WriteMemphis has been adopted!!!

I am very pleased to announce that WriteMemphis is now a part of Literacy Mid-South.  If you’d like to volunteer, or if you’d like to join a writing group, please contact Jeff Rhodin at Literacy Mid-South jrhodin@literacymidsouth.org

Thank you!!

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Bullying: Innocent Insults Can Escalate

Follow this link for an article by WriteMemphis volunteer Kristin Korneliussen:

“Using Warriors Don’t Cry in a Capstone Project to Combat Bullying” in the last issue of the English Journal, published by the National Council of Teachers of English.

Then check out this video on ‘checking’.


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From a Facilitator’s Viewpoint

This gallery contains 4 photos.

By Troy L. Wiggins I didn’t know what to expect going in as a volunteer with the WriteMemphis Teen Creative Writing Camp. I’d volunteered with WriteMemphis before, in the Beltline neighborhood, and I’d witnessed the immensely positive response and energy … Continue reading

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Where Have All The Young Girls Gone?

If you are a girl between the ages of 10 and 19, you are part of the largest youth generation this world has ever seen!

There are 1.2 billion young people ages 10-19 in the world today, and more than half are adolescent girls living in developing countries.

While girls in the United States are said to be more educated, socially connected, technologically literate and empowered than ever before, I read an article the other day that many girls in developing countries still struggle for the opportunity to go to school, see a doctor, or be included in their communities. I thought about some of the young girls right here in Memphis. This statement is true for many of them as well, but I tweak it a little here: Many young girls in Memphis still struggle for the opportunity to get a good education, access and transportation to medical care, and be included in supportive communities.

Our main focus in our writing groups has been teen girls; however, the guys are stepping up and asking for groups of their own and we are accommodating them. Many young men love to write and have talent in self-expression. One shy young man even wrote a play and he bravely entered it in a contest sponsored by Hattiloo Theatre, a Black repertoire theatre here in Memphis. This took courage that he may not have had if he had not had the support of mentor and peers in a writing group.

But back to the girls. The teen girls with which we work are mostly angry. At each other, at their mothers, their fathers, at whatever is in their path. In our groups we explore this anger. I am not a social scientist so I do not know why they are really angry. Sure, I can guess, but that is only conjecture on my part. I don’t think these girls really know why they’re angry. They say they have their reasons, but when we begin to dig down into the origin of their anger what comes up are tears. Sadness. My belief is that their anger is a manifestation of years of sadness and pain. Girls, in general, are dismissed, confused and uncertain of their futures.

Why do you think teen girls are sad? Angry?

Posted in Adolescent Girls, cultural literacy, emotional literacy, Literacy, personal choices, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Does Our Educational System Stifle Creativity?

When I was in 9th grade English class I wrote my first serious essay. Working in teams of three, students in the class collaborated on a theme, and each student wrote their own essay around the theme with team members critiquing each other’s work. When the time came to read our essays, I felt confident in my message. After all, my peers had read it, made suggestions for improvement, and were impressed with the results. I had done the same for their essays as well. The experience seemed a good one. That is, until I read my essay in front of the class. The teacher corrected my grammar as I was reading, even being so bold at a couple of points and taking my paper and putting a giant red checkmark where the glaring errors appeared. My face turned as red as those checkmarks. My experience turned sour. All I could think about was what I did wrong. I never wanted to write anything again.

From what I hear in today’s classroom, the process is very different but the outcome is similar.  In a recent tutoring session at a local Charter School, the students were required to complete a worksheet using only one method of brainstorming and one method of organizing their essay ideas. The students I worked with were not linear thinkers. They were wonderful in verbal feedback and brainstorming. I wish I could have submitted a video of their interactions. They were animated, bright-eyed, and their ideas were blazing. The process was engaging and empowering. One of the students went so far as to act out his essay. But the fun and creativity had to end because they had to put their brainstorming on paper in the narrow format of the approved worksheets. They could not do it without help. Their creativity was stifled, and their focus changed quickly from creative thinking to focusing on the outcome. They lost their ideas in the endeavor to “get it right”. Everything is focused on TCAP scores. Understandably so. The challenge is how to keep the creative fires burning while recording the student’s progress.

