California English Journal



Winter 2004

-Pam Muñoz Ryan

-Leah Scheitrum

-Thomas Roddy

-Phil Bowles

-Judy Willis

-Erika Daniels

-Catherine Humphrey

-Firoozeh Dumas

-Grace Voss

Artist of this issue - Susanne Selinger

Features & Departments

Creative Writing Contest Winners
Alexander Welton
Rhiannon Roper
Janet Hansen

Breiger's Bookshelf


Why I Write
by Pam Munñoz Ryan

When asked, “Why do you write?” my initial response is this: I don’t have a clue. There is no reason. I just write. Intrinsically, I know that’s not exactly true. The more sustentative answer is below the surface but self-examination is work. I must think hard to examine the subliminal. Besides, if I examine the Why, what might I find? Do I write to resolve my worst imaginings? If I dig too deep, will I discover that my reasons for writing are to salve a horrible wound?

When students ask me, “Why do you write?” I tell them more about the mechanics of how I became a writer - that a professor and then a colleague pointed out to me that I might want to consider professional writing and their comments planted a seed that wouldn’t stop growing. Initially misguided, I studied the business of publishing, hoping that familiarity would breed mastery of the profession. Instead, my familiarity only bred anxiety and frustration because although I had learned much about the business, I was not yet published. I discovered that only by practicing the craft of writing and rewriting would I inch toward any success as an author. Later, as I received positive responses from readers, I was inspired to keep writing, and besides that, I received monetary compensation for it and I did have four children to put through college. Writing became emotionally redeeming and practical, but there’s more to it.

Digging deeper, I put myself on the spot and asked, “If I’d never made any money from my writing and had never been published, would I have kept writing? Or, if I won a billion dollars, could buy my parents that little home they want on the coast, all my books were made into blockbuster movies and I had all the adulation and money any one person could desire, would I keep writing?”

I hope so. Otherwise, how would I know myself? How would others understand me? How could I walk in another’s shoes? Sure, there are many ways to accomplish those things but writing is my tether, my way to secure a connection to the world. The more I think about the Why, the more I realize there is no single reason.

I write to be heard so that I can present a view uninterrupted by other people’s opinions and judgments, other people’s “shoulds.”

I write to find humor and catharsis. It’s reassuring to know that if I dredge long enough, I can find a bit of emotional resonance.

I write in a feeble attempt at immortality - to make a tiny ripple on earth. If someone reads one of my books after I die, could I somehow cheat fate by a few days?

I write because it’s exciting to create something new, or not so new, but something that is mine. There is power in making stories, creating worlds and trying on multiple lives. There is power in trying to make order out of chaos. I will never be a dictator or a God, so writing is my chance to manipulate the universe.

I write to find still water. In the swirling whirlpool of a reality that includes war, politics, mangled human rights, crime, and statistics that deem one in ten will perish from something horrific, writing is a lifejacket. By putting words on paper, the confluence of rivers in my mind might occasionally be staid and I’ll be able to float instead of sink.

Then there are the readers. Do I write for them or do I write what I’d like to read? I’m not quite sure. I do know that I very much want the reader to feel compelled to turn the page. I hope the reader might read the book more than once. If I write something and a reader embraces those thoughts or emotions, could that be considered a communication of souls? I must admit that there is nothing as intoxicating as receiving a letter from a child or teacher who made a heartfelt connection with a story. That feeling is a fuel that sustains the writing life.

That’s why I write – for all of those reasons in addition to being able to work at home in my flip-flops. These days, I cannot imagine not writing. It is a habit that continues to evolve. Life delivers joy, challenges, satisfaction, confusion, great love, sorrow, laughter, anguish and the unexplainable. For me, the sorting out of life with pen and paper is one of the tools I use to help me find my way. Writing is my compass, so I won’t trip and fall down in a crooked world.

Pam Muñoz Ryan, has written over twenty-five books for young people including the novel, Esperanza Rising, winner of the Pura Belpre Medal, the Jane Addams Peace Award, an ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, and the Americas Award Honor Book. Her novel, Riding Freedom has garnered many awards including the national Willa Cather Award, and the California Young Reader Medal. Her picture books for the very young and picture books for older readers, include the award-winning Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride and When Marian Sang, the recipient of the ALA Sibert Honor and NCTE's Orbis Pictus Award. She received her Bachelor's and Master's Degrees at San Diego State University. She now lives in north San Diego County with her husband and four children.


