A high-school teacher struggles with issues of control and responsibility as he works with students on their literary magazine.
By Sami Miranda
“Yo, Miranda, what’s up with the magazine?”
Arturo, who had just graduated, called me the week after school ended. He wanted to find out how to keep funding Mad Images, the literary magazine he had helped run during the school year. The next day, we worked on writing a grant to bring in the needed money.
Arturo’s involvement was a far cry from my earlier efforts with a literary magazine at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, DC, where I teach ninth-grade English. Bell, which has about 700 students, has a majority Latino population and a significant number of Asian, African, and African-American students. I start my ninth-grade English courses with a number of writing workshops. Even though a number of students had issues with the mechanics of English, and some thought themselves unable to write a poem or a story, many eventually found their voices and their confidence through their writing. This made me feel as if I had to give them more of a reason to write. What better reason to write than to get published?
Two years ago, I decided to create a literary magazine so the students could not only voice their opinions and describe their realities, but could also share their writings with others outside the classroom. I also felt it would give them a chance to become involved in a student-run publication.
For the first year of the magazine, I received a small grant and called a meeting to recruit students. “Alright, here’s the deal,” I said to the 10 students who showed up. “I need students who are ready to do some work. This is going to be your magazine, so you guys need to run it.”
“Yo, you mean we decide what’s going in?” asked a student.
“Yeah, man, you decide what’s going in,” I said. “You decide what it’s going to look like, you even decide what paper it’s going to be printed on. All I’m here to do is help you with the logistics of putting it together.”
That was the biggest lie I ever told. As it turned out, I was the one who chose the writing and artwork. I was the one who dealt with issues of censorship when the administration wanted to cut every curse word, in every language. (The words were cut.) I was the one who laid out the magazine, took it to the printer, picked it up, and distributed it.
I remember looking at a copy of the magazine a couple of weeks after it had been printed and thinking to myself, “Damn, Sami, you did good.” That’s when it hit me. I had made this project mine. The students who attended the meeting at the beginning of the year liked the magazine, and some of their work was even included in it. But it was not theirs. I had taken a potentially empowering project and turned it into a showcase of what Mr. Miranda could do.
The next year I found myself sitting in a circle with a different group of students. “Last year, I put together a magazine,” I said. “This year, I’m handing it over to you. What goes in is your decision. What it looks like is your decision. Even what it’s called is your decision. Just remember that you guys are setting a standard for any magazine that comes out after this one; you’re leaving your mark on the school.”
“Yo, Miranda, so if we decide to put something in, you can’t take it out right? asked Arturo, with a let’s-see-how-he-answers-this-one grin on his face.
“Even if it has curses, or talks about weed?” Anousorn asked, his hooded eyes opening just a little wider.
“It’s your decision,” I said, knowing that censorship was an issue that would come up, as it had the year before. But there were differences now. One was that funding for the first year had come from a parent organization, and the money had been matched by the school. So we had to be very careful about what was included in the magazine. (See related article.) Funding for the second year came from an outside grant given to me as an individual and not to the school. I was also able to give students a little more freedom, because the magazine was not put together during school hours, and we were not an official school club or organization. Additionally, because we were a literary magazine and not a school newspaper, we could sidestep some privacy issues; we could print fiction, and students could have pieces published anonymously.
The students working on the magazine met with me every Tuesday after school. They included two young women and three young men. They came from Latino, African-American, and Asian backgrounds. Some were born in the U.S., others had been here for many years, and some had just arrived the year before. I watched Arturo, Luis, Pepa, Ann, and Anousorn sit in a circle and discuss standards, requirements for entries, and production logistics.
The discussion began with questions that I put out to them, such as: How many pieces can each student submit? How long should each piece be? In what languages should we accept work? What genres were we looking to focus on? What would we not accept? How were we going to make sure that the diversity of the student body was represented? How would we begin our search for submissions? What were our deadlines for collection, editing, layout, and printing? How would we inform students that their work had been accepted? The five-member student staff sat and answered the questions. Each one contributed his or her opinion. Then they decided by majority vote. This is some of what they came up with:
- Students could submit three poems each.
- Poems could only be one page in length.
- Students could submit one-page to two-page short stories or essays.
Because the staff only spoke English and Spanish, and because we did not have the equipment to translate or produce computer-generated work in French, Vietnamese, Amharic, or Chinese, we limited submissions to articles in English or Spanish.
Submissions, even if from magazine staff members, would have to be approved by at least three members of the five-member staff.
There would be none of that “lovey-dovey crap,” (a statement made by the young women in the group about writing submitted by young men) or any of that “every line has a rhyme stuff.”