Read Lisa Rivero’s post here on the issues of how our current educational system may stifle and anesthetize creativity.

What do you think?

Posted in Children's writing, creativity, education, Literacy, Memphis, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Telling America’s Stories

Francis Scott Key wrote The Star Spangled Banner, our National Anthem. This is all that I remember from grade school about the National Anthem. I remember nothing about the circumstances surrounding this wonderful, powerful poem. But there’s nothing like a visit to that special historic place and hearing the story to bring to light the range of emotions connected not only to Frances Scott Key, but most especially to the flag about which he wrote and the role it has played in history.

And here’s the thing. I’ll never forget it now, because I have seen this flag in the Smithsonian and visited Fort McHenry on Baltimore’s Chesapeake Bay. I’ve heard the story told at the place where it happened. When you stand on the very ground where the event occurred, and hear the stories, see the trees that witnessed it, and make those connections, you never forget because you have an emotional anchor.


Place> Story>Emotion

The museum at Fort McHenry. A bronze statue of Francis Scott Key is revealed as the movie screen is raised. The view is extremely moving.

The original hand-stitched Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the song that would become our national anthem, is among the most treasured artifacts in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.  We walked from a hot June morning into the special controlled temperature room where the original flag, after a long and tedious conservation process by curators, is on display. We moved slowly in a line, with due reverence, through the low-light area protecting this treasure. Looking upon that flag certainly caused a lump in my throat and more than a few goose bumps. And a desire to know more.

The U. S. of America declared the War of 1812  against Britain because of their attempts to regulate American shipping, forcing American sailors into the Royal Navy, and other reasons.

It was a hot June morning in 1813 when Major George Armistead arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, to take command of Fort McHenry, the star-shaped fort built on a hill to guard the water entrance to the city of Baltimore. After inquiring about a good seamstress and flag maker, he commissioned Mary Pickersgill to sew two flags for the Fort, each with fifteen stars and fifteen stripes (Vermont and Kentucky had joined the Union). One of the commissioned flags, called a storm flag, was only 17’ x 20’.  The garrison flag, designed to be hoisted on a 90’ pole so it could be seen from great distances, would be much larger – 30’ x 42’.

All through that sweltering July and August of 1913, Mary, assisted by her daughter, two nieces, and an indentured African-American girl, carefully assembled the red, white and blue. With tiny tight stitches, they sewed. Perhaps they pricked their fingers in their haste to get the job done, and the petite spots of blood mixed with the red wool as they stitched together those 24” wide stripes. Mary and her assistants cut and sewed the flag from dyed English wool bunting for the stripes and white cotton for the stars. The large flag was soon too big for her house so Mary moved the operation to a nearby unoccupied tavern.  Only 6-8 weeks since Armistead commissioned them, Mary and her helpers delivered the completed flags to Fort McHenry on August 19, 1813.  The government paid $405.90 for the garrison flag and $168.54 for the storm flag.

American forces ceremoniously raised the garrison flag that August at Fort McHenry and the bright stars and broad stripes were ready to meet the enemy. That enemy was the British navy, a name that provoked fear in the new country called the United States.

Britain had taken a defensive strategy until August 24, 1814 when a British force entered Chesapeake Bay, then invaded and captured Washington. They set fire to the Capitol and the White House, the flames visible 40 miles away in Baltimore. The fledgling states were angry and anxious. President James Madison and his wife Dolley and most government officials and citizenry of Washington fled in terror. Such was their haste to leave that they had had to rip the Stuart portrait of George Washington from the White House walls without its frame!

At the beginning of the War, other historical documents had already been rescued and stashed away in protected places to prevent the British from seizing them.  A surprise thunderstorm put an end to the fires, and the British forces retreated to port. But they were not finished.