Mr. Hemholtz, Where Are You Now!
By Thomas Roddy

Edgar Cisneros scared me. He had a shaved head and stripes cut into his left eyebrow—symbolic, I later learned, of allegiance to a gang. He wore chains, a red T-shirt and low-slung jeans. Through his right eyebrow, he wore a nail. I enrolled him in the class and directed him to a seat in the middle. Offering a curled lip to the students along the aisle, he skulked his way through the chairs and spread himself into a chair like a pinniped seeking the sun on a rock. Alberto, who hid his face beneath a thick gray sweatshirt, greeted Edgar with a cryptic medieval handshake I had seen the young men on campus exchange many times before.

To introduce him I said, “Why have you arrived here so late in the term?”

Without removing his gaze from a Walkman he pulled from his pocket, he said, “I threw a chair at a teacher at Jefferson.”

This made Edgar a hero among his classmates. They slapped his back, and erupted into loud hoots with one another, separating me from them even more. While Edgar bragged that he had “made the bitch cry,” I did my best to return the focus of the lesson, but their joy drowned out my pleas. All I could do was shake my head and think to myself, “Edgar is not what I need now--not for this class!” The principal of the school had chosen me after my first year to instruct these ninth graders who read at the second grade level. Now Edgar seemed to compromise the progress we had made.

Over the next few days, Edgar divided the classroom. The girls rolled their eyes, and curled their noses at him. The boys, envying his crass bravura, sat captivated by his story telling. Although I do not speak Spanish, I could tell from the hand gestures that accompanied Edgar’s stories that his speech leaned to the obscene. I knew I needed to speak with him, but I had no idea where to begin. I asked Edgar to meet me after class one day.

“ Edgar, I am pleased you have found a way to make yourself welcome in the room, but your behavior is disrupting what the rest of the class has been working on for an entire year.”

“ I don’t even want to be in the class man!”
“ Well, what do you want me to do, Edgar?”

“ I don’t know, man, you’re the teacher.”

Edgar was right. I was the teacher; I should have the answers, but I did not.

I reached across my desk and found a copy of the one of the short stories I had introduced to my students. I prepared for the worst. When I began teaching, listening to some students read hurt. Through no fault of their own, their skills were so below grade level, I had no idea how they could function in or out of school or how I could begin to teach them. Edgar picked up the book I placed in front of him, looked at the words and began. His streaming talk ceased and a confident voice emerged as he sailed through the story.

I stopped him. “Edgar, why are you in this class?”

“ I screwed up some test.”

I told him that I was not sure I could get him moved since the semester was almost over. “We will just have to make the most of working together.” I suggested that starting tomorrow, Edgar begin by limiting his swearing.

Edgar paused. “I don’t know, mister. It’s the way I do things.”

“ Edgar, please try. You don’t have to worry about the work for the moment, okay?” I offered him my hand and he shook it. Edgar was forcing me to better teacher; and I did not want to let him down.

At first, reining in Edgar proved not as hard as I anticipated. If he swore, all I had to do was say, “Edgar,” in my most teacherly voice and he stopped.

“ Sorry, mister!”

“ Edgar, you are doing great! Please keep trying. Please.”

During our discussions of literature, Edgar offered insights into one of the characters from “The Kid Nobody Could Handle” by Kurt Vonnegut.

Edgar observed, “ The kid’s angry, man. His mom and dad don’t like him.”

“ Why do you say that?” I asked.

“ They left him. That’s why he ripped up that dude’s stuff. He wanted their attention.”

“ Excellent insight, Edgar. Excellent.”

The story also has a benevolent teacher, Mr. Helmholtz, who mentors the recalcitrant student, named Jim, and points him in the direction of self-confidence. Could I do this for Edgar? Would I change his life?

As he left class, Edgar tried to show me that handshake, but I failed to coordinate the exact combination of knuckle and fist.

“ Keep trying, mister!”

“ It’s hard, Edgar,” I joked with him and he smiled. In such moments, I felt the kiss of the gods.

One morning, Edgar’s profanity returned and he added “gay” and “fag” to his routine. When I asked him to stop, he said, “It just means that I’m happy.”

There are moments when we wish we could return to what we did and do it over. I was about to step into one of those:

“ What if we just call things you don’t like Latino instead of gay?”

“ No way,” Edgar said. “That’s racist!”

“ So, what if it is?” I challenged him.

“ Are you gay?” Edgar leaned forward.

The class quieted. I pulled my head up. Each one of them waited to see what I would do next. When I had discussed my personal life before, my supervisor, a large turtle-like woman, crawled out of her shell long enough to warn me with a crooked purple-nailed finger, “Never mention your partner again.”

