- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

CITIZEN JOURNALISM:

The young D.C. man titled his book “The Biggest Hurt I Ever Had.”

Before the novel-writing project that resulted in “Biggest Hurt,” this special-needs student, whose identity has been withheld, came to school but did not talk or participate in class. He seemed depressed and despondent. His report card indicated failure, and he did not seem to care.

He was asked to write a story about why he did not do his work or participate in class.

He designed the cover of his book with a big eye dripping with tears. His story tells of his mother’s death and the loneliness he felt. It tells of not being involved in selecting the color of the dress his mother would wear in the coffin. “I knew her favorite color,” he wrote.

This student finished his book and decided to display it in the book-signing at the end of the project. The completion of his story was a turning point. He began to make significant changes in his academic performance and even to participate in sports activities.

I work with special education students, teaching them life and survival skills. This training enables students to develop skills that help compensate for their disabilities.

At the 2005 District of Columbia Area Writing Project conference, I received my first Bare Book, a hard-cover book filled with blank pages for students to design themselves. I tried using it as a nontraditional resource with an emotionally disturbed (ED) student and with a child who was mildly mentally retarded (MMR) to improve their reading and writing skills.

My ED student created a character by using a pseudonym and changing the gender. Her story was about her experience being homeless. As my ED student read her story, the MMR student drew pictures to illustrate what was being read. His spelling and writing skill levels were very low, but his ability to express ideas through art emerged as he illustrated the book. My ED student pitched in to provide more coloring for their book.

The completion of their book inspired me to have other students to create books.

This vision of disabled students writing their stories as a way to improve their literacy and find a voice was made possible by an interactive online charity called DonorsChoose.org.

Teachers seeking funding for special classroom projects write proposals for the DonorsChoose Web site, and potential donors can browse through the proposals, pick a project that appeals to them and donate resources for it. DonorsChoose.org delivers the needed supplies to the school. The donors receive follow-up pictures, handwritten thank-you letters and a report showing how each dollar was spent.

During a telephone interview last week, Melanie Duppins, a representative from DonorsChoose.org, said, “As federal and district school budgets are being cut, the need for our organization is growing. We went national in 2007, and so far we’ve given over $36 million in resources to students.”

My project was called Telling Out His/Her Stories. Students were asked to write stories about life events that impacted their learning experiences. They created characters for their stories rather than using their own names, which allowed them to feel safe writing about their personal experiences.

Titles of my students’ books include: “How Do You Heal a Heart That Does Not Bleed,” “Home Alone,” “My Rough Terrible Life” and “Dad I Made It Even Though You Were Not There.”

At the end of each story, the students gave advice to their readers about succeeding when faced with adversities. My student attendance soared because the students could not wait to work on and complete their books.

There was a change in behavior because writing their stories seemed to provide them with a therapeutic place to store their experiences and revisit them as needed.

DonorsChoose.org has helped fund 92,652 teacher-designed projects and given more than 2 million students access to classroom supplies, from new pencils for a poetry project to microscope slides for a biology class, Ms. Duppins said.

“Our organization is unique because it gives both teachers and students an opportunity to be creative. Teachers have designed projects like painting chairs to promote nonviolence in neighborhoods and organized school poetry slams,” she said.

The organization is seeking funding for almost 15,000 new projects. The impact DonorsChoose.org has made in improving the confidence and self-awareness of children continues to stretch far beyond these numerical measures.

• Cynthia Henderson is a teacher in District schools.

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