After volunteering to tutor students at Northwest Middle School for the better part of a decade, Anne Boyle, the Director of the Wake Forest Writing Program, came to a dramatic realization. “I realized they needed about eighteen more of me, and probably younger.” When faced with the harsh realities of an Equity-Plus school, where over half the student population qualifies for Free and Reduced Lunch, Boyle designed an English 111 Writing Seminar to teach Wake Forest freshmen about the state of education in America while simultaneously meeting the literacy needs of 70 local eighth graders with failing test grades.
While the focus of the Seminar shifts year to year based on the reading and writing needs of the middle school students, Boyle knows one thing is for certain, “the projects we do with the students must be something unlike school that engages them to read and write.” In past years she has assigned them to read and write about interesting and relevant topics, ranging from extreme sports to moral dilemmas.
The focus for the Fall 2011 installment of the course is a “Digital Literacy Project,” whereby the middle school students think through and construct their own autobiography. After reading a few short biographies of notable people such as Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Sonia Sotomayor, and Mark Zuckerberg, students were lent digital cameras to create visual representations of their biographies, in which they also shared what inspires them to learn.
Like everything that occurs during the weekly tutoring sessions, this action was first modeled by the Wake Forest students. “When you teach you learn,” says Boyle. “The Wake Forest students not only better understand the writing process when they get to lead others through it, but they also begin to see the context in which the middle school students are trying to learn.”
The relationships formed between the Wake Forest students and the Northwest students break down barriers between a world where children overhear NPR en route to their soccer game, and a world where children go to bed hungry at night.
It is for this reason that Boyle particularly enjoys removing freshmen from the bubble as soon as they arrive on campus, and challenging them to see beyond the tendency to “blame the individual for their problems” and to instead “see the structural problems of the American Education system.”
Over the course of the semester the Writing Seminar students will read several books and write four formal papers, all of which encourage them to reflect on their field experience. Students also contribute to a class blog, a platform where they frequently identify and solve problems together. It is apparent, and the dedicated middle school teachers will agree, that the Wake Forest students’ commitment to address the needs of a community is changing the culture at Northwest Middle School for the better.