Writing New Paths

By Éllen Cintra, Brasília, Brazil

“[Lat.,=day], a daily record of events and observations. As distinguished from memoir (an account of events placed in perspective by the author long after they have occurred), the diary derives its impact from its immediacy, requiring each generation of readers to supply its own perspective....” Source: www.seadict.com/en/en/diary

“Diary” is one of those words whose dictionary definition is unable to suggest the intensity and importance of what it means in real life. As a typical adolescent, I wrote quite a lot of diaries, but never had I imagined how strong the feelings shared could be or how much impact diaries could have on people’s lives and bonds.

2013. That was one of my best years teaching Portuguese to freshmen in High School. I had officially started to work as a public school teacher in October 2011, and I was fascinated by everything. I had many plans. I was excited and anxious to be with students and arouse their interest in literature and reading and writing, and creating… And… And that was it. Sadly enough, it seemed like I was the only one in such a desperate and passionate quest for learning.

For the very six first months of 2012, I tried my best to bring in different topics and texts to class and have my adolescent students engage in fun and fluid conversation, but nothing seemed to work. Most of my students were not really interested in learning things I was so deeply passionate about. To me, it seemed like these teens just didn’t want to connect to anything outside their world, so I moved from exploring my topics of choice to exploring more of my students’ stories and culture, which, more often than not, happened to be quite similar to my own roots and stories. That was when I finally realized that despite the fact that not the very same things lightened up our hearts, we shared very similar stories of overcoming prejudice, fear, pain, of overcoming obstacles and exclusion, as well as stories of great moments of fun and personal growth in somewhat violent streets. And I finally felt we could, maybe, explore something together. And we did.

2013. I started the year looking for something that could help me have my students genuinely enjoy reading and writing, but I found it difficult to make them interested in activities with whichmost, and I really mean MOST, of them had always felt uncomfortable. I think it is quite strange that reading and writing might be unpleasant activities somehow, but how could these two activities be perceived differently when so many teachers have only associated reading and writing with grades – which can be very exclusivethemselves – and punishment? Unfortunately, not all of us have those sweet parents who can read, who do not work late, who make an effort to get home before we go to bed or who have actually gotten the money to spend on books. I will not say we are victims, for I have never and will never play this role, but it is quite challenging to go against all odds sometimes.

I felt that having students connect with different perspectives would be of great benefit to sharpen their perception of the world around them and help improvetheir reading comprehension, critical thinking and writing skills, as well as boost their self-confidence and self-esteem. After working with different genres and having small snippetsof reading and writing activities, we watched the movie Freedom Writers and I asked them to research about Anne Frank and Carolina Maria de Jesus and bring in the most interesting pieces of information they had found about these two writers. I chose these two individuals for their amazing life stories and for their strong will and resilience. In their own way, these women embraced their pain, suffering and fear and used writing to get the power they needed to keep on going, until they reached their very limit. They obviously contributed a lot of insights about the society they lived in, but because they were brave enough to write, they ended up getting stronger and bringing light to the lives of millions of other people who read their diaries.

After learning about these women, the scene was finally set, but would that bunch of adolescents engage into the mission of writing diaries when they barely did their homework or came to class? I couldn’t sleep well after I proposed that we make our diaries. They had to bring different materials to decorate and personalize their diaries and I had already bought all the small notebooks, different wrapping papers, special glues, gouache, glitter and brushes, and I had also collected different materials around my house to bring to class. Funny thing was that, despite my excitement and high expectations, I couldn’t really imagine how most of my students were actually dealing with the idea of freely putting their ideas down on paper. And then came the big surprise…

It happened like a miracle. Suddenly, we were all engaged in measuring and cutting paper and making OUR own diaries, with all of our personal touch and effort, in such a natural way. I could see on their faces and devoted work that, for many of them, making their own diaries was like, actually, finally having a chance to redesign their own lives – they were doing the best they wanted for themselves. In a minute, I could see tough rugged boys having fun creating their covers and touchy snappygirls getting all girly and sweet about their art. Artists bloomed like flowers after the first rain and they shone…

