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Real Stories From School:
Students’ Award-Winning Talk About Their Teachers and Their Lives

Edgar Lopez was a self-described slacker during his 8th grade year at a small Manhattan 6-12 school. When the school took his grade on an early college visit, he saw the three-day trip as an opportunity to flirt, hang out and roll his eyes at all the advice he was getting. But something one of the college student guides said snapped him to attention: the guide said the hardest thing for him about going to college was not having teachers who were close to him.

Edgar quotes the guide’s warning to the group: “I went to a small school in Manhattan like you guys, where all the teachers were supportive and gave students that extra push to succeed. They don’t do that here. All they want is their tuition money.”

Edgar tells his story in Real Men, an anthology of high-school writing that just won the prestigious Association of Educational Publishers award earlier this month for best curriculum.

When he heard what the college student said, Edgar thought about Ms. Stevenson, a teacher he depended on, who worked with him after school and rode herd on him. “She would often come by my class and give me a mad look if she saw me playing around. I knew that look meant ‘get to work,’ and I counted on it to get focused,” he writes. What would happen to him in college without her mentoring?

Edgar went to Ms. Stevenson and asked her to let him try to get his school work done without her help. She agreed to step back. The next year his average skidded 10 points. He felt horrible, he writes, sure he could not handle college. But Ms. Stevenson had not disappeared, She had stepped aside but with a watchful eye, and she counseled him to make a study plan and stick to it, work more independently, and develop persistence. Knowing she was watching, he started to grow up and stick to his plan. His grades went up.

Ms. Stevenson coached Edgar to become an independent learner (understanding “college ready” in ways far broader than Regents test prep). “Now I never expect anyone to hold my hand and do my work for me” Edgar writes. “I don’t automatically run for help anymore when I can’t comprehend something. This has helped me prepare for the real world, during college and after it.”

The Real Men prize was one of four awards that its publisher, Youth Communication, won this month. Its teen-written newspaper, New Youth Connections, won Periodical of the Year, beating out both the Wall Street Journal’s and the New York Times/Scholastic classroom magazines. It won Best Series for its January 2010 “War Torn” issue by city teens about their experiences with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Represent, Youth Communications’ magazine written by and for teens in foster care, won Best One-Theme Issue for its summer issue on teen pregnancy.

Since 1980,Youth Communications has taught writing and journalism to city teens in a way that gets their authentic voices to come through. Edwidge Danticat (“Krik Krak”) and Ernesto Quinonoz (“Bodega Dreams”) are among the writers it has developed. Its founder won a MacArthur “genius” award in 1989.

Many other stories in its recent issues are about the power of teachers to help students make life-changing decisions. Check out “Why I Loved Special Ed” in the April issue or “Saved from Solitude” in the February issue.

NY Communications founder and publisher Keith Hefner said he was amazed to learn there had been 32,000 teacher visits to the Youth Communication web site last year. Teachers use the publication to help them understand their students, he said. “Even if they’re with them all day there are things that are unexpressed,” he said. Teachers use the story content, which is timely and relevant, and they use the stories to teach writing skills.

“Tips for Teachers” guides accompany the issues. For the War Torn issue, a 12-page guide includes lesson plans, worksheets, writing contests for students, writing prompts, vocabulary lists and a Regents test practice.

The New York Times donates printing costs so that New Youth Connections is available free to staff in public high schools (in bundles of 50, 100, or 200 copies). Go here to order free copies for your school.