José’s comment compelled me to reflect deeply on
the reality for so many students in U.S. classrooms.
So many are bereft of dreams because they’re bereft
of hope. Motivating such students becomes
impossible unless we understand their
underlying hopelessness and do what
we can to connect our content area
with a concrete path to success.
One of the most powerful ways
we can motivate students is
by allowing them to speak,
read, and write about what
matters to them. This doesn’t
necessarily preclude them from
reading and writing about other
things. However, unless we draw
such students in by first validating their
own experiences and interests, we cannot bridge
those experiences and interests with the larger
world of experience and knowledge that we seek to
The book enabled Angel to voice his frustration
with a system that allowed some kids to have everything, while he often had to steal to make ends
meet. It also enabled him to articulate his hope of
attending an art academy one day. The Dreams
chapter enabled José to voice for the first time his
tentative dream of owning a mechanic shop and
escaping gang violence so he could keep his family
safe. It enabled Tina to reveal that under that overly
made-up and brash façade was a scared young
woman who found solace in drugs and alcohol. She
was able to take on the role of mentor for the first
time, advising readers to love their children so their
children wouldn’t succumb to drugs.
As published authors, many of the students found
the confidence to stay in school, and a few of my
juniors ended up going on to community college.
I was particularly happy to hear from Liz, one of my
pregnant students who seemed utterly without hope,
who wrote to me two years later to tell me she was
attending Chabot College.
After my initial success with the students in
East Palo Alto, I decided to start the Lit-
erate Voices project, which works with
school districts across the United
States to motivate and empower
students and get them published.
Because our initial publisher shut
down, I began working briefly
with print-on-demand publishers
and eventually started publishing
student anthologies myself under the
Literate Voices imprint. I have worked
with several school districts in the
I firmly believe that personal narrative is not
merely an exercise in narcissistic self-indulgence.
Rather, it becomes a way to build literacy while
empowering students and motivating them to
engage, often for the first time, with school and all it
has to offer. EL
1Against the Odds: Visalia Voices (Booklocker, 2010);
Beyond the Fields: Sanger Stories (Booklocker, 2010);
Among the Groves: Lindsay Lives (Literate Voices, 2011);
and Niños de Oro: Cutler-Orosi Chronicles (Literate Voices,
Jyothi Bathina is associate professor at California
State University, Fresno, and founder and director of
Literate Voices. In addition to her published anthologies
of student writing, she is the author of The Flood, the
Bear, and the Dog (Literate Voices, 2013).
It was amazing to see what using relevant
curriculum and personal narrative could accomplish
with my students when all else had failed.