A Happy, Good News Story

In which we visit one of my all-time favorite programs and learn the surprising reason for its success

A student in the Andover Bread Loaf writing program in Lawrence shares her work.

It’s field trip time, reader, and I’ve got a special treat in store for you today: an actual good news story. So turn that frown upside down and climb aboard—we’re headed to Lawrence, Massachusetts, a city not exactly known for good news.Today’s destination has nothing to do with the grand experiment in education reform that’s currently underway on both sides of the Spicket River (remember this is a good news story). Instead we’re here to drop by one of my all-time favorite programs: Andover Bread Loaf—a writing workshop led by and for students in the Lawrence Public Schools.

Write like you mean it
First a note about our location: we’re hanging at El Taller, a café and book shop that was opened last year by a local English teacher and quickly become a cultural hub for young writers. (Sorry reader, no adult bevs available here—for those you’ll have to swing by Taller’s sister restaurant Café Azteca). And by young, I mean really young. The students who’ve come out tonight to share their poetry and prose range from 10 years old up through high school. Most of the adults in the room, meanwhile, can still recall exactly how it felt to stand in front of that microphone for the first time; they’re Andover Bread Loaf grads.

Meet the writing leaders
The people in charge of tonight’s event are students too—some of the 20-30 *writing leaders* that go through the program each year. With the help of Bread Loaf’s extensive network of teachers in Lawrence, the writing leaders get enough mentoring and support to run monthly writing workshops and special events like this one. Writing leaders aren’t all stars or super star test takers, by the way. In fact, some of them are still learning English, a not uncommon phenomenon in an overwhelmingly immigrant city. They’re kids who have a story to tell and want to help other kids—who look like them, who hail from the same tough neighborhoods as them—tell their stories.

Show us your data
But enough with the feel-good stuff and the heart warmery already—you want to see some data. You want to talk outcomes. You want something we can measure. Well here’s a data point for you: in the three decades that the program has been around, close to 100% of the writing leaders—more than 600 in all—have not only gone to college but completed college, and this in a city where the high school drop out rate has long hovered around 50%. Program founder Lou Bernieri (full disclosure: he’s a friend of mine) says that there’s no secret formula to Bread Loaf’s success. *The writing leaders leave Lawrence as leaders. They go to college already having found their voices and they feel at ease in a world where literacy is really important.*

Like #edreform, only the opposite
There is something else about Bread Loaf, though, that makes it unique in these times of achievement gap fever. You see, the education reform movement starts from the premise that it’s not just our urban public schools that have failed but our cities too, that neither has anything to offer. The only hope, goes this line of thinking, is to import #excellence by the truckload—read smart, mostly white recent college grads—to teach and tutor in hopes that their Ivy Leaguishness will rub off on the students in cities like Lawrence. Bread Loaf assumes the opposite: that the most powerful example students in a hard-scrabble city can see is that of their peers leading and succeeding.

Coming home
There’s another metric by which Bread Loaf is, at least to my way of thinking, a happy, good news story. An astonishing number of writing leaders have come back to Lawrence after college. They’re in the schools as teachers and administrators, they run nonprofits and local businesses—in other words, they’ve come back to Lawrence to lead. All this, by the way, on the slenderest of budgets; there are no Subaru ads for Bread Loaf; no Walton Family Foundation largesse. With a little more dough, Bread Loaf could reach far more Lawrence students and launch its next big thing: Teach Lawrence, an effort to help locals—including immigrants who were professionals back in the Dominican Republic but work at service-industry jobs here—train to become teachers.

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6 Comments

  1. Great story. I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of the program before; I guess the Boston Globe’s education writers couldn’t find the cafe.

    At the bilingual school in Cambridge where I used to teach we had a great writing program. Our students regularly won city-wide awards for their poetry and most of them had learned English as their second or third language. They completely “got” figurative language. They didn’t always do so well on the MCAS. Hmm, which is more important: answering questions “correctly” on a test or demonstrating talent on the real thing?

