Teaching Black Teens to Write the Books They Read

As a high-school English teacher in Baltimore, LaQuisha Hall published more than 100 student authors.

Olivia Locher

Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

LaQuisha Hall has spent 17 years educating young Black minds in Baltimore—the past five years at Carver Vocational-Technical High School—and as a teacher she always did whatever she could to foster a love of reading, writing, and books. Frustrated by the district’s English curriculum, she raised $500 to $600 a year to stock her in-class library with young-adult literature tackling race, culture, and identity. Spurning reading logs, she invited published YA authors into her class to show students that the books they read are books they can write. And she always encouraged them to choose their own books and generate their own questions. In July, she transitioned to a new role as an instructional coach for the Baltimore City Public Schools—but she intends to keep advocating for Baltimore kids.

After she started teaching English at Carver in 2015, it wasn’t long before Hall decided she wanted to publish her students’ writing. “Being a published author myself … I wanted to give my students that same opportunity, because so many of them carry powerful stories,” she told me. “In the education world, we always talk about giving students a voice. What does that actually look like?”

​This article was adapted from Melinda Anderson’s new book.

She had some misgivings: Could students meet her deadlines? Could they slog through the process of editing and rewriting? Could her students in special education keep pace with the general-education students? But her doubts, along with the students’ enthusiasm, fueled her desire to publish and find out. “That lit a fire under me … to know that I gave [them] an opportunity that they may not have had if they were in someone else’s class,” she said.

The first book, published in 2016, began as a writing assignment on the American Dream. After Hall’s juniors read the Zora Neale Hurston classic Their Eyes Were Watching God—and wrote about the presence, or lack thereof, of the American Dream in the novel—she invited them to write about the pursuit of prosperity and success through a modern-day lens. The result was One Nation, One Heart, winner of that year’s national Indie Author Legacy Award for Youth Authors of the Year. The anthology blends the tales of fictional characters striving for upward mobility with real-life stories of students’ relatives and friends.

Getting to that end product wasn’t always easy; self-publishing students requires a lot of trial and error, Hall said, and enormous amounts of patience. Moving from concept to writing and through many stages of revisions, she worked with the students, talking them through writer’s block, motivating them when the project felt daunting, and bringing them across the finish line.

The actual mechanics of self-publishing were easier. Hall published the book on her students’ behalf and listed it on Amazon. Students were able to purchase books at cost, resell them to family and friends, and keep the earnings from the sale of each paperback. “I wanted them to see that what you’re learning in school matters, and you can make money from that,” Hall said. “You don’t have to work at McDonald’s. You don’t have to seek out risky and harmful ways to make money. Keep writing.”

While the debut book was an offshoot of the curriculum, Hall pivoted after students expressed a strong interest in telling their own stories. Going forward, she gave them a theme and asked them to write a personal narrative. Three more books would follow: in 2017, A City Unspoken: A Dose of Our Reality, detailing students’ experiences and lessons learned growing up in Baltimore; in 2019, I Am the C.E.O.: Chief Executive Overcomer, a compilation of inspiring accounts of strength and perseverance; and, this year, See Me with Clarity, a poetry collection shattering stereotypes and misperceptions of Baltimore youth.

Poetry was a new genre for the student authors, who were guided by Hall to find metaphors in literature and pinpoint ones they could use to discuss how society views them and how they want to be seen. In one poem, a student writes of feeling like the bedroom inside a house—longing for relaxation, but often finding no tranquility.

A room is for sleeping,
Do you feel comfort?
Sometimes I don’t,
At night recovering.

The door is open,
I’ve recovered.
No more rules, no more alone.
I’m walking out,
To conquer the unpleasant world!

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Hall’s publishing plans were upended. Before schools closed in March, the majority of Hall’s 11th graders wanted to participate; by the time See Me with Clarity went to print in May, all of her juniors had withdrawn. Completing the project was suddenly too much to juggle for the older teens, who had more online assignments and out-of-school obligations to navigate. Hall regrets the missed opportunity, but she feels proud that her ninth graders came together and published at such a difficult time.

