Authentic Voices In and Beyond the Classroom

rvanwesterveltGuest blogger Rus VanWestervelt, a Centennial High School teacher, has been teaching writing in Howard County public schools since 2003. He also is a columnist for the Towson Times, an adjunct professor of writing at Towson University, and holds statewide workshops and conferences in journaling, publishing, and empowerment through writing. You can read his selected works at

In a typical Howard County classroom, a student listens to her English teacher sharing the details of a writing assignment about fear. The first draft is due at the end of the week.

The student remembers seeing something come across her newsfeed from Little Patuxent Review (LPR) about a publishing opportunity, and she opens the app on her phone to review the submission guidelines.

It’s the same contest that the teacher posted outside of her room last week, and it’s a perfect fit for the assignment she’s just been given.

She goes right to her Daybook and flips back to that brainstorming activity she did in the beginning of the year. She finds a perfect coming-of-age story, a seemingly average tale of going to the movies with her friends. She knows the deeper story, though. It was the first time her parents let her go to the movies alone after some guy in Colorado opened fire on a theater filled with moviegoers.

She pushed to go as a means of independence and breaking away from mom and dad; once she was there, though, the fear was so great that she couldn’t even watch the movie. Her terror had consumed her.

She turns to a fresh page in her Daybook and starts writing a raw draft. It will be a fine piece for the school assignment, and she knows it will be an important piece for a larger audience, should LPR pick it up.

At the end of class, she waits for her peers to exit the room, each receiving a nod or acknowledgment from the teacher standing by the door. When it is finally her turn, she smiles and says, “Do you already know what you are going to write about?”

The teacher holds up two fingers. “I have narrowed it down to two: when I was hit by a drunk driver and when I discovered that I was going to be a mom. Fear was definitely a part of those experiences. You?”

She holds up one finger. “Movie theater. With friends. Right after that Colorado tragedy.”

“Powerful,” the teacher responds.

“Yeah. I think it’s time to write about that. I think I’m ready.”

The student heads to class, already thinking that her next essay could be about the courage she needs to write this piece. Maybe that will be the next prompt, she wonders, and disappears around the corner.

This scenario is happening often in many Howard County classrooms, where students and teachers are both writing for publication. Not only is the teacher modeling the importance of sharing ideas and words with an audience that reaches deeply into the school’s community, she also is supporting students who want to do something now in effecting change through the sharing of ideas.

For example, Cecilia Hsu is a junior at Centennial High. As she works on her own writing, she posts new writing and publishing opportunities to a bulletin board in the English hallway. The current call for submissions is for The Blue Pencil Online, a student-edited publication for students ages 18 and under, organized by the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Massachusetts.

In the coming months, Hsu plans on reading at one of the open mic coffeehouses at school, where student-writers share their work, many for the first time. Participating in the open mic allows the students to take the risks that help them overcome the fears that have held them back–even in the classroom.

Hsu and other students get their encouragement from teachers who seek out publication as well. First, you have the bloggers. Science teacher Noel Pauller writes and produces original videos for his students and anybody else interested in science. Second, are teachers who work on collaborative pieces, like educators Bob Leiby and Eric Reisman. They are publishing some of their best teaching practices, both online and in print, with the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER). Third, you have the book-length authors. History teacher Rod McCaslin has penned several books, written introductions, and published many articles on local, national, and international literature and history.

What do all of these writers–students and teachers alike–have in common? They find purpose in sharing their ideas, beliefs, and creative constructions with a larger audience, thus providing authenticity and originality to the bigger discussions that are occurring both in and beyond the classroom. Additionally, they seek out regional publications like LPR that also educate young writers about the business of writing and publishing.

We are already thinkers and writers; now we can be published authors. We must continue to model for our colleagues and peers that what we have to say is essential; our voices should be a permanent contribution to the historical record of our 21st century lives.