You wouldn't think the act of simply putting pen to paper would be good for counteracting the emotional burdens of living in poverty. But it does, according to Kathy Gehr, a writing teacher and chair of the English department at Burke High School.
Virtually every student at Burke has experienced poverty or even homelessness, Gehr says. Because of this, they tend to approach learning as if in survival mode. "They are very me-oriented," Gehr says. "But writing forces them out of themselves and into thinking about how someone might understand what they are trying to say."
Writing, and the constructive empathy that the act of writing creates, are at the center of a program Gehr has forged in partnership with the College of Charleston and the Lowcountry Initiative for Literary Arts (LILA), the nonprofit arts organization involving well-known writers from all over the Holy City.
Together, they offer workshops and classes in poetry and writing.
Every year, the program produces a literary magazine written by ninth- and tenth-graders. That anthology is sold at Blue Bicycle Books on King Street. The bookstore's owner, author and poet Jonathan Sanchez, is also one of the mentors of the Burke writing program. (Sanchez is also a contributor to the City Paper.)
Though writing has social and psychological benefits, it also yields better students. "We see writing as a means through which students can achieve academic success," Gehr says, "and link what they learn in school to their lives outside of school.
"Writing helps them learn, because they have to express ideas not their own and then come up with effective ways of telling that to another person," she says. "I tell my students all the time that to be a good writer, you have to have something to say and have to have a way of telling it so that other people will listen."
The paradox of low-achieving schools like Burke is that they are tested more than other schools. To satisfy No Child Left Behind, students are "tested to death," Gehr says.
In panic mode, she says, teachers understandably believe they have no time to teach writing. Though they are conditioned for multiple choice exams, the more often they are tested, often the less they improve.
Since implementing the writing program, however, Gehr has seen marked improvement in student achievement rates, with test scores rising by a whopping 90 percent last year.
With this success in mind, Gehr is hoping to partner with more nonprofit organizations in town in order to increase the types of writing experience, including academic writing.
"Writing is a means, not an end," Gehr says.
Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts
(843) 971-6930 • www.lilaconnects.com
What It Is
The Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts was founded in 2004 to expand, encourage, and nurture writing and reading in the Charleston area by creating programs for in-house writers to teach in public schools and workshops. LILA is involved in programs at Burke High School, the Charleston County Public Library, and Poetry Out Loud.
What $25 Would Do
"All of our funding is going to poetry workshops at Burke High School," says Marjory Wentworth, vice president of LILA and South Carolina's poet laureate. "We'd like to establish writing programs at all of the public schools, but we have to start somewhere."
• Establish an endowment
• Expand programming within the school system