“ That’s not the point,” I cowered

“ This dude’s gay,” Edgar snapped, sat back and high-fived Alberto.

“ Get out!” I shouted. He stood up, smiled at me and walked out.

I took a moment and tried to continue with the rest of class, Edgar got the better of me. “You can have free time,” I told them.

In the days that followed, I went to work hoping Edgar would not appear, but I felt disappointed when he did not arrive. I had not seen him for three days when the phone rang during class.

A young man’s voice said, “Mr. Roddy, you’d better watch it.”

I hung up the phone.

The caller retuned a few moments later to tell me “Watch it, Roddy.”

“ Clever, Edgar,” I said.

“ It’s not Edgar,” the voice said.

I hung up the phone.

I filed a report with the administration and within a day or two, the dean told me that Edgar confessed to making the calls and had left the school. However, two days later, Edgar arrived at my door with a re-admittance slip. Taking it from his hand, I asked him, “Why do you have this?”

“ I don’t know. They give it to me.”

“ Who give it to me, Edgar?” I channeled the most contemptuous teacher I had known.

“ McMahon, the dean, man, I don’t know.”

Closing the door in his face, I told him, “You are not welcome until I can verify this.”

When I spoke to the dean, he told me it Edgar did not place the call, but a friend of Edgar’s, using Edgar’s phone, did. I should accept Edgar to the class, but Edgar had frightened me. The following morning Edgar returned to my door. He stood in the threshold with his sneakers teasing the edge of the jamb. I knew that Edgar like many of my students could wander from room to room as another faceless cipher and the likelihood that anyone would trace him back to me was small.

“Edgar, you are not welcome here, you will have to leave,” I told him calmly.

The other students in the room tried to convince me to allow Edgar to stay, but I did not yield. Shaking, I said, “Each of you can join him, if you wish.”

Edgar lingered outside of my room for the next several days like a mad horse, chucking his head and stomping his feet, and when the others called him in Edgar laughed, “No man, de pinche maestro won’t let me in there.”

When, he stopped coming my students asked me, “Why isn’t Edgar here?”

“ He’s in jail!” Then, I knew I had gone too far.

One morning, I had to be at school early. Edgar sat alone on some benches in the lunch area. His eyes were glassy, his face pale. He recognized me but each of us turned our face away and, like that provoked horse threw his head back. As I climbed the stairs to my room, I stopped. “I am going to try again,” I thought and walked back. Edgar watched me. I got within a few steps of him and he looked down. “Do I want to do this?” I thought. “Yes.” I kept going, but I stopped. I failed him and could not fail any further. I returned to my classroom, humiliated, and not certain how to continue.

Thomas Roddy is a teacher at Manual Arts School in Los Angeles
He is currently working on his National Board Certification


Teachers as Visionaries
By Catherine Humphrey

All schools, all students deserve the best teachers who use and create the best practices. It is possible to create a “dream team” of teachers, and such a team will result in improved student performance. Two years ago, when I was hired as English Department Chair to help open a new comprehensive high school, I saw an opportunity to bring teachers together who wanted to collaborate, who could and would share and then incorporate the “best practices” in their teaching. Our classroom doors, our professional heads, and our hearts would be open to one another, open to new ideas, committed to making a leap in faith together—to create a department that was different. While I had the advantage of opening a new school, the vision behind our department is available to all; even one teacher with a vision can make a difference. We were fortunate to bring together a critical mass of visionaries whom I recruited from two particular professional communities: National Board Certified Teachers and Writing Project Fellows. We call ourselves “born-again teachers.” Our principal also plays a key role. He chose Aristotle’s quotation, “Where Excellence is a Habit” as the school motto. As a former English teacher he understands that a strong English department critically strengthens every student and every other discipline.

From National Board we bring the National Board Standards and our ability to describe, analyze, and reflect on our own practices. We are team players with our colleagues and with our parent community. We do teacher research in our own classrooms.

From the Writing Project, we bring passion for writing; we are writers ourselves as well as teachers of writing. Writing remains our primary student assessment. We teach and assess state standards through writing. We have an Author’s Chair in each of our classrooms. Our students read their work aloud in all stages of the writing process; we write with our students and we take our turns in the Author’s Chair. Students love hearing their teacher’s writing. We establish a classroom community of writers.

