From the Office of the Future of Reading

Please join me in welcoming today’s guest blogger, Teresa Bunner, who serves as the Academic Support Specialist for the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate Program, an academic recognition program and advocacy efforts on behalf of all students, in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.   In her role at BRMA, Teresa serves the 130 students in the program by coordinating academic support and enrichment through after school and evening tutorials,  Prior to coming to BRMA, Teresa was a classroom teacher and reading specialist at the elementary, middle and high school levels. When she is not working for CHCCS, she serves as the C.E.O. for her wonderful family which includes her husband and four boys. Reading is one of their favorite family activities.

June 23, 2014. This date marks the start for the third year of the BRMA Summer Writing Institute. Two years ago it started with a whim, inspired by Dr. Alfred Tatum’s work with African American males in Chicago.  In thinking about Dr. Tatum’s work, I saw the possibility for building on our work to help students develop a positive racial identity through an exploration of empowering texts and writing.
The first year we had 4 days. Not nearly enough time. And the students said so. My wonderful director, Graig Meyer, worked to get a grant and for the second year in a row, we have 3 weeks, 12 actual days together (Fridays are reading and writing days on our own! Just like college). The first year, Sharon Flake visited us via Skype. Last summer, Kelly Starling Lyons and Matt de la Peña spent time helping the students explore their stories. That part is important to me because Kelly and Matt look more like my students than I do. I want my students to hear from others that their stories are important. I want them to see themselves as writers. And to do that, I think it is vitally important they have models they can identify with. It doesn’t hurt that Kelly and Matt are two of the nicest people/authors I have had the privilege of meeting (next to Kirby Larson, of course)!

This summer a local spoken word group, Sacrificial Poets, will work with us for three days. The wonderful Kelly Starling Lyons will be back and, at student request, Sharon Flake will be visiting in person to help us as writers. I asked one of my students (who is a HUGE Sharon fan!) to be a student ambassador and welcome Sharon and insure she has everything she needs during the day. The look of utter joy on her face when I approached her with this idea is a picture I will never forget. She asked “Does that mean my mom and I can take her out to dinner?” So cute!

The UNC Chapel Hill School of Library Sciences has graciously given us a classroom space. We have netbooks awaiting our use. Writer’s notebooks and an array of pens and pencils are on the way. I’ve planned lunch menus and snacks. Copies of Kelly and Sharon’s books are sitting patiently awaiting readers. In my head I’ve started reviewing the logistics of getting everything set up for the first day…signs, parking, an agenda. There is a list with 10 names of high school students with more names to be added in the next few weeks.

But what I am most excited about is the anticipation. The not knowing. No matter how much I plan. No matter how many details I think through and write down, it will still be the students and what they share that will shape our time together. In the last two summers, there were so many moments of surprise. So many moments when I stepped back and just watched these young people find the possibilities in what they have to say. The writing they shared took my breath away. One of the most powerful pieces was by a young man who wrote:

Beaner, Wetback, illegal alien.
You scream at me,
You deprive me of my dreams,
My voice, my thoughts and my self-esteem.
You never stop to think of me
You judge us all with ease.
But when that day comes,
When you need my help
I will extend my hand
Despite what you said back then.
And hopefully you will change your mind
about this Beaner, Wetback, illegal alien.
I’ll never forget the conversations he and I had about the poem. He wasn’t sure how to end it. The last line wasn’t there yet. I called over a writing coach who was working with us, a UNC student who is, herself, a gifted, award-winning author. She worked with him for a bit. We were all struggling for a powerful ending. Another student finally piped up” Why don’t you just repeat your first line? Those are powerful words. Repeating them is like throwing it back in the face of the people you are talking to.” 

The writing coach and I looked at each other and laughed! It was perfect. And the students didn’t need us. They were on their way to becoming writers, able to help and support each other on the journey.

Then there is the moment last summer when a young woman who was attending to earn summer school credit (she failed English) took on the role of writing coach. I heard her as she worked with one of the most reluctant writers at the institute. “What do you want your reader to understand here?” she asked of her peer. Here was a young woman without much confidence in herself as a writer when she arrived, using writing language to coach another writer.

There are so many other moments from the two summers spent with these amazing young people. Moments I never planned for or anticipated. And those are the moments I am anxiously awaiting as June draws closer. I know when our time together ends, my students will have taught me more than I will ever be able to teach them. I can’t wait!

Thank you Teresa for building the foundation for more diverse books and for encouraging students to write!

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