by Meg Petersen, Professor of English
Meg Petersen is a teacher, a writer of fiction and essays, a poet, and a passionate advocate for the teaching of writing. As director of the Plymouth Writing Project, she leads the organization’s efforts to promote exemplary instruction of writing in every classroom in New Hampshire.
In 2008 Petersen was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to work with teachers in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, in the teaching of writing. Santo Domingo was already familiar territory for Petersen; she had lived and worked there years ago. She returned for a brief time in 2007, when she and several of her graduate students worked alongside teachers from Santo Domingo schools.
Foremost among Petersen’s goals for her Fulbright year in Santo Domingo was to get her 19 students—all teachers from a single school who voluntarily registered for her course—to improve the teaching of writing. In the essay that follows, Petersen recalls a writing exercise in which one of her students shared her moving story of how she learned to write.
“I didn’t start school until I was 9,” Patria said by way of introducing her writing, then added, “And I didn’t learn to read until I was 12.”
We held our writing class for teachers in an attic classroom in La Escuela Politécnico Militar San Miguel Arcángel, in the part of Santo Domingo known as Villa Mella. The school had attained some fame a few years before with the opening of a computer center that was going to serve the community. By the time Pilar, my co-teacher, and I came to the school a year and a half later to meet with our class for the first time, the computers had been stolen. All that remained was a beat-up VCR locked away in the auditorium closet.
The 19 teachers Pilar and I were to work with were gathered in the staff room around several plastic tables. To begin our class, we asked them to write about an experience with writing. We all bent our heads over our notebooks. Some of theirs were student notebooks, purchased in local supermarkets or colmados, adorned with pictures of High School Musical, Dora the Explorer, and even Barbie. Like their students, the teachers wore uniforms—olive green jackets over white blouses. One teacher had brought her preschool-aged daughter, who sat at the table drawing. As we wrote in concentration for 10 minutes, we could hear the physical education class on the other side of the partition. They were poised in deep squats, legs akimbo, and their teacher was calling out, “Uno, dos, tres …” counting off their times. The noise of the primary grade children out at recess on the cement courtyard drifted up through the open windows. When I had first visited the school to make arrangements for the class, I had almost suffered heatstroke in this room, but the heat was more bearable now, on this January day.
I asked them to find a stopping place in their writing, and then I shared what I had written. We talked about it together. Normally, when I do this exercise with a class, I ask teachers to share their writing in groups, and report what they have learned from each other’s stories. On this day, however, one of the teachers spontaneously began to read her writing out loud to the whole group and asked them to react. We continued reading and responding together. We heard stories of letters written to sweethearts, messages to and from children and parents, and about a 5-year-old child who woke up early in the campo and bathed with cold water, because she wanted to go to school with her brothers and sisters. The director of the school had turned her away because she was too young. She was still bitter.
Patria stood up to read next. After telling us how long it had taken her to learn to read, she explained that back when she was young, if you didn’t have money to get a uniform or a notebook, you could not go to school, so it had taken her a while to get there. She was glad the government was now supplying uniforms for those who couldn’t afford to buy them, and had started a program of giving students breakfast.
“When I first went to school, I would sit in class day after day,” Patria began reading, “understanding nothing. I was ready to give up on school and just go back home to help my mother, but one day that changed. The teacher came up alongside my desk and told me she was going to help me to learn to write my name. She taught me how to make the straight vertical line, the stick, and then the half moon shape, and then to bring them together to make the letter P.” Patria paused, smiling at the memory.
“I made sticks, and I made half moons, and then I put them together: stick with a half moon, stick with a half moon, stick with a half moon, over and over. And I was so overjoyed when I realized I could make a P. I filled the entire paper with Ps. When I went home that day, I wanted to keep making them, but there was no paper or pencils in my house.”
She paused, as if to build suspense, “So I took a burnt end of the firewood, and I used it to make letter Ps all over the walls of my wooden house. I kept on making Ps—sticks with half moons one after another—until there was no room to make any more. I completely covered all the walls. That was the beginning,” she read, “of learning to write, and to read.”
As the class responded to her story, I thought of how it reminded me of Helen Keller going to the well that fateful day with Annie Sullivan. Patria had read her story as if it were nothing special, and the class responded as if she had read something that was within the realm of normal experience, but I couldn’t help thinking it was a miracle. It took me a while to gather myself up sufficiently to comment without using that word. Instead I told them how I noticed that one thing, one bit of learning, can open up the world, how that was all it took, but that the teacher had to take the time.
That one thing, that one letter, began Patria’s literacy. And I still think all of it is a miracle. Writing always seems that way to me.
Teachers in Villa Mella, indeed in all of the Dominican Republic, work in incredibly difficult conditions. When I first came to the school, waiting to meet with the director, I was sitting on a little folding chair in the office. I looked at the pictures hanging in the entry hall of the different courses—1A, 2C, 3B, 3A, etc. I had been so struck by the quantity of students in each class that I had counted and recounted them as I waited. There were more than 50 students in these primary classrooms.
Most public schools in the Dominican Republic, and this one is no exception, run on three tandas, or shifts. Students attend either in the morning, the afternoon, or the evening. Teachers often work all three (and thus can see over 150 first graders in a day). They are paid by the tanda and salaries are very low. At one point, the paycheck a Dominican teacher earned did not cover even the cost of transportation to get to the school. Add to that heat and noise, and lack of textbooks and supplies, and their jobs become even harder.
Teachers can be hard to find and substitutes are non-existent. In order to have our class, we used the children’s recess period and then the 7th- and 8th-grade students covered the primary classes for the last hour on Wednesdays when we came.
Just the Beginning
Later, as our work here progresses, we will read articles about the nature of writing and about teaching it. We will revise and edit practices in these classrooms. Pilar and I will enter the classrooms and teach with these teachers. We will read their writing and they ours. We will respond to each other, and after all of this, we will measure the progress of their students. This day is only a beginning.
This inauguration is important, however, because teachers have started to write. They have also shared, responded to each other’s writing, and analyzed what it can teach them. They will compare these initial thoughts with what they learn about research and theory, and bring it all to their classrooms. It has to begin with writing. When teachers become writers, even through this small exercise, they begin to express their own vision of the world.
This process has never ceased to amaze me, whether it takes place in my composition class at Plymouth State University or with teachers in the Plymouth Writing Project summer institutes, or here in this school serving poor children in the north end of Santo Domingo. When teachers and students learn to write, they represent themselves in the world. In many ways it is always a miracle, and it always feels like important work.
Our goal here in the Dominican Republic is to form a writing project site. Teachers like Patria will share their writing and their teaching with others in institutes like the summer institute we hold in New Hampshire each year at Plymouth State University. Later, when Patria has gained more confidence, she might demonstrate her teaching practices for other teachers, or enter a study group to explore some aspect of teaching writing that puzzles her. The girl who learned to write at the age of 12, and who now faces three classes of more than 50 2nd-graders each day, may come to be a teacher leader in a Dominican writing project.
Patria’s name means country, with the same root as the English word “patriotism.” She was named in hope. In the moment when she read her story about the teacher who helped her learn to write the letter P, she represented the whole country for me. Her story reminds me that despite the obstacles these teachers face, miracles are still possible.