Teaching at a school for unmarried mothers had its challenges. Back in the 1980s, I taught at Terra, an inner-city Edmonton school. Four teachers and four social workers served 15 young women aged 12 to 19 years. All were pregnant or had given birth within the past year. While their babies stayed in the nursery downstairs, the young women pursued their education.
As you can imagine, our students were inevitably distracted from their studies by their circumstances. Many had learning disabilities or post-traumatic stress disorder. All faced major social, emotional, financial and academic challenges. Attendance was sporadic, despite a small cash incentive.
As part of the Social Studies lesson one day, I asked the students to write an essay about what it means to be Canadian. We discussed the topic, watched a short video, and read some articles about the subject. They started to write a rough draft during class and were to complete it for homework.
At the beginning of the next class, I asked to see the rough drafts. One student had written a couple of sentences. The others showed me only blank paper. Understandably, these very young women had difficulty completing homework when they were also responsible for raising a child. So, together in class, we developed a rough outline for an essay. Then they began working in pairs to write them.
I moved from desk to desk, helping, prompting, asking questions. Two young women were talking together intently, but they stopped as I neared their table. “Are you staying on topic?” I asked somewhat sternly. The teenagers sighed and tried to get back to the task. As one girl pulled out her Social Studies notes, a few sheets of paper slipped out and fell to the floor.
Single-spaced writing covered all four pages. Paragraphs, sentences, punctuation . . . a complete essay appeared to be all there. But in an instant, it was gone again. The owner blushingly buried the pages in her binder with a mumbled, “That’s not school work.”
My curiosity got the best of me, so I invited Belinda  to stay after class and chat for a few minutes. “You didn’t write a single line for the homework assignment,” I said. “But it looks like you are capable of writing a complete essay. May I ask what you were writing about?”
Belinda looked up at me with large blue eyes full of pain. “I was writing to the father of my baby,” she explained.
I did most of the listening, as Belinda and I had a long talk. She loved her boyfriend despite his vicious temper. She was heartbroken when he abandoned her with no thought of their unborn child. Now that the baby was a few months old, Belinda wanted her little boy to know his dad. What could she say that would soften his heart? In her letter, she had poured out her soul.
As I listened to Belinda’s story, a fundamental principle of student engagement began to sink in. Simply put, even struggling students can and will write about a topic that is of vital interest to them. They will meet real-life challenges with all the energy and academic rigor they can muster. My real role as a teacher was to find a way to tap into that passion; in this way, their writing would become authentic.
I realized that my challenge in teaching Social Studies to these young women was to inspire them to become vitally interested in the topic of “being Canadian,” so they could write from the heart. Then and there I resolved to tackle every assignment from the perspective of WIIFM – What’s In It For Me? I would design my assignments from the perspective of the students’ needs and interests.
For this essay, I invited the students to identify and explore sub-topics related to being Canadian. They came up with a long list, including: preserving ethnic identities, the importance of language, support for those in need, and the meaning of family in Canada. From the list, each learner chose a topic to write about. Though it took us longer, each student was ultimately successful in writing an essay that was meaningful to her. I glowed when I saw the pride they felt in their accomplishments.
The young mothers at Terra often felt like failures, and I’m not sure they know that I learned from them every day – much more, I’m sure, than they learned from me. How many more students like Belinda are sitting idly in our classrooms today, with the ability to write at length and with passion – if only we would ask what matters to them?
First published in Education Canada, June 2013
 Not her real name