Some of Hall’s students who became published authors as high-school freshmen. (Courtesy of LaQuisha Hall)

“I think that it really gives students a purpose for learning,” says Whitney Ward Birenbaum, explaining the power of publishing. Birenbaum, who was a middle-school language-arts and humanities teacher in Baltimore for 13 years, is now the executive director of CHARM: Voices of Baltimore Youth. The nonprofit, which she co-founded in 2018, publishes a student-produced literary-arts magazine and sponsors Saturday workshops where young writers can develop their skills. “Our society sends a lot of messages that [high schoolers] are too young and their voices don’t matter,” she told me. “Giving them an audience is empowering.”

She witnessed this in 2019 while coaching Hall’s young authors to publication. Working with students in small groups, she offered tailored feedback on their personal essays and was “humbled and blown away” by the depth and complexity. “One boy wrote about living through a fire and having to move to a new place, and talked about how [through] that experience … he saw the social injustices of housing inequality in Baltimore,” she recounted. “To see a young person write so personally and painfully, and also think about the societal impact, was really incredible.”

Student publishing spans a wide range of in-school and out-of-school activities, such as writing for yearbooks and journals; entering writing contests; posting student work in online spaces; placing op-eds and letters to the editor in local newspapers; and, as Hall has shown, producing bound and printed books. This last form isn’t as common—especially not to the degree Hall has embraced it, publishing more than 100 student authors. What the options have in common is that they shift the focus from students as passive absorbers of information to students as producers of content and knowledge—and transform the role of school in their lives.

“School [becomes] a place where you make something … not just where you consume what other people have made,” says Tanya Baker, director of national programs for the National Writing Project, a group working to improve the teaching of writing in schools. Baker emphasizes that far too much of student writing is driven by assessments, leaving too few opportunities for young people to be inventive. “Teachers get a lot of training in teaching young people, ‘Write so I know that you understood the book,’ rather than, ‘Write to create something new in the world.’”

Books published by Hall’s students (Courtesy of LaQuisha Hall)

Reports on student publishing have confirmed Baker’s observations. One study of sixth-grade language-arts students found that publishing was an effective method of connecting students to the community—and a means to positively affect their attitudes toward writing: “Characteristically unmotivated and motivated students alike were proud to have their pieces on display at a popular community bookstore,” the authors found. It “motivated students to work hard, and generated a deeper appreciation for writing in general.”

Those findings dovetail with Hall’s experience in the classroom. One memory stands out above all others. Philip (whose real name is not being used, to protect his privacy) was a football player and big man on campus. “He was one of those guys that walks down the hall and everyone high-fives him,” she recalled. He also struggled with reading and writing. Hall worked with Philip throughout the school year, and soon, she said, he was determined to be part of the book project: “I told him, ‘You know it’s going to be a lot of writing and a lot of work. Not that you can’t do it, but you can’t get frustrated and shut down when I ask you to do it again.’ And he looked at me with such fierceness and said, ‘Yes, I’m going to do this!’”

The day of the book signing, Philip sat at the table with his co-authors. Hall still remembers his words: “I was told by my dad that I needed to make sure I played football, because I wasn’t good for anything but sports,” Philip said, with tears welling up in his eyes. “My father didn’t believe in me,” he continued, but “thanks to Mrs. Hall, I’m a published author now, and my dad can’t even say that!” It was a goose-bumps moment that left Hall overcome with emotion. “It kind of blew my mind … this boy wrote three stories, but he’s constantly getting phone calls home about what he can’t do in education, and what support he needs.”

Hall’s blueprint for student success was recognized across the city when she was named Baltimore City Schools Teacher of the Year in 2018. And she has emerged as a sought-after authority on youth voice in literacy, serving on CHARM’s advisory board and presenting at the annual flagship conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. She savors her memories of seeing Black youth in Baltimore pick up entrepreneurial skills by selling self-published books for a profit—and she still feels satisfied knowing she helped release their greatness into the world.

“It gave the students a fulfillment that they don’t often get in school,” Hall said. “I used to tell them, ‘You haven’t even graduated yet, but when you walk across the stage, you will walk across as a published author.’ That’s impactful for a community of kids that people tend to give up on.”

This article was adapted from Melinda Anderson’s new book, Becoming a Teacher.

This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.