Opinion

lawrence harmon

Roxbury students write magnificent book

‘A Place for Me in the World’ is a triumph of middle-school education

Mission Hill School students created linocut portraits of their interview subjects.

The state writing standards for middle-school students abound in colorless references to topic development, transitions, and “domain-specific vocabulary.’’ Nowhere does it suggest that writers in grades 6 through 8 should be capable of producing a joyous, publishable-quality book. Maybe it’s time to update the standards.

On Monday night, middle school students at the Mission Hill School in Roxbury signed copies and read excerpts from their recently published work, “A Place for Me in the World: People Talk About the Work They Love.’’ The narrated accounts and question-and-answer sessions draw on the experiences of 45 mostly local workers. It’s a nice mix that includes a ventriloquist who throws his voice into a jar, a veterinary surgeon who specializes in large animals, and a philosophical benefits coordinator at the MBTA.

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The book even manages to meet the “domain-specific vocabulary’’ challenge courtesy of a cake decorator, who shares her knowledge of “fondant” icing, and Mayor Menino, who introduces a couple of middle-school reporters to the concept of “wraparound’’ social services.

“A Place for Me in the World’’ was published by 826 Boston, an inspired, nonprofit group dedicated to teaching creative and expository writing. Its staffers and volunteers teased out the students’ career interests and matched them with interview subjects. Administrators and teachers at the project-based Mission Hill School skillfully integrated the book project into the school’s theme-based curriculum, which this year focuses on “the world of work.’’

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A lot of educators worry that the demands of preparing for standardized tests have drained creativity from the classroom. They can look for inspiration to the Mission Hill School, where practically all the work on the book took place during the school day. Even the interview subjects came to the students.

Writing books can be tiresome labor. Regardless of how much the Mission Hill students learned about specific workplaces, they learned a lot more more about their own capacity for hard work and concentration. Dozens of students spent months interviewing their subjects, conducting research, poring over transcripts of digital recordings, writing and rewriting narratives, and negotiating with a demanding, 12-student editorial board. With the help of their art teacher, the student authors even created the linocut portraits that accompany the text.

Writing is already a calling for some of the students. Seventh grader Shantel Mercedes, who interviewed a music video director, has been knocking out stories for as long as she can remember. She already possesses the obsessive curiosity of any good reporter.

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“Just give me a subject,’’ she challenged her audience during the book party.

For other students, their research prompted course corrections.

Action-hungry Andy Febres Jr., 13, had been fascinated by bouncers. But he changed his mind when his subject revealed that working the door at bars is “90 percent waiting for things to happen, 10 percent things happening.’’ Febres didn’t like the ratio.

“I think there is another job out there for me,’’ he wrote in the author reflection that appears after each interview.

Norah Leverone, 11, learned that getting hit by projectile vomit is all in a day’s work for nurses. She has shifted her focus to interior decorating, “because I like to make things look pretty.’’

From the highlighted quotes that introduce each interview to the quality of the paper, “A Place for Me in the World’’ is top-notch. That insistence on quality reflects the values of 826 Boston, part of the network of urban literacy centers co-founded by author Dave Eggers. The organization strives to provide students with the level of one-on-one attention that literary editors lavish upon their most important writers. The acknowledgments at the end of the book cite more than 60 volunteer tutors and transcribers — a lesson in itself about the importance of partners in creation.

Daniel Johnson, the director of the program, said that education-minded Boston proved to be the perfect recruiting ground for volunteers who combine a love for literature with a longing to share it with young people.

“A Place for Me in the World’’ is available at the Harvard Book Store and through www.826boston.org.

“This book is a magnificent book,’’ wrote the members of the student editorial board in the introduction. They can’t be faulted for their excitement. That’s what happens when writers uncover — bit by bit — hidden mysteries.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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