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uff via the website. Students have also re- corded their essays as podcasts. Leff ’s workshops are based on the UC Berkeley National Writing Project mod- el, which emphasizes “authentic writ- ing” as a way to bring students out of their shells and find joy in self-expres- sion while learning the basics of writing. The workshops are also designed to help develop a sense of community, where students give each other constructive feedback and feel safe to take risks in an atmosphere of trust. The community-building strategy works. A Hispanic boy, recounting how he was forced to speak English as a child, bursts into tears while reading his poignant memory. Many call him brave and compliment him on his good writ- ing and moving story. Inspiring English learners to become writers is rewarding for Leff, who holds evening writer’s workshops for parents and children together. She has been a mentor teacher and a fellow with the San Diego Writing Project at UC San Diego. “I love this,” she says. “It’s a journey for students to see and understand themselves as writers. And it’s also a journey for me.” Who am I? Assuming an identity isn’t an easy thing at Dorsey High School in Los An- geles, where students say others catego- rize them by skin color, hair texture or the way they speak. So when English teacher Marlene Carter asks students to do a writing exercise describing how they see themselves in terms of racial or ethnic identity, it opens the door for discussion about stereotypes and mis- conceptions. A few students tell their teacher that it’s difficult to be so candid. Classmates offer words of encouragement. “We’re not judging you,” they say smiling. “Go ahead, read it.” “I think of me and my friends as brown,” Kelcie Davis says, eyes locked on her paper. “If you look at a color chart or a box of crayons, you see sev- eral shades of brown. You see dark brown, light brown, caramel and tan. I don’t think of myself as black. Most peo- ple are a mixture of races; the outcome is the color brown.” “I like to be identified as black,” Tay- lor Phillips reads. “I am not from Africa. I have never been to Africa and either have my parents. So why should I con- sider myself African American?” “I call myself Latino or Hispanic,” Luis Cabrera reads nervously. “Most ev- eryone calls me Mexican and it’s an as- sumption based on ignorance. I think people need to understand that there are other countries besides Mexico where people speak Spanish.” Enrolled in a “support class” for AP English, students practice academic writing to pass the AP exam, but also experiment with other types of writing. Carter, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles, is co-director for the Cali- fornia Writing Project and leads a study TOP: Judy Leff, a Teachers of Encinitas member, works with student Stephen Wootten at Capri School in Encinitas. group on issues of “race in the class- room” for the UCLA Writing Project. At Dorsey High School, located in inner- city Los Angeles, the National Board Certified teacher often asks her students to write about race in a positive way and to share their works in the “author’s chair” reading aloud. “Racial tensions, both inside and outside of the classroom, can impact student learning,” says Carter. “By writ- ing about matters of race and identity, it can increase understanding, lessen the tension and be part of a rigorous, standards-based curriculum that will prepare them for college. It’s a matter of empowering them. Writing empow- ers students to voice their opinions. People who don’t write well lose some of their power.” Several of her students from Belize are dark-skinned with straight hair. Their writing reflects confusion about where they belong in Dorsey’s social structure. Other students say they don’t want to be labeled African American or Mexican-American. They are simply American. Cynthia Ruiz is often mistaken for being white despite her Mexican heri- december 2009 • january 2010 | 19

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