October 8, 2006

Writing in the Crime Beat

I walked the line this week with my high schoolers and had them do some writing about CRIME. Still looking for engaging writing, I stumbled across a prompt that referenced "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police" and suggested students write an article about a crime. The old text I was using gave the article, so I printed it for my students to read. I did so with trepidation, as the article seemed more graphic than most things I'd use in my classroom, but after discussing it with a colleague, she thought my overall plans for using the article were justified and that if it appeared in a newspaper for the public to read--30 years ago no less, when people were less jaded--it should be okay. We use newspapers in the classroom today, don't we?

On Monday night, crime was fresh in our minds. Not just any crime, but a mass murder of school children in Pennsylvania. This followed on the heals of a the Colorado shooting and the lesser heard story about another one in Michigan. And closer to home, we shared what details we had heard about the young gunman who was still at large after he entered a local high school armed and ready to create havoc. The students ask, "Why?" I don't have the answers as the room is buzzing with the craziness in our country in the last few days.

We read the article together and then students answered some questions regarding the structure and style of the piece. The students were extremely attentive with this piece--something I cannot say about a lot of the pieces I bring for them to read.

Some students claimed that they had already read it. Seriously? How can that be? In this wide, wide world how in the heck have they read that article when a lot of them don't even read the back of the cereal box? In their criminology class last year. Ah, I see! Well, not one person actually complained about having to read it again, and the rest had some good initial reactions. (And here's where I learned a lesson...Upon googling the title, I learn that article shook up the country and much has been written about it, including an interesting piece refuting much of what it has to say.)

"Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police" was simply a springboard of what was to come. To shift their brains back to their own knowledge base, I asked them to freewrite how they or people they know have been affected by crime. It didn't necessarily have to be violent crime. It could be theft. That's the crime that's most affected my life, and with petty stuff really. I still remember how my teddy bear was stolen by a mean little boy in kindergarten. It was later recovered in the boys' bathroom, but *YUCK* it was just never the same to me after that. And kindergarten was a long time ago! I still remember, though.

I also told them of the time when a 9 mm gun was stolen from my desk. Now that got their attention since my little story of the teddy bear is pretty lily white to many of the students. The gun wasn't real, of course, but it was modified to look real, as it was an integral prop in a play we were doing the day after it was stolen. Not having that gun really messed up our play, as we had to improvise with a tiny little starter gun that just wasn't as menacing. Everyone can related to having a crime inconvenience your life, right? But I gave them a little insight in the teacher phsyche. I was also worried to death that the student who stole it would do something dumb with it, like try to rob the convenient store or something. He was spotted waving it around "Smokers' Corner" during lunch one day. (Smoker Corner is where the students could go out of school jurisdiction to smoke. It was in plain sight, but the local police never broke it up.) All the student could agree that waving a weapon around--even if it was fake but made to look real--was not the smartest thing you could do. That's just asking for trouble. Petty as it was, my students could see that point.

They didn't spend too much their time warming up their brains because we moved on to writing an incident report. I have previously explained to my students that writing a good narrative could be a real life skill. I do have a few students who want to be police officers, so of course their abilities to write complete and full details in reports will be a major part of their jobs. For other students, I've explained this concept that if they are ever asked to write an incident report for a crime, they want to be able to do so well so that justice can be served. There are many uses of descriptive writing in real life, but they all can believe this one.

The campus officer gave me an official incident report form, which I copied for my students to use. Ever had students who couldn't fill out forms? Well, 3/4 of the form was simply lines for story of the incident, but there were other places for students to fill out information about themselves and the location of the incident. Talk about duel purpose lesson! So, I asked them to give the details of a real or imagined incident from either a victim or witness point of view. The form could also be used for "suspect" use, but I steered them away from reporting about how they have been or might be in trouble. Again, I prefaced it with saying that what they reported need not be a violent crime; furthermore, they should not feel compelled to write about uncomfortable things that may have happened to them. One student still came up to be to clarify this point, and I told her that she was welcome to write about it, but only if she was comfortable. Apparently, she really DID want to write about it.

I spent the rest of the class encouraging students to include as much details as possible, hinting at the next writing assignment by referencing the article: "How do you thing the reporter got some of his information? Was he there? Could all of the details in the article have been from interviews? Some of it sounds more official than that. Is it possible he could have read some reports and then compiled the information to come up with the article?"

Unfortunately, the next night when I asked students to trade reports and write news articles based on the information from the report, some students were at a disadvantage when they received a report with few details. It's a bummer when things don't work the way I hoped they would, but I'm still good at punting. My impromtu reporters also had to do some interviewing to draw some more details from their reticent witnesses. For a few, no amount of interviewing could make a decent article, but it was okay. We discussed where their article might appear in the paper (2 lines in the city crime section) or if would be considered big enough news to warrant space in the paper at all.

A few students stumbled over the concept of how to write a news article using the inverted pyramid style, with all the important details in the first few sentences and the rest of the details in descending importance. I had some current newspapers in the classroom to show them examples of articles, but many are so deeply entrenched in the 5-paragraph essay that they cannot easily break free to explore different forms of writing. (Gee, can't wait for poetry writing!) Other students wrote such wonderful articles I almost cried in the light of their talents!

All in all, writing about crime was engaging for my students. I was afraid that they might be disrespectful or inappropriate, but actually, the two nights were quite sedated as they took the writing of their stories very seriously.

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