taught English language learners in the DC public schools for seven years and wrote about education for the 14 years before that. In her article entitled, “Celebrating the Voices of Immigrant Students,” Zehr offers an astute observation: “Over the years, I’ve noticed that if students don’t care about a text or handout, they ‘accidentally’ leave it behind.” She notes that this doesn’t happen with the diary project that she has used as part of the Salvaged Pages curriculum.
This observation has layers—an unremarkable truth that can so easily be forgotten. If history is just text, merely an assignment and not an essential part of why you are here, then it will be left behind, if ever remembered at all.
But on this day, the text is alive. History is both remembered and applied.
“It’s good to learn about the past,” says Alejandra, “but we need to remember, we need to live in the present, and we need to fight against all the injustice that is happening right now, not only with immigrants, but with everybody.”
“I believe that we can change…” adds a fellow student. “We can be better in our future.”
Teachers must explore the means to make learning stick. In some cases, that means making the learning personal. Students relate to materials. Books give dimension to history. Personal narratives reframe.
Writers in Schools connects authors to students with buy-in, presenting stories that tap into universal narratives of love and longing, fear and loss, hope and despair. It opens doors, expands horizons and brings learning to life. “For the past seven years, I have been privileged to provide my students with not only books that they can annotate and keep, but also unforgettable conversations with living authors,” says Clare Berke, English Teacher and Department Chair at Banneker High School.
DC Public Schools (DCPS) reported that 77% of the nearly 55,000 students enrolled in DCPS are identified as economically disadvantaged.
For teachers who are often over-worked and under-resourced, the program can be a lifeline. In addition to providing over 6,000 free books and arranging author visits to 3,588 students, the organization provides extensive curricular resources for each available text. The packets are accessible and free and includes three lesson plans along with links to resources on a variety of topics related to the book. The lessons highlight key vocabulary, notable passages, real-world connections and various activities.
Last year, Zehr used Zapruder’s book and classroom visit to introduce a collective diary project with her 11th and 12th grade English students. The project involved keeping diaries in class about daily events and reflecting on one essential question while reading Salvaged Pages: “How do the diary writers express their humanity?” Upon completion of the unit, the entries were published into a collection. She titled it, “Everyday Cardozo.”
“Stories matter,” writes Zehr in her article. “They illustrate our successes and failures, joys and heartbreaks. Telling our stories helps us understand ourselves and each other, and build community. That’s why storytelling belongs in the classroom, especially mine. All of my students are English language learners (ELLs), and many have experienced trauma in the process of immigration. Telling their stories helps them to heal and to understand who they are. That, in turn, helps make them resilient and, no less important, helps them progress academically.”1
“Telling their stories helps them to heal and to understand who they are.”
But getting teenagers to open up is not always easy. “I don’t really force the connection… I just let it come out if it comes out,” says Zehr. “I keep saying, ‘Your lives are interesting too.’”
Zehr explains that many students of her students work full-time jobs outside of school, even 40 hours a week.
“One of the most challenging aspects of teaching immigrant students who don't have a clear picture of their prospects is determining what response is helpful in each situation. What will build relationships? As teachers, we need to continue to learn when to give information, when to speak from the heart, and when to say nothing. Above all, it's our job to continue to encourage students' dreams.”2
Writers of Tomorrow
“It was the love a mother, and her voice like soothing angels, that got me to love reading..."
"She tried to read to us in English, but would stumble over her words. So she mostly read to us in Spanish. We really didn’t care as long as she kept reading.”
High school senior Brenda Martinez shares her story as a second-generation American in her submission for PEN/Faulkner’s city-wide essay contest. Every year, a theme is chosen, and two high school students are selected to read their essays alongside ten acclaimed writers at the organization’s annual celebration event.
This year's theme? Belonging.
Martinez was inspired to enter the essay contest after studying a novel by Erika Sanchez—Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter—in her English Honors class. With support and encouragement from her teachers, she not only entered, but won.
And so, on a cool October evening, Martinez found herself standing in front of a room full of people, recounting her childhood introduction to reading, the smells of her mother’s cooking and the power of love.
“I love [my mother] like I love her cooking… I suppose the best things are like her meals – they never last, but the recipes remain inside me for years to come.”
LISTEN / Brenda recites her essay at the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Celebration.
Before departing the stage, Martinez was joined by Imbolo Mbue, award-winning author and recipient of the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award for her debut novel Behold the Dreamers (now so prolific that it’s made Oprah’s Book Club list). For a moment, the two remained—a picture of today and tomorrow, present and future.
"It was such an honor to have been praised by Ms. Mbue on my essay." -- Brenda Martinez
Then Mbue, an immigrant herself, began to read, “‘When I die, do not take me back home,’ Papa said. ‘Bury me right here… Whatever you do, do not take me body back to Cameroon… I don’t want you to be without me. I want to remain here with you. I don’t want to leave you by yourself, in another man’s country.”
That powerful moment will not soon be forgotten by Martinez. In those five words, Mbue conveyed respect, esteem… and possibility.
The author-student connection inspires students to think differently about learning, but even more than that, it can serve as a catalyst—a launching point for a student’s interest and passion for writing. And the experience is usually as rewarding for the authors as it is for the students.
“Often the writers are taken aback by how bold and how raw the [students'] questions are. It’s because the questions come from a very genuine place. For weeks, we have grappled with the ideas and themes of the book, and they have used that to fashion these questions, and the authors said more than once, ‘I go on book tours all the time, and no one has thought to ask this question,’” explains teacher Topher Kandik.
One of Kandik’s students, Shidear Poulson, authored the other winning essay for 2017. In describing the experience, Poulson says, “PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools has opened doors for me to express myself more… It has upped my confidence in my writing and made me feel like I do have a story, and my story has meaning.”
LISTEN / Shidear recites his essay at the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Celebration.
"I do have a story, and my story has meaning.” -- Shidear Poulson
Author Yolanda Young was so profoundly impacted by her time in the classroom that she now leads a Writers in Schools book club for teen parents at Cardozo high school.
“Someone asked the question about how was I able to forgive my father. You have to imagine that these are high school students who have children or are pregnant at the time, and they are struggling with their relationship with their child’s father, and when I shared my story of forgiveness, one of the students just erupted in tears.”
You can find the Writers in Schools program in both middle and high schools, public and public charter, in all eight wards of DC—42 schools in all, partnering with 86 educators to arrange over 200 author visits for the 2016-2017 school year.
The program continues to grow, and most recently, expanded its reach to Baltimore. By the end of this school year, the organization will have completed a total of 170 visits to DC high schools and another 32 to Baltimore high schools, donating a mountain of books and providing meaningful literary encounters for thousands of students in the process.
“Without the support of the Writers in Schools program, I would not be able to make literature come alive for my students in the same way. The program demonstrates to my students that people beyond the walls of their school are invested in their education and development as readers and writers. This show of support is invaluable to me and my school community.”
Elizabeth Malcolm, English Teacher, Columbia Heights Educational Campus
1 Mary Ann Zehr, "Celebrating the Voices of Immigrant Students," The Professional Educator, Winter 2017-2018.
2 Mary Ann Zehr, "Teaching Immigrant Students to Look Forward," Education Week, April 2017.