The articles should be “strong” and “real” — strong when it came to the mechanics of writing but real when it came to content.
From Theory to Practice
I watched the five-member staff disagree about the literary merit of a piece that was submitted.
“Young, this needs work,” was the reaction to one article. “If he wants it in, he needs to work on that ending. Let’s send it back and ask him to resubmit.”
Another article got a thumbs up: “Yo, read this, it’s the bomb. Yo, it’s tiiiight. This is a first-page type of piece. I need two more of you to sign off on it.”
I had to push the staff members a little at first to make sure they set up standards and a system of quality control. But it was their standards and their system. They took their decisions and responsibilities seriously.
In prior discussions we had talked about the magazine’s audience. The staff decided it would be mostly students but also the school faculty, the community at large, and people who might fund the magazine in the future. In order to meet the needs of all of these audiences, they decided they needed the work in the magazine to talk to students, to let school faculty and community into the reality of the writers’ lives, but not to offend anyone so much that they would not support the work being produced.
In discussing the issue of cursing, I let students know that we wanted readers to focus on content and not on any issues that they might have with the use of profanity. This led to discussion on how much profanity was too much. The students concluded that they would allow profanity as long as it was used in dialogue or to stress a particular point, but not when there was a word that could be substituted that would be as strong or stronger. In neither case would they allow a piece if it used profanity excessively.
When the staff came across a strong piece that had what they considered an inappropriate use of profanity, they contacted the author and asked if there were another word they could use. When I heard staff members talking to student authors about profanity, I heard my own words echoed: “We want readers of the magazine to focus on content and not on any issues that they might have with cursing.”
In order to put together Mad Images, I had received a $4,500 grant from the Washington, DC, Commission on the Arts. The grant allowed me to pay for printing, pay myself and the student staff, set up readings for student writers, and bring poets into the classroom. Because the staff had been responsible in putting the magazine together, I decided that they should also organize some of the grant’s other activities.
After a couple of weeks, I began to push more responsibility their way. “You need to set up readings for the students you publish and bring in poets to do workshops,” I said. “Who’s taking it on?” All five hands went up. Ann and Pepa asked for poets to call. Arturo wrote a letter to the principal and the librarian asking for use of the library. Luis and Anosourn wrote an announcement for teachers and made passes for teachers to hand out to students going to the workshops. They greeted the poets who were invited and stood proudly in the library doorway accepting passes from students.
When the magazine was ready to go to the printer I called a meeting. “Alright guys, who can go to the printer tomorrow?”
“Miranda, I gotta work,” said one. “I can’t go. Let’s go Thursday instead.” The rest agreed, and on Thursday I walked a group of young editors and publishers to a print shop where they compared prices, scrutinized the quality of the paper, and made final decisions about the magazine. On the way home we stopped at Franklyn’s Coffeehouse Cafe, a neighborhood cafe that had raised funds for the magazine. We showed Ed, one of the owners, a draft copy. “This is really beautifully done,” he said. “Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t you guys hold a reading here when the magazine comes out.” I saw all of them look at each other.
Pepa, the most outgoing of the five, smiled, “Let’s talk about what date is good for you,” he said. The owner picked up his calendar and a date was set.
Two weeks passed, and we received word that the magazine was ready. Pepa and I borrowed a car and went to pick it up. When we reached the print shop, the printer looked at Pepa, smiled, and handed her a copy of the magazine. Pepa’s expression was one of extreme pleasure and pride. When we got back to school, the rest of the staff was waiting in my classroom. “Where is it Miranda?” “Yo, can I get my copy now?”
I looked at them and could not hide how proud I was of their work. They took their copies home, and, on Monday, Arturo came in still holding his. “Yo, man, I’ve been looking at this all weekend,” he said. “I just kept picking it up every couple of minutes. I can’t believe I did this. I need to find everybody and have them sign my book.”
That Thursday, the magazine staff gathered a group of student writers they had published in the magazine and went to give a reading. Arturo and Pepa stood in front of the small crowd gathered at the cafe and introduced themselves and the magazine: “Hello, my name is Arturo Lopez, and this is Pepa Marin. We are members of the Mad Images Literary Magazine staff, and we would like to introduce the writers we have featured in our magazine.” They introduced the first reader and sat down next to me.
“Yo, Miranda, even if we’re graduating, we still want to do the magazine,” they said. “We were kind of hoping to try and write a grant ourselves and run a magazine where we could include work from kids all over the city. We just don’t want to take your grant from you, and we sure would like to keep the title.”
Here stood a group of students who had come into my classroom one afternoon many months earlier, not exactly sure what producing a literary magazine entailed. I looked at them, smiled, and said, “It’s your decision.”