Every week several of our teachers say, “Thank you for another great department meeting!” They are great meetings because we inservice each other. Our English department meets for three Friday mornings every month for 55 minutes. At these meetings each of us shares strategies, student work, and lesson plans. Collaboratively we create writing prompts, projects, rubrics, and set goals. We teach each other our best practices on Friday mornings. Every day we are in and out of each others’ rooms. Each English teacher is acknowledged by the rest of us as a professional. There are Blue Ribbon Awards at the top of every meeting for specific teacher achievements that week. Everyone attends. I move the meetings around into our respective classrooms. Sometimes we meet in my room, but not always. I rotate our meetings into each of our classrooms so that each takes a turn hosting; we see the student work on each of our walls; we share, share, share. Our classrooms function as our “labs” in teacher research to see what works well and what doesn’t, and by focusing on student work we continually revise and reconstruct our methods and our curriculum to insure the best possible results for our students’ performance.

We celebrate each individual teacher’s success as our collective success and feel the power of our collective skills. We see ourselves as a National Board school, a Writing Project school, investigating what sorts of collaborative work we can do together in inquiry, teaching, and classroom research predicated on a quest for new knowledge and deeper understandings of how to teach the California Language Arts Standards to our students so that they are successful now in class, in their various on-demand testing, and in making smooth transitions from high school to the university or to the workplace.

Two years ago we gave our first California High School Exit Exam and our first California STAR exam. We had 94% of our sophomores pass the Language Arts section of the CAHSEE on their first attempt. We had the highest scores in our district of 8 comprehensive high schools on the STAR. Our scores were higher than state average in all areas of Language Arts. We set our goals together for this year. 90% passsed the Language Arts section of the CAHSEE in 2004. Equally important, we are happy teachers because we pull together; we value one another; we are all essential team members of our vision. Any student success is a shared success

We are not about business as usual. We bring our content knowledge, our National Board Standards, our Writing Project skills, and together we make teacher-heaven.

Catherine Humphrey teaches at Los Osos High School, a comprehensive high school in Alta Loma, CA, Chaffey District, 3050 students.
She is a National Board Certified Teacher, a California Writing Project Fellow, and earned a MA and a Ph.D in English.


Why I Write
By Firoozeh Dumas

Whenever I board an airplane, I hope and pray that the person next to me will talk the whole time. I want to hear the person’s life story! Did he grow up in an apartment or a big house with an attic? Does he have lots of siblings? What did he have to overcome? Does he have regrets? What was the best meal he ever ate?

My husband says he hates sitting next to people like me. He’s the kind of person who buys a thick book before each flight. “Oh the stories you have missed!” I tell him. To me, there is nothing better than a true life story told by the person who lived it. In all the years I have been talking to strangers, I have yet to meet somebody who is boring. Everybody has a story. That’s one of the ways that we are all equal.

When I was growing up, my father told me so many stories about his childhood that I felt like I grew up with him. He told me about his dreams and his disappointments, about his triumphs and his travails. Some of his stories were funny, like the one where he ended up buying ice cream for himself with money intended for groceries. When his mother confronted him, he made up a story about the money being lost, not realizing that his shirt was covered with incriminating ice-cream stains.

He also told me about his sister Sedigeh, the smartest one in the family, who by virtue of being a girl, had to stop going to school at age fourteen to get married. My father’s eyes always welled up with tears when he told this story. No one ever had to convince me of the value of education.

If my father’s stories taught me one thing, it was that everybody’s life counts. My father was never a rich man, he was never famous and he never drove a fancy car, but he had a life full of stories and wisdom. I knew that he had made a difference in many people’s lives. He had been kind when kindness was needed and generous even when he didn’t have much himself. I learned that a man’s worth is not measured by his bank account, but by the number of lives he touches in a lifetime.

When I became a mother, I knew that I wanted by children to know my stories, but I decided to put mine down on paper. When I sate down to write, I was surprised to discover that the events that stood out in my mind were often the little ones, not the big events that everyone thinks are supposed to count. I remembered by shock at the shared showers in summer camp and my decision not to bathe for two weeks. I remembered the kids in Mrs. Sandberg’s second grade class and how they helped me learn English. I remembered by anxiety when my father lost his job and could no longer afford to send me to college. And I remembered how empowered I felt when I started writing scholarship essays and earned money to pay my tuition.

The more I wrote, the more I remembered. It was like those vending machines where the candy bar falls down and is replaced by another one. When a story ended, another one came, not always right away, but it always came.