Before departing from a ravaged Washington, British soldiers arrested Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and imprisoned him on a British warship anchored in Chesapeake Bay along with other American prisoners. The British navy continued terrorizing the Chesapeake Bay, moving northward. The American forces prepared for the inevitable assault on Baltimore that they knew would come by both land and sea.

On September 3rd, 1814, a young Georgetown lawyer by the name of Francis Scott Key, with an American Prisoner Exchange Agent named Skinner and a few others had set sail under a flag of truce approved by President Madison to board a British ship as the guests of three British officers. Their mission was to formally negotiate the release of several prisoners, one being Dr. William Beanes.  They arrived on the ship on September 7th. Negotiations proceeded slowly. On the 13th, Skinner, Key, Beanes and the other prisoners were not allowed to return to their own sloop.

From special small boats out in the Chesapeake, the British had fired rockets that traced wobbly arcs of red flame across the American sky toward Fort McHenry. The American forces responded and sunk 22 of those small British vessels. Just after midnight on the 14th, the British war fleet began their heavy attack, lighting up the dark sky with fireworks.

Horrified that their own country was under attack as they sat aboard the enemy ship, Key and the other Americans were unable to do anything but watch the bombarding of  Fort McHenry with apprehension. They knew that as long as their countrymen were firing shells from the Fort, that the United States had not surrendered.

Back at the Fort, the home forces were indeed feverishly firing back at the British warships, volley after volley, bombs bursting and lighting up the entire city.  Men, women and children of Baltimore, ready to vacate their city if necessary, watched from rooftops.  Surely the meager resources of American forces were no match for the renowned British navy and their heavy artillery.

All during the night, the Battle of Baltimore raged on. The American forces would not give up, rotating shifts and firing every gun and cannon they could find. They were fighting to protect their country and their hard won freedom.  They persevered like never before. 

As dawn broke, there came a mysterious silence.  The firing had ceased. As the first light appeared, heavy smoke still hung over the Chesapeake Bay and over Fort McHenry. Was the fate of Baltimore like that of Washington? Had the British set fire to the Fort? Francis Scott Key garnered a spyglass and tried to see what was left of the Fort, but the air was too heavy with smoke and mist. Key and his comrades knew what the home forces had probably faced, and were afraid there would be a British flag flying over Fort McHenry.

A spyglass at Fort McHenry

When the smoke and mist slowly began to lift, Key held the spyglass to his eye once more, straining to see. And just as the mist moved about in the morning breeze, he was able to see it was an American flag waving at Fort McHenry, not the British standard.  Both relieved and excited, he ran below deck and reported this to the prisoners.

Key was so moved with emotion that he snatched an envelope from his pocket and on it he wrote the lines,
           And the rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air,                                                                       Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

What the Americans on that British command ship did not know was that the British had abandoned both the land assault on Baltimore and the naval attack, because the attack had proved too costly. The Americans were not giving up, and were a force beyond belief. British officers had ordered a retreat.

After completing the poem In Defence of Fort McHenry, Key set it to the rhythms of the 18th-century British melody Anacreon in Heaven. Eventually the name of the tune became better known as The Star Spangled Banner, words taken from a line in Key’s poem. A hundred years would pass before the song was formally adopted as our official National Anthem.

This story does not end here. There are variations and countless stories within this story. The flag that flew that night over Fort McHenry was returned to the family of Mary Pickersgill and her descendants displayed it from time to time, eventually giving it to the Smithsonian, and telling their stories.

The flag that inspired Key before conservation efforts.

There are thousands of such stories surrounding relics and documents in and around Washington D.C. and other cities in our country. But a visit to Washington D.C. is a must for every American, to stand in the places where history was and is being made. I will never hear our National Anthem without remembering.

Tell me how you feel when you hear it? What patriotic events touch your emotions? What are the patriotic moments you will never forget?

Posted in cultural literacy, emotional literacy, hero's journey, inspiration, music, patriotism, Smithsonian, Writing | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Everyone Has Answers for the Problem of Teen Pregnancy.

