Harriet Riley, a free-lance writer focusing on nonfiction and grant writing, is teaching her third year at WITS

As WITS writers, we all use weekly rituals with our students – Author’s Chairs, Power Writing, Writers Toolboxes and more. This year I’ve started a new and powerful ritual to end each class. The credit for this tool goes completely to Michele Kotler and Community Word Project who participated our August orientation workshop.

At the close of each session with my students, after I foreshadow the next week’s activities, we chant together: “I have a voice. My voice is powerful. My voice can change the world.”

This has become an important ritual with my sixth graders at Briarmeadow Charter School. It started as a call and response. I said a line and the students repeated it. But last week, my sixth visit to the school, I noticed that the students chanted the words along with me, ending with a rousing “MY VOICE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.” They say it, and they believe it. I see it in their writing as they relate their belief in their own power. Their words are strong and fearless.

We recently completed a poem based on George Ella Lyons’ “Where I’m From.” Like most teachers, I learn the names of the “louder” students first. There was one particular student that I hadn’t really taken the time to get to know – she was quiet and well behaved and hadn’t done anything to stand out in class. Also she was one of four girls in my two classes with the same first name. She had wire-rimmed glasses that hid her face, always wore her hair straight back in a tight ponytail and didn’t smile too much. She had written a very rough draft of her “Where I’m From” poem the previous week that needed a lot of revision. As I was walking among the students during our re-write time, I stood shock still when I saw her work. I read it to myself.

This is Where I’m From

By Mariam, 7th grade

I am from an endless path that runs into sunset.

I am from the jasmines blooming.

I am from the buzz of a busy bee.

I am from the bustling, bizarre crowds of a city.

I am from the sweet taste of sugarcane.

I am from the sound of the wolf howling at the moon.

I am from the sound of the guitar’s gentle strum.

I am from the laughter of children playing outside in the blazing hot sun.

I am from the waves crashing against each other at the sandy beach.

I am from the silent scent of goodness in the cool air.

I am from the enchantment of love.

I am from the creak of a stable door being opened from above.

I am nothing less then a kick of dust.

I am nothing more than a big blizzard.

I am a child who races the dark night.

Who was the girl who wrote these strong and powerful words and what lay beneath her polite surface? She had some deep, world-changing things to say and I almost missed her. I will definitely be getting to know her in the year ahead and much more about my students because they WILL change the world. Sometimes taking the time to state the obvious – “I have a voice” – and turning it into a cheer can make a difference and actually empower students to use earth-shaking, world-changing words.

by Harriet Riley, Writers in the Schools

WITS Writer Harriet Riley is a free-lance writer focusing on nonfiction articles and grant writing. She has taught undergraduate writing classes at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, where she lived for 11 years before moving to Houston in 2007. She has also worked as a non-profit director, hospital marketing director, and newspaper reporter. She has her M.A. in print journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and her B.A. in English and journalism from the University of Mississippi. She enjoys reading, running, and traveling with her family. This is her third year with WITS.

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