The Eye of the Storm: A Writing Group for Middle School Girls
Meg J. Peterson
Plymouth State College
"People placed in a room stares questions what do you do when you're not here? Sweaty palms, concentration please speak up. I wonder why you are so timid. Sleepy, let's get psyched up-talk about our fears of writing. Do you think we are good writers? Food-healthy snacks, can we set a limit? Response, I know you can say more. I guess I feel awkward. I feel as if I am in a waiting room and I don't know anyone. Quiet voices, loud stories, and a sense of fear. How to make that fear subside?"
This pre-service teacher's free write captures some of the feeling of our girls' writing group. When a colleague and I started this group, we had envisioned an easy mentoring relationship between experienced and less experienced writers. Bringing together middle school girls and young women who were studying to be English teachers for a weekly writing group proved more intense and challenging than we could ever have envisioned.
In her best-selling book, Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher has a lot to say about the junior high school years, and not much of it bodes well for girls. She makes clear that this is the time when girls make crucial decisions about who they will become. She states, "Adolescence is the most formative time in the lives of women. Girls are making choices that will preserve their true selves or install false selves. The choices have implications for the rest of their lives," (p. 72). She likens the junior high years for girls to passing through a hurricane: "No girls escape the hurricane. The winds are simply too overpowering . The resisters and fighters survive, when it's storming, it feels like it will never end, but the hurricane does end and the sun comes out again," (p. 280). She tells us that most of what she knows of girls at that age, she has learned from older girls who are able to look back on their experience and articulate what was happening to them. "In junior high, the thoughts, feelings and experiences are too jumbled to be clearly articulated. The trust level with adults is much too low. Girls are in the midst of a hurricane and there's not much communication with the outside world," (p. 73).
In her work with young girls, Carol Gilligan noted that they begin to grow silent at about age 11. She writes, "Girls at this time have been observed to lose their vitality, their resilience, their immunity to depression, their sense of themselves and their character," (p. 2). In the introduction to a follow up to Gilligan's original work, Taylor, Gilligan and Sullivan write, "Women were perhaps the best protection against the risk of disconnection and psychological disassociation. A resonant relationship with a woman, meaning a relationship where a girl can speak freely and hear her voice clearly resounded as a voice worth listening to and taking seriously-a voice that engages the heart and mind of another and calls forth response-was associated with psychological health," (p. 4). The authors note that this connection was especially valuable when it came from women who spoke from their own experiences. "The voice of women's experience affords a crucial resonance for girls, providing girls with an echo-a compass or gyroscope for centering themselves in what can otherwise be a disorienting and dangerous time," (p. 4). First person accounts by women of their experience were especially valuable for girls, as "women's voices can be psychologically life-saving in providing an internalized counter to what otherwise becomes an almost necessary process of dissociation that drains girls' vitality and energy," (p. 5).
Merryl Reichbach and I began our writing group for girls in the spring of 1999 with this research in mind. Merryl is the director of the Women's Center at Plymouth State College, a trained counselor and an adjunct instructor of composition and I am a writing teacher responsible for the teacher-training program within the English department. We decided to start a pilot program at a local middle school which would bring together middle school girls with an interest in writing and college students who were studying to become English teachers for grades five through twelve. We hoped to provide role models for these young girls of young women who had weathered the storm, and had come through it valuing themselves, not for their physical attributes or their popularity, but for their joy in reading and writing, in using their minds. We hoped to show the younger girls, through the experiences of older women as revealed in their writing, how these older women have negotiated the conflicting demands of self and society.
What we learned was that the experience with the younger girls enabled the older ones to reconnect with the sometimes-painful memories of their younger selves and begin to come to resolution about them. For the younger girls, writing provided a way to stay in contact with the outside world. At this age, their writing gives us a window into the turbulence of their lives.
Students in my upper level course in teaching writing are required to complete 15 hours of service. The girls writing group was one of several options for service projects which included working with writing classes at another middle school, editing and publishing a literary magazine, substitute teaching and doing writing tutoring. Five college-age women elected to participate in the girls writing group our first year. In that initial group, we invited seven girls in grades five through eight to participate. The girls were selected on the basis of teacher recommendations. We asked teachers to suggest girls who loved to write and who were not heavily involved in other areas, such as sports. We wanted the kinds of girls who would not necessarily be popular or receiving recognition in other areas. Six of the seven accepted our invitation-two in each of grades five through seven. We did not have an eighth grader.