Writing my stories made me feel oddly confident, as if everything in my life had happened for a reason. When I put events down on paper, they didn’t seem so random. With the clarity that comes only with hindsight, I could see that acts of kindness, never to be forgotten, materialized right when I needed them. Experiences, both good and bad were part of a bigger picture, a huge learning opportunity. The more I wrote, the more I realized that my “failures” weren’t necessarily failures, but signposts guiding me elsewhere. My life made much more sense.

I now tell everyone to write his story. It cost nothing yet we all gain by it. By sharing our stories, we spread compassion, wisdom and sometimes laughter. And most importantly, we remind one another that everybodfy’s life counts, thus making this world a bit kinder, one story at a time.

Firuzeh Dumas is the author of Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America. Firoozeh graduated from the University of California at Berkeley andlives with her husband and children in Northern California.


In Memoriam
Robert Palazzi

“Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.”

Donne’s lines apply particularly to English language arts teachers whos lives have been diminished by the death last May of Robert Palazzi, former President of CATE and a leader in the profession. Bob, CATE President from 1968 to 1972, is the only President of CATE who served two terms. He was critical to CATE’s survival because he steered the association out of its greatest financial crisis when the very existence of CATE was in question. After a fine career in the classroom, he went on to teach in a different way as a school administrator.

Bob and his wife, Jeri, lived in San Francisco and this life-long educator exemplified the aura of the city. He always brought enormous energy, a wonderful sense of humor and a touch of class to all he did. It is particularly appropriate that he hosted the only champagne tasting session ever held at an English convention at the NCTE annual convention in San Francisco.

Even when traveling, he remained a teacher as he taught speed reading on cruise ships around the world. His travels also provided the opportunity for the Palazzi’s to turn their home into a museum of arts and crafts which they brought back with them from their travels.

CATE was greater because of Bob’s leadership and is less because of his death.


Editor’s column
Carol Jago

The focus of the winter issue of California English is “The Power of One Teacher.” In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer states, “When my students and I discover uncharted territory to explore, when the pathway out of a thicket opens up before us, when our experience is illuminated by the lightning-life of the mind—then teaching is the finest work I know.” To celebrate the “fine work” of teaching and in preparation for CATE2005, California English invited teachers to contribute their stories about times when they felt this “lightning-life” in their classrooms. You will note that what follows are not all success stories. In many cases contributors have reflected on puzzling moments when lightening seemed to strike. I applaud and honor the courage it took to submit such tales.

Most teachers choose the field for idealistic rather than economic reasons, and what keeps them going year after year is a love for kids and an unflagging dedication to helping students learn. John Steinbeck has said that, "It is customary for adults to forget how hard and dull and long school is. The learning by memory of all the basic things one must know is the most incredible and unending effort. Learning to read is probably the most difficult and revolutionary thing that happens to the human brain and if you don't believe that, watch an illiterate adult try to do it. School is not easy and it is not for the most part very much fun, but then, if you are very lucky, you may find a teacher. Three real teachers in a lifetime is the very best of luck. I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit."

I worry that unless society's attitudes towards its teachers become more like Steinbeck's, many potential artists will never find their way to the classroom. Along with incentives for the best and the brightest to enter the profession, we also need to figure out better ways of showing respect for the remarkable work many teachers do every day. For anyone who loves the medium of the human mind and spirit, I can't imagine better career choice than teaching. All one has to do is read the stories that follow to see the power one teacher can have. It truly is a wonderful life.


CATE creative writing contest winner

Alexander Welton, 6th grade
Stevenson School
24800 Dolores
Carmel, CA 93921
Central Council
Teacher: Melissa Ackerman

Another Legacy

passed down
from one generation
to the next
but still remotely true
this legend
this legacy
passed dow


CATE creative writing contest winner

Rhiannon Roper (grade 7)
2300 Hillcrest Ave. Fortuna, CA. 95540 (707) 726-9371
Her teacher is Scott Betts of Toddy Thomas (2800 Thomas St. Fortuna, CA.

The Whispering Table

Great Aunt Eithlinn had always gone on about how Great Grandfather Callum had brought over the antique table from Ireland when he immigrated. Her Great Aunt was always rambling on about how if you were very quiet, and you listened really hard, you could hear the whispers of the past. Now, Great Aunt Eithlinn was eighty-two, and it was said among the family that she was a little crazy, and sometimes she told very, very tall tales, so Rowan usually ignored her Great Aunt, but this one story had always interested her. You see, this was one of the very few stories that Great Aunt Eithlinn told almost exactly the same way every time she told it.

