Lynn DeFilippo: Untracked

I was a
junior high writing teacher in northwest Alaska for many years. One of my
favorite classes ever was a group of 8th graders I had first period.
I know, you’re thinking, writing? First period? 13 year olds? For someone who
was never a morning person, I often asked myself the same. But we eased into
our day with pilot bread and peanut butter and Bob Marley’s Legend playing on the classroom

year the reading teacher and I decided not to track the 8th grade
into two groups of “low” and “high.” That’s the politically incorrect way to
describe tracking, but that’s what teachers say. And we know what Low Class
looks like: more darker skinned students (in our case all Alaska Native), more
free and reduced lunch students, more non-conformist students. Lumped together
and expecting to do the minimum to get by, the Low Class lives up to it’s
label, despite the smart and interesting kids slumped in the seats.

And High
Class, the preferred ones, they tend to develop an inflated sense of
superiority. They’re better behaved, but just as predictable and not likely to
break out of what’s always proven successful for them. They write what they think
you want. Both Low and High, stuck in their status quo. What kind of writing
will that get you?

group of 20+ students contained the widest spread of adolescent writers
imaginable. We had bright girls who excelled at crafting descriptive stories
and loved grammar games. We had thoughtful, creative boys with a knack for writing
tight action and comedy. Tough street kids who were raising themselves and
often missed the first class of the day, mine, took their place alongside their
peers. We had Inupiaq and Yupik students with strong village ties from Little Diomede,
King Island, Gambell, Savoonga, Elim, and Unalakleet. We had a few boys who, on
a good day, might write a few words.

from their usual class definitions, those 8th graders reached across
their desks to each other. Kids had permission to break out of their boxes, and
students whose voices typically shrank behind the school constructed images of
themselves, found their writing celebrated in an egalitarian classroom. Which
is huge, considering that their faces, their realities, their stories are not
typically reflected in the school.

I know
that Alaska has a growing literature, and as a teacher, I look forward to using
more of those resources. But most curriculums I’ve seen come from outside.
Where are the stories of Grandma’s fry bread and moose hunting? Snow-machine
racing, fish camp, reindeer stew, sighting in a rifle? How about the road
blocked by an avalanche, sports teams traveling by small plane, or
climate-changed winters turning streets into ice rinks?

harder to teach the untracked class. New alliances rise up to challenge you. High
achievers may slack off, and problem kids suddenly want more instruction.
You’ve got to work on active tense verbs in a short story with one student, and
place periods at the ends of sentences for another.

But what
is the public school classroom if not a reflection of our society? Maybe it’s a
place where we can create the society and community that serves everyone.

And what
is writing if not a fundamental educational right, a core literacy skill with
the power to change the world.

And what
is the value of having your story told, written, and heard by others? It’s
empowering at the deepest level of who we are. And too many in our schools
don’t get the opportunity to share their story on an equal stage.

the end of that year, one student, a boy who for two years never wrote one
single word, wrote a story about a lost hunter pursued by wolves, looking for his
home. It was a beautiful, crazy, run-on mess, a metaphor for the difficult life
he lived. The class, along with a community audience, waited patiently, in
silence, while he told it, then erupted in a rousing applause. Maybe someday
his name will be on a book.

This is
the challenge for us as writers and teachers. How untracked is your classroom,
your university, your writing group? How do we reach out to support and include
those who might otherwise be shunted aside into the Low Class? Aren’t they the
ones best qualified to tell their own stories, instead of just showing up as
background or characters in ours?

If you’re
a parent of an advanced student, can you advocate for untracked classes? And
then volunteer in your child’s classroom to help the teacher make it a success.
Remember, your child and their opportunities can help to lift up those around
her or him, and be enriched in the process. We don’t have to buy into the
narrative that they’ll be dragged down instead.

next time you go into a school, be sure you’re not channeled just to the gifted
students or the AP class. You want to muck it up with everyone. See if you can
be creative enough to keep the problem class engaged and excited. Because here,
in our classrooms, is the next generation of Alaskan writers.

Lynn DeFilippo is a teacher and
writer. She’s published a few essays in anthologies. After completing an MFA in
creative writing at UAA last year, she’s got lots of submissions out there in
the world.

2 thoughts on “Lynn DeFilippo: Untracked”

  1. Nice post, Lynn, reminds me of my own teaching days. Glad there are teachers out there like you!

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