In the following years we invited all of the girls in grades five through eight who were interested to fill out applications to join the group. They continue to work with five college women, one of whom was in the original group.
The beginning of our first workshop was somewhat chaotic and unsatisfactory, but we quickly learned to provide a structure that worked for all of us. The second week we worked with the girls to formulate a list of "guidelines" in order to help us all feel more comfortable sharing our work and being with each other. At first we needed to refer to the guidelines quite frequently, but then they gradually faded in importance. We alternate weeks between doing writing activities and having a writing workshop where everyone is expected to bring in some of their work to share. At first we met entirely as a large group. In our second and third years we have experimented more with splitting the group into same-age smaller groups for specific activities, with good success.
We were surprised, even after all of the reading we had done about girls' development, on how soft and strained girls' voices are, even as early as the fifth grade. We frequently have to ask the girls to speak more loudly and more slowly when they are reading their work. Their voices are hesitant and tentative. One of the girls in our first year was so traumatized by the requirement to share, that she had to drop out of the group. Many cannot begin to read without first trying to explain their work, or saying that they expect that no one will understand. But the work itself is a strong statement about who they are and the things that are most important and closest to them.
The girls' writing, especially their fictional pieces, is very revealing of the issues they are struggling with. In fact, the writing was so unselfconsciously personal that we often found it hard to respond to as writing. These girls (both the big and the small) wrote of things very close to their hearts, to themselves.
One big theme in the younger girls' writing is inclusion and exclusion, friendships, loyalty and belonging. They have frequently written about groups-almost all of these groups are exclusively female, excluding and victimizing "outsiders". They reveal their preoccupation with appearance in their extensive descriptions of what their characters are wearing and in their inclusion of trips to the mall. In most of these stories the girls taunt the victim in subtle ways. "That day we were viscous. I loved every moment of it! In LA we passed notes, two of which we intended her to read. In math we snickered every time she got the answer wrong. We didn't sit with her at lunch. In social studies we tripped her several times. In music we made some remarks about her clothes and when we got back, we wrote a note, which she got, that her locker needed air freshener." The interesting thing about these stories is that most of them end with the tormentors feeling remorse, or some kind of avenging action on the part of the narrator to stop the abuse. In one such story, which a fifth grader wrote in the form of diary entries in a club book (the clubs in her story were the "Skyline Client" and "Pocket Calculator"), the girl who is being tormented disappears and moves away to another town. The narrator reflects back as an adult on what she learned from the incident and how badly she feels about having tormented someone. "We never saw or heard of Mitzi again. What happened in the seventh grade still haunts me to this day. I NEVER suggested any clubs after that."
Often they are able to use fiction as an outlet for the anger they do not express directly. One of the seventh graders wrote a story she apologized for because she "wrote it when she was in a bad mood". In the story she assumes the persona of a young married woman whose mother is coming to visit her. She reflects back on her relationship with her mother as she burns the chicken she is preparing for her. She ends the piece by pulling the smoldering chicken out of the oven, and saying, "Eat that, Mom!"
Sometimes they express themselves more symbolically in fiction. One of the younger girls wrote a story in which the female protagonist shoots foxes. She chases down the head fox, "Old Tyler", about whom she has had nightmares where he eats out her stomach and she looks down in her dream to see that she has no stomach. (This may be related to the fact that the girl's mother had recently lost over 100 pounds on a liquid diet). The protagonist finally conquers the fox and then lets him go when she is confident she has him under her power.
Personal narrative could be more difficult for them. One girl wrote about her brother being sent away to a special school, but was unable to share it with the group. She had to destroy the writing because "I wrote about something bad." When one of the students reassured her that writing about bad things could be positive, she said it wasn't her writing that was bad, but the experience itself One girl, who had been hoarding the snacks that we shared with the group, wrote about how safe she used to feel when her father would rock her in a swing when she was a little girl. The poem contained the rhythms of the swing itself. She was able to use the poem to connect with her father, with whom she planned to build a tree house over the school vacation.