Rowan’s older siblings, Gavin and Deirdre, always mocked Great Aunt Eithlinn when they rode home in the car. They mocked her Irish accent, her way of calling the children “lad” or “lass,” or “gurrl.” While they mocked Great Aunt Eithlinn, Rowan would whisper to her five younger siblings, “You know why Mamma and Da called Deirdre, “Deirdre,” right? Then Rowan would tell them the old Celtic myth of “Deirdre of the Sorrows,” while they listened attentively.

Rowan was very proud of her Irish ancestry, and often went by herself to visit Great Aunt Eithlinn to learn more about Ireland, because Great Aunt Eithlinn had lived in Ireland for a good many years, and knew a lot about it. She told Rowan of the beautiful ruins of castles, and the magnificent cliffs. Great Aunt Eithlinn told many stories about her adventures in Ireland, but somehow, the stories always led back to the table. Oh, it wasn’t always the same story about the table, but it was always about the table.

“ Da had to look death in the eye to get this table.” Great Aunt

Eithlinn would say. “See this wood? See the deep reds? That’s wood that comes only from a small grove of redwoods in China. He had to go through China on a horse. There were no automobiles back then, you see. Da had to fight three men at once on his way to the grove, and he had to deal with being robbed twice! He went through all of that just for the table. He wanted to make the table, as a wedding present for mother. So you see, love can drive a person mad, or it can drive them to do things that they wouldn’t have dared to do normally. Da made this table with his own hands, and his love shaped every single carving on it. Or so he used to tell me.”

“ So many people have gathered at this table to celebrate, lass,” Great Aunt Eithlinn said to Rowan one time. “So many people have touched this wood, eaten on this wood. So many...” She trailed off.

“ If you listen, you will hear their voices. They will tell you of their lives, their stories, how this table influenced their lives. For it has touched and influenced every Lachlan that has ever sat at it and heard its story. The table has touched many of those outside the Lachlan clan, and they lend their voices and stories to the Lachlans’. When I am gone, my voice will join my father’s and mother’s. As will yours, when you have reached the last of your days, Rowan. Promise me, lass, that you will see to it that this table does not come to any harm. Promise me!” Great Aunt Eithlinn said with a tremor in her voice that Rowan had never heard before.

“ I-I promise, Great Aunt Eithlinn. I promise.” Rowan said quietly. “I won’t let the table get harmed, I promise!”

“ There’s a good lass. Now, go fetch me some water, please. My throat is parched.”

When Rowan was busy getting the water, Great Aunt Eithlinn whispered, “My time is coming. I’ll be joining you soon ,Da.”

“Great Aunt Eithlinn, will you tell me the story of the table one more time? I want to write it down!” Rowan said, holding a pen and pad of paper she’d pulled to her backpack.

“ Why, certainly, just bring me that glass of water, and we’ll get started,” Great Aunt Eithlinn replied, smiling.

An hour or so later, after a bowl of ice cream, Rowan was ready to go.

“ Good bye, Rowan. I love you, lass. Tell your Mamma and Da that I love them. Oh, and tell your rascal siblings, too,” Great Aunt Eithlinn said, giving Rowan a kiss. “Remember your promise.” She whispered as she turned away.

“ I will. I won’t break my promise!” Rowan said, more to her self than Great Aunt Eithlinn.

The next week, Rowan couldn’t go see Great Aunt Eithlinn because she had to do a school project. The next Tuesday, two days before Rowan usually visited Great Aunt Eithlinn, her mother got a call from the county sheriff.

When she got off the phone, her face was pale, and her eyes glistened with tears. she said, because Rowan was the only Lachlan child who was in the room at the moment.

“ Your Great Aunt Eithlinn has gone home, to God.”she said, while tears spilled down her cheeks, and the sobs racked her body.

Rowan ran to her, and put her arms around her while her own tears coursed down her cheeks. They held each other for a long time, their tears mingling together, and spilling on their shirts.

“ Oh, Momma, I’m so sorry!” Rowan said, in between sobs. “If only I had visited her today, I could have helped her.” Rowan’s words were cut off as another spasm of sobs came. Rowan’s mother was very close to Great Aunt Eithlinn, and she loved hearing her stories as much as Rowan did.

The rest of the family was told at dinner, and they took it fairly well. It seemed that Rowan and her mother were the only ones who really knew and loved Great Aunt Eithlinn.

The funeral service was held on the following Saturday. Rowan’s seven siblings were dressed in some item of black, but they weren’t really paying attention to the service. Rowan was wearing all black, and a veil, mainly to hide the tears that flowed down her cheeks.