  2. Let’s wear both shoes on both feet, eh?

    How does ABL plan to serve students who don’t want to be in the program? Are the impressive outcomes for its participants a function of the program, or are kids who are likely to seek out literacy/leadership opportunities to begin with more likely to go to/succeed in college? Can’t we assume that if their parents are involved enough to make this opportunity available to them, that they’re much more likely to thrive? And what about the students who show up to one event or workshop and then transfer back to video games? Are those students counted among the successful college grads?

    Wait. I retract all of the above questions. I just noticed they’re infuriating/missing the point/cynical/unfair.

    1. Thanks as usual for your perspective. I must confess to being utterly baffled this time around, though. I focused on the writing leaders aspect of Andover Bread Loaf because I think it’s a terrific program and because of its unusually high college completion rate–which is a topic of great interest these days. I also think the project’s perspective–that a city, its students, and yes, even its teachers, have something to offer–is worth thinking about. I could just as easily have written about the thousands of kids that Bread Loaf reaches each year in writing programs that are offered in public and charter schools throughout the city. I think you’re saying that ABL functions like a high-performing charter school. I’ll put this question to ABL’s director and some of its students and teachers and see what they think. Stay tuned! Jennifer

      1. Oh, goodness–back to the drawing board, Ross! I wish more charters drew lessons from ABL. I spent a good 30 minutes today reading about ’em after I navigated away from your blog. The YouTube vids gave me teacherly tingles!

        My ineffectively written message above was trying to ask some of the questions that do get asked of charter schools who like to tout “100% college acceptance”–a misleading figure in most cases. It’s obvious that ABL is effective and totally deserving of many vigorous leaping high fives. I hoped my tongue-in-cheek questions (“wait, what about the kids that leave ABL!”) would perhaps give people a moment of pause when they ask the same question of charter operators. Is it a valid critique? Definitely. Does it tell the whole story? Hardly.

        Is my clarity now “meeting expectations?” Can you embed a rubric somewhere? 😀

    2. I’ve attended Bread Loaf consecutively for seven years now, beginning in sixth grade. My parents were not involved by any means when it came to ABL. My sixth grade English teacher was aware of my fondness for writing and gave me an application to attend, and she really pushed me to go for it. The opportunity is given by the Lawrence public schools and the wonderful middle school teachers who work with their students to make sure they are given the chance to succeed. It’s not mentioned in the article, but ABL also offers two buses to bring students to and from Andover every day, which is especially helpful if your parents can’t manage a ride.
      Also, the writing leaders do call the homes of students who do not show up to a.) inform the parent that their child was absent and b.) encourage the child to return if they are unsure about coming back.
      I understand that you are simply “playing the devil’s advocate” and the points you make open the topic up for discussion which is great. I felt it was necessary to give my two cents in hopes of providing a more clear picture. Absolutely we cannot prove one way or another if ABL is responsible for its students continuing their education through college. Personally, I was planning on attending college regardless, but ABL definitely creates an incentive. Rather than comparing it to a charter school, I would say ABL is more like “Big Brothers Big Sisters”. We (the writing leaders) treat the students as if they are our own siblings, even if only for three weeks or so, and for some kids that is exactly what they need: somebody to look up to. I have made countless friendships through Bread Loaf that I carry with me to this day. I always say that I have found a second home here, and I am not the only one with that opinion.

      Also, as far as serving students who do no wish to/ cannot attend – ABL also hosts various workshops throughout the year which do not require the commitment of a three-week program, many of these being held at middle schools across the city, making it very easy for everyone to get involved. Of course after seven years I speak with a little bias, but I think that, to at some extent, I know what I am talking about.

      I am glad that you brought this up because we can never ask too many questions!

  3. A perfect read for a Monday morning after the NPE Conference. Great work, Lou and I hope to read about Teach Lawrence soon!

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