A mysterious new door was opening in front of my eyes. I felt it was the one nice chance for a fresh start and most students felt the same. The idea was to take their diaries home, if they wanted to, and write their ideas freely or use them in class during specific moments. For the ones who were too afraid of having their secrets discovered by a curious intruder at home, I would happily keep their diaries in my locker. The agreement was clear: I would only read and leave short comments on their diaries if they wanted me to, and one clear “go on and read” on the cover was all we needed to have this open channel. And many of them let me dive into their worlds, and dreams… and secrets.

I am not sure I can really explain how I felt, except by saying I was honored. Some of them trusted me with the painful secrets they “could not” really tell anybody else. I, as an outside reader, was able to watch their stories unfold in a series of happy and sad events; stories of their present and of their past. I wouldn’t tell anyone a single word – we had agreed on that. I would be the listener they might have been too afraid to have. I would give them the attention they wanted when they were talking. I would be the one in the room when they screamed. I would be a living diary myself. I kept on reading and leaving comments until the academic year was over. I am not a specialist in psychology or counseling, but I did my best to try to leave them a kind word, and I must confess that, at times, it was quite difficult to find the words that could really add anything, or just show I had listened to them. I cried and laughed alone with their stories. I could finally understand part of the mechanism that lightened up their hearts.

At the end of the year, the world had better writers. At the end of the year, some students could better spell words, and the ones who had devoted more time to their diaries had this different sparkle in their eyes, which I can’t really explain. Some students could better understand written texts; others could read without stuttering or chopping down ideas and sentences. Most stopped making faces when we had to write or read, and some of them started enjoying reading.

So much was different. So much had crossed my mind and filled up my heart. So much had been written and said. Again, diaries had changed perspectives. And I was not the only one to whom new doors had been opened. We could finally walk together through new paths, side by side. In silence.


Éllen Cintra currently teaches English as a foreign language at Casa Thomas Jefferson, a binational center in Brasilia, Brazil. She also teaches Portuguese at CED Darcy Ribeiro, a public high school in the outskirts of Brasília. This Fulbright scholar is a passionate educator who believes quality public education is the key for social transformation – and she will not give up her everyday fight for that.


5 thoughts on “Writing New Paths

  1. Ellen, what an inspiring piece of writing! It spells “soul”, “hope”, “respect” from line one… I did think of Freedom Writers when I started reading it. I met the real Ms. Gee in California and felt really proud of her and want she had accomplished. I feel the same now about you and your invaluable experience. Pure inspiration!

  2. Éllen, Thank you for sharing an inspiring teaching story. It was a powerful reminder that students need to make sense of reading and writing, that they need to be inspired first and foremost.
    We as teachers may understand and try to convey the more long-term, the more complex objectives of reading and writing, but especially younger students need to be engaged in the moment in order to enjoy learning. And connecting to them seems to be one way to start that engagement.
    Furthermore, when students are able to work with tangible objects, create something new—-while also sharing their thoughts and ideas through writing—-they seem to find the latter activity more meaningful and interesting. I teach writing in college, and I tend to assume that I can’t (or don’t need to) do anything like this, but after reading your story, I am thinking about comparable ways to engage students in the classroom.
    Thanks again.

  3. When I first reviewed this post, I thought it was amongst the most heartwarming, inspiring and beautiful posts we’d had the pleasure of publishing at EdContexts – thank you for writing it.
    I’ve also been thinking a lot about private conversation spaces and the benefits these afford for significant learning and behaviour change (in a ‘safe’ environment). What I think you’ve managed to achieve here is to create such a space – a space of trust where guarded teenagers feel comfortable enough to share personal details that may be difficult to voice in other contexts or situations. That’s invaluable for the type of critical learning that supports significant behaviour and mindset change. Very powerful!

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