The service ended, and as the rest of the mourners drifted towards the buffet, Rowan stayed by the grave. When the last of the mourners had left, she knelt by the grave. She just stayed there, remembering all the times that she had spent with Great Aunt Eithlinn, remembering how her face would light up when she told stories, especially ones about the table. Rowan knelt there until her brother, Gavin, came and got her.

“ Come on Rowan, we’re leaving,” Gavin said softly, putting his hand on her shoulder.

Rowan silently got up, and walked back to the car.

A few weeks later, Rowan finally convinced her mother to let her
stay the night at Great Aunt Eithlinn’s house, just so she could memorize
what the house looked like.

She rode over on her bike, with her sleeping bag on her back, and
let herself into the house.

Rowan was a little creeped out at first, but then she went to the
room where the table was, and sat down. She traced the carvings on the
table, then went and looked around the rest of the house. When she was
satisfied that nothing was missing, she went back and sat down at the

Rowan sat thinking for awhile. Then, she remembered what Great
Aunt Eithlinn had said: “If you listen, you will hear their words.” Rowan sat very quietly, and listened. She sat there in silence for about an hour and a half, and then she heard them. The voices, whispering, telling her their stories. Then, there was a familiar whisper, Great Aunt Eithlinn’s whisper, telling Rowan her story. Rowan listened, and heard her Great Aunt’s life story, every detail. When at last her story was done, another whisper told their story.

Now, Rowan has gotten old. Older than even Great Aunt Eithlinn was. Rowan still listens to the whispers, night after night, and then she tells their stories to her own grandchildren.


CATE creative writing contest winner

Janet Hansen
2065 Adobe Canyon Road
Kenwood, CA 95452
Sonoma Valley High School

Professional Writing Contest

Resolved: Forensics Promotes Academic Success

Ask any teacher—a moment of complacency will be paid for with hours of self-accusation. I began teaching Speech and Debate with the desire to pass on to my class the legacy I received from my speech teacher at the same high school many years before. I hoped my students would become powerful communicators with questioning spirits, passionate about their future as informed citizens of our great democracy. Six months ago, watching the new recruits mutter and drone through their first assignment, that goal seemed far away. Now, as members of my cheering Forensics team received their trophies in the packed university auditorium, I could savor that instant of pride in our progress. Although not every student in the large group had advanced to championship level, they had all, as writers, speakers, scholars and citizens, improved noticeably—every one of them.

I was able to bask in my success until I climbed back on the bus with the team and started work on my week’s lesson plans for my three 11th grade English classes. Immediately I was forced to compare the uneven progress of my English classes with the steady improvement of my debaters. Would an outside observer assessing my English students over the course of this year find that most had made gains in their skills which had transformed them as students? The moment was over--the answer was clearly no.

In my Speech classes we develop skills which enable students to succeed in competitive public speaking. Our Northern California league, the Golden Gate Speech Association, is affiliated with the California High School Speech Association, and the National Forensic League. Any weekend of the school year will find thousands of suit-wearing high school students giving up their Saturdays to compete for applause, glory, and cheap plastic trophies. These Speech programs are often called ‘Forensics’ because students are trained in argumentation and examination as practiced in a court of law. On the bus I set myself a research task: identify the elements of the program which make Forensics training so effective, and develop plans to incorporate these successfully into my English classes.

Like a good debater I rejected the weaker arguments. First, the teacher is not the key to Forensics success. Forensics students improve in a variety of schools with a disparate group of instructors. I work hard to prepare thoroughly and instruct effectively for both my subjects; I have a passion for both. A particular group of students is not the hidden strength--Forensics does not succeed because the classes are populated only by talented students. Although many academically successful students are attracted to debate, a high GPA does not guarantee self-confidence on stage, and students join the class from diverse backgrounds for a variety of reasons. My class includes language learners, special education students, and kids who need financial aid to buy their competition clothes. One of our most successful students in the last few years enrolled in the class as a freshman because he thought he would learn how to do autopsies. Finally, there is no powerful curriculum unique to Forensics. All of the skills developed in Forensics are delineated in the California State Language Arts Standards. Though the task is often squeezed by conflicting demands, every language arts class should be developing students’ public speaking abilities. Forensics and English classes also share an increasing emphasis on non-fiction. Forensics students, who begin with a wide range of reading skill, often develop substantially as researchers and readers over a semester. One reason is that they are reading purposefully—searching for material useful in supporting their arguments. Also, Forensics students are reading evaluatively. Opponents will challenge them on the nature and quality of their source material, and they must be able to defend it. As an English teacher, I learn from Forensics that a clear and imminent need for information increases the efficiency of the reading. Class debate, which can be used in so many ways in English, is an excellent way to encourage this type of focused reading.