One thing we were not prepared for was the way in which the older girls also used their writing to deal with similar issues. One wrote a poem dealing with her feelings about being the middle child, "the `it', like the undefined other." Another wrote a story in which the teenage main character had stopped talking at the age of ten after her father died of cancer. The girl stopped talking and never spoke, even in class. Her teachers learned never to call on her. But she would sometimes record her own voice when she was home alone, just to be sure she still had one. "It was a calm voice. It was the kind of voice that should make people want to listen to her." In one of the most poignant lines of the piece, she writes, "She just knew no one minded not hearing her." The author seemed unaware of how her story spoke volumes about her own loss of voice and longing to be heard.
Some students expressed these feelings more directly and consciously, writing personal narratives of how they had never been able to express themselves when they lived at home, or stories of specific incidents that shaped their growing up. One of my students wrote in her journal, "I think that I have been learning so much about the dynamics of these girls. They bring me back to that phase in my life and through each one of them, I see a little of me." This kind of feeling led to a fascination with the girls in whom they were beginning to see reflections of themselves. Another wrote, after expressing her concern that one of the girls was gathering the snacks she had brought to eat secretly, "Maybe she was just fooling around, but it just worried me. I really liked that girls' writing a lot!! They have so much to offer. I mean you could write a story just about each of them. Actually that would be really neat." Another started her paper in response to the service project in this way, "It has been a long time since I explored the feelings I experienced in adolescence I have dealt with many things in trying to understand myself, men, women, and my place in society. I felt like adolescence was far behind me. But the minute I entered the girls writing group, everything changed. Adolescence came sweeping back into my memory like an old boyfriend I never wanted to see again." She goes on to say, "The truth is, this has probably been the best experience that could have happened to me. The fact that I am going to be a teacher is one reason and the other is that I seemed to forget the process of becoming a conscious woman in today's society. These issues were put far into my subconscious, but they were there every time I looked in the mirror and said, "How fat!" I realize now that this comes from that dark time in every girl's life where she has to deal with being a girl in a boys' world."
My students made connections with their class work in gratifying ways. One student wrote in response to a chapter in her textbook on the language as expression approach to teaching English, "It just dawned on me that this is exactly what we are trying to do with the girls' writing group! Middle school is the time when you first start to become aware of society's ideals and your own imperfections. Kids need to find an outlet where they can hold on to who they are and not become lost in the shadows of the ideal." Mary Pipher encourages her clients to write. She notes that, "Writing their thoughts and feelings strengthens their sense of self. Their journals are a place where their point of view on the universe matters" (p. 255). Similarly, Maureen Barbieri writes, "Girls need to write. They need to share their writing and feel its impact on others," (p. 44). One of the seventh graders in our group wrote in her evaluation of the group, that she "finally got to share [her] stories and ideas without embarrassment." Another wrote that the best thing about the group was "getting to see other people's writing. It gave me so much inspiration and courage."
We found that both the college women and the girls in our group needed to write in order to express their feelings and began to make sense of their worlds. The writing group allowed the older girls to see their younger selves reflected back to them and to bring a new perspective to the storms of adolescence from which they had only just themselves emerged (and not entirely unscathed). Interestingly, although all of the college students were involved in creative writing courses and wrote regularly, the group of middle school girls seemed to inspire their writing most. They were writing primarily for this group, although they might share the same pieces in their other classes. Some continue to write pieces specifically for the group, although they are no longer involved in writing classes.
Our group is now in its third year and has grown to include 12 girls. Some of the girls we worked with our first year have moved on to high school. A teacher there has contacted me about expanding the program to that level. This group continues to evolve in intriguing ways. We came together as strangers and have written our way into each other's lives.
Barbieri, Maureen. (1995). Sounds from the heart: Learning to listen to girls. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Gilligan, Carol. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pipher, Mary. (1994). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of adolescent girls. New York: Ballentine Books.
Taylor, Jill McLean, Carol Gilligan and Amy M. Sullivan. (1995). Between voice and silence: Women and girls, race and relationship. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Reference Citation: Peterson, Meg J. (2001) "The Eye of the Storm: A Writing Group for Middle School Girls." WILLA, Volume 10, p. 33-36.