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?”
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,
No more rules, no more alone.
I’m walking out,
To conquer the unpleasant world!