KU News Service

Study: Teen mothers' writing offers clues on reaching 'at risk' students

Thu, 05/03/2012

Heidi Hallman

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LAWRENCE — There’s an old saying about how writers should write about what they know. But what happens when the writers are pregnant and new teen mothers going through an experience new to them and one society at large often looks upon negatively? A University of Kansas professor has published a study examining the writing of students at a school for pregnant and parenting teens, what it says about those students’ identities and how teachers can work with students deemed “at risk.”

Heidi Hallman, assistant professor of curriculum and teaching, spent 18 months working with students at Eastview School for Pregnant and Parenting Teens. She found their writing often responded to and refuted common social perceptions of teen mothers. Her study was published in the journal English in Education.

“This school’s approach was to address motherhood and what it means,” Hallman said. “I think that was very empowering for the students, but they did realize they would always be battling against certain perceptions.”

Eastview works with pregnant teens and new mothers as well as other students deemed at risk of not finishing high school. The curriculum is developed around the challenges the students face while balancing it with traditional methods.

Hallman, who teaches future English teachers, explored the students’ writing through the concepts of genre, dialogism and heteroglossia. Genre is commonly thought of as the category of a piece of writing, such as a poem or essay. One of the students showed a tendency to not only understand the traditional roles, but merged poetry and essay with music when, during an assignment, she wrote about the struggles of a teen mother by revamping the lyrics for a popular song by R&B artist Usher.

The theory of dialogism contends that all language is produced in response to earlier language. The common conception of the teen mom started appearing in the 1970s, Hallman said, and largely persists today as youths who are at risk, underprivileged, poor and often minorities. Students at Eastview showed a propensity for responding to societal perceptions through their writing.

Heteroglossia is the idea of “many voicedness.” The students displayed an innate understanding of the concept, as they are continually in a push-pull relationship. Their writing reflected that, regularly referencing the assumptions and judgments they endured, while also addressing their own hopes for the future.

“Teen moms are often thinking, ‘I’m always going to be the girl who had a baby at 16,’” Hallman said. “Then there are the other girls who followed the ‘normal’ path.”

Students at Eastview provided not only a look at their identity as teen mothers but information for the community. Through their assignments they wrote letters to the editor refuting arguments that a school for pregnant teens should not be publicly funded and for other community audiences.

Hallman argues that examining the pregnant and new teen mothers’ writing provides clues on how to more effectively teaching writing as a skill to all students who might be labeled as at risk or as struggling learners. Adolescence is a time when all students, not just those at risk, are negotiating what it means to be an adult, and their writing provides cues for educators to reach out to them individually and improve their education.

“Opportunities to confirm the link between writing and identity exist as crucial sites for educators’ examination, as these are the authentic activities that frequently stress student action and response in the classroom,” Hallman wrote. “Calling attention to the success of such authentic writing activities, like those highlighted in this case of Eastview students’ writing, can assist us, as educators, in refiguring dominant models of instruction for those students who are frequently labeled most ‘at risk.’”

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