Speech is a part of Language Arts, but some of the most effective elements of the Forensics program are unique. Foremost, though its importance may be exaggerated for the participants, a Forensics tournament is real. It’s obvious to students that Speech assignments don’t belong to the teacher, but to the class. Research, writing, and rehearsal are required for success in competitions. Assignment deadlines are dictated by the schedule; late work is of no use to the team. At tournaments, lack of preparation or effort is not just a matter between student, teacher, and transcript. Our league’s attitude is encouraging and supportive—students who prepare to the best of their ability feel positive about their progress, win or lose. Still, at a tournament there are dozens of adults who have given up a day off specifically to evaluate a student speaker’s performance. Hundreds of student speakers have spent weeks preparing to engage their peers in argument. A student who does not bring her personal best to a tournament learns very quickly that it’s no fun to waste people’s time.

The consequences of lack of preparation are real and immediate, and so also is the recognition for good effort and excellent work. In addition to trophies, last season my Forensics students received large checks, newspaper coverage, boxes of free pizza, and trips to Southern California. These are public and tangible recognitions of the sort seldom awarded to well-written essays in English class. Writing programs stress the importance of ‘publication’, but in the rush and pressure of the modern English classroom that time consuming step is often neglected, though many of our students are motivated by such rewards.

Speech programs have another important component: Forensics moves students into the adult community in meaningful ways. An excited student once described his morning for me. He arrived early for a phone interview with the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC; visited a middle school faculty meeting preparing for a Language Faire, and negotiated a deal with the copy store manager for a team discount. Forensics students learn how to function in the formal adult world outside of school. I have heard repeatedly from my students that the skills they developed in these experiences have been their most valuable tools for success after graduation. My fledgling program to connect English students with community book groups is a first step in this direction.

No teacher will be surprised to learn that real world recognition and adult involvement are effective in the classroom. Though downplayed by speech coaches in recent years, Forensics does have a more controversial advantage. I’ll bravely say it out loud— speech tournaments are competitive. I’ll go even further into controversial academic territory and boldly claim that competition frequently helps students improve. Competition often drives students to new achievement; it can give them the example of excellence. It teaches students how to function under pressure, and they carry that knowledge into future situations. In my English classes students now vie to create the “Most Helpful Research Poster” or to be victorious in our spirited rounds of Password vocabulary review. Winners are rewarded with candy or extra credit, and students are engaged by these games. The concept may not yet have returned to academic fashion, but a large number of our students ARE competitive, and in a balanced and good-humored atmosphere, many discover for the first time that learning can be a game.

For students not athletically inclined, Forensics also provides a chance to discover competition’s companion—teamwork. They find, to their surprise, that the football coach is telling the truth—with support from teammates, students can achieve more than expected—they can surprise everyone, including themselves. They become important members of a unit where they feel appreciated and KNOWN for their own unique and irreplaceable contributions. There is recognition of the power of team structure for developing students in burgeoning achievement programs such as AVID, and in the continuing movement to reshape large schools into smaller, more personal groups.

A learning goal for my school and many others is the eventual graduation of a good citizen, ready to take her place as a participant in our complex pluralistic society. Of all the gifts competitive speech gives to my students, none is closer to my heart than the vision of American public discourse supported by Forensics: an opponent with a different point of view is not an enemy. Disagreement is not destructive; individuality is not a threat. As teachers, our highest calling is to develop courageous leaders—students who are confident of their right, their obligation and their ability to speak out in defense of justice and truth. Forensics training nurtures this kind of student. Any curriculum which makes connections to current events, encourages open discussion, and examines challenging contemporary material will engage students and foster true democratic values. This is the essence of an American education, and in providing these opportunities, Forensics classes are the team to beat.

Janet Hansen competed in college Forensics, and after happy years at home with three children, began teaching full-time six years ago. She teaches Forensics and English at Sonoma Valley High School,


CATE Board Resolution

According to the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, writing is measured most accurately when students produce a piece of writing. California's STAR program currently requires students to write essays in fourth and seventh grades. This requirement has pushed schools to improve instruction in writing across the curriculum.

The CATE Board urges the State Department of Education to continue to require a direct writing assessment in fourth and seventh grades. What is tested is what gets taught.