Apparently none of these solutions are working. In addition to the Memphis story mentioned below (Frayser Secrets: 90 pregnant teens), the quotes from the Jackson (Mississippi) Free Press tell the story of most large urban areas:

  • A 13 year-old [public school] student kisses her 30-year-old boyfriend as he drops her off at school one morning. When school officials call the teen’s mother, she shows little concern saying, “He takes care of her, he helps her get the school supplies she needs.”
  • A 12-year old feels her baby move inside her for the first time and asks: “What am I feeling? I didn’t think it would be alive until the doctor spanked it.”
  • An 11-year-old student says she knows her 21-year-old boyfriend loves her because he said she looks good and bought her dinner at Popeye’s.

To read these very real responses by very real people saddens me in the deepest way.  This is reality. Why? I don’t have the answers.  There are those who blame the problem on race. Others blame the problem on poverty, lack of family values, lack of sex education in schools, and lack of parental involvement.  Certainly all of these are contributing factors and the problem cannot be solved by addressing only one of these issues. I made a statement in a group of women recently about those young women on the margins, and how difficult it is for them to make changes in their lives without mentors and role models and parent involvement. One of my middle-aged female friends responded, “Oprah Winfrey did it. They can do it.  Anybody can do it.” Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

On the news the other night here in Memphis there was a headline, “Frayser’s Little Secret”. What was the secret?  A “pregnancy epidemic”. At least 90 young girls in Frayser High School were or are pregnant.  That’s 20% of the girls in that High School, 11% of the entire student population. There is talk of a pact, or promise, of some sort, but that is all just rumor.  The good news is that Memphis Public Schools and other organizations have plans to roll out a huge initiative that includes: (1) after-school and in-school programs funded with grant money, operated by a local non-profit that already does some work for city schools; (2) a $250,000 advertising campaign targeted at the Frayser community that is based on research done in focus groups at the school; and (3) a federally funded component that emphasizes the responsibility of young men, operated through a Memphis hospital.  The city of Memphis is also a partner in the initiative, and I look forward to January 20 to see what this plan includes.  My bet is that it will focus on contraceptive use and advertising of some “just say no”-type messages. I wonder what will this initiative promote, and what will be left out? I am hopeful that the initiative will include the realities of this issue.

How do we educate parents, and our entire culture, that to have sex with anyone underage is sexual abuse, and for a parent to allow it is child neglect?  How do you convince teen girls and parents that older men who prey on teen girls are not boyfriends, they are pedophiles?

A letter writer in today’s Memphis Commercial Appeal says the basic skills should be taught at home, by two parents, and asks why strangers should get involved in teaching these skills. I’m not sure what the writer means by strangers – perhaps teachers and volunteers? He goes on to say that it’s a “cultural thing”, and the fault of the “system”.
I believe that we, including the letter writer above, ARE the “culture” and the “system”. When are we all going to realize this? We are all part of culture. It is not an us vs. them dichotomy, and we cannot remain safely in our burglar-barred living rooms and believe we have separated ourselves from the problem. Yes, ideally every home would have two parents, these parents would be involved in teaching their children values and self-respect.  This is not reality. Fathers are sometimes AWOL, or incarcerated. Mothers are heads of households in most Memphis homes. And they must do everything, including working two or three jobs just to keep afloat. Teen girls are babysitting younger siblings while mom works, and life is not easy.  And if a mom has no transportation and must take the bus to work, this can mean as much as 10 hours away from home every day. I passed a young friend the other day who was walking home from a local convenience store where she had just purchased items for supper. She is 14 years old, and stays home with three younger sisters while her mom works. I asked her what she was making for supper.  She opened her bag.  White bread, bologna, and Cheetos. Choices at the convenience store are limited, and pricey.

How to help? Get involved. Mentor a young woman. Take part in WriteMemphis literacy programs. Volunteer one hour per week somewhere, anywhere, to work with young women – I’ll help you.  I’ll go with you.

Posted in Adolescent Girls, Memphis, personal choices, teen pregnancy | Tagged , , | 5 Comments