Really Creative Writing…Or Not

As I’m reading my Google Reader this morning, a post over at Blog of a Bookslut grabs my attention — a teacher writes a self-published book, includes her students, includes sex and drugs, and it doesn’t end well for her.

The full Guardian article is Teacher who put pupils into their own sex’n’drugs novel awaits tribunal result.

I read the article, anticipating that this was going to be about self-publishing — but it isn’t. It’s about teaching. Go, read the Guardian article, come back so we can discuss. (All quotes below are from the Guardian article).

The teacher, Leonora Rustamova, is pretty self aware at the moment: “”I am an idiot but I had good intentions.”

The good intentions: Rustamova had a group of students who were using  “sexist and racist language and showed little interest in learning.” Her innovative idea to get them interested? Create a story with the students and herself as the main characters! “She wrote five of them and herself into a plot involving a drugs gang which was foiled by the pupils, but with sexual fantasies, bad language and truancy along the way.” Rustamova read the book aloud to the students and they began participating in the creation. As the Guardian observes, “Inevitably, this ratcheted up the tally of swearwords and risque episodes.” Rustamova’s lawyer defends the project, stating “the book did not subvert “positive attitudes and values” and its denouement involved the teacher and her “five favourites” calling in the police.”

The self-publishing bit comes in when Rustamova and her students completed the 96 page story and Rustamova’s husband used a self-publishing website to get a small number of copies bound as final books for some students and staff. Apparently unintentionally, the story remained publicly available on the website.

The Guardian reports that some parents and staff support Rustamova’s teaching methods and successes, while the school defends her termination by saying the reasons “did not only involve the book . . . but also out-of-school activities with the boys and a “failure to acknowledge or comprehend sufficiently the seriousness of the school’s concerns.“”

This isn’t about a self-published book. It’s about a teacher attempting to be reach teenagers that had “largely been written off.” I understand that motivation — I see it at schools and libraries, well, with any adults that work with teenagers. But how far is to far? When is a line crossed? When does the adult working with teens need to remind themselves, “I am the adult”?

At this point in time, to all of us reading this story, the line seems obvious. Including sexual fantasies in the street lit book you’re writing with underage students? Not a good idea. Yet, I can almost see the classroom (or library). The banter, the back and forth, the laughing, the connections, the joking, the engagement, the excited reporting to colleagues, and the moment when the line was crossed coming and going unnoticed.

The New Yorker also addresses the teaching element of the story, asking “How far should a teacher go to get her students to read? To extreme lengths, one might argue, since engaged literacy provides the framework for social and professional success in adulthood.”

Other news links: The Daily Mail, The Telegraph.

3 thoughts on “Really Creative Writing…Or Not

  1. I think this situation is something like a Rorschach Test. I can see a terrific teacher who was going the extra mile to reach students everyone else had written off. I can also see a teacher who, in her desire to reach the unreachable, has crossed a line into inappropriate, peer-like, relationships with her students. I don’t think we have anything like enough information to know what was going on.


  2. I run a poetry workshop with youth in a juvenile detention…kids who have pretty much been written off. In the poetry workshop, we write poems about their experience. BUT…the rules of the workshop are the kids can not glorify crimes or addiction, and they can’t write about explicit sex or violence.

    The kids poems are about their lives, their experience, what they have seen, heard, and done. And yes, they are able to be written without glorifying the crimes, addictions or including sex and violence.

    One thing which is emphasized is that it’s the universal emotions of fear, shame, love, hurt, and pain which reaches people in their poetry. And their poems get published annually in a chapbook which goes out to community members including other educators, judges, lawyers. Each year, community members talk about how powerful these poems are and how much they learn by reading them.

    As both a YA writer and an educator, I know there ARE ways to reach students who have “been written off” and still maintain boundaries.


  3. Hope, I tried reading some of the articles from when this happened (2009) and it’s a bit hard to figure out some of what went on. Probably because the story itself was taken down — I’m not sure if any of the news reports read the full thing or not — and probably because, as an employment matter, some parts are confidential.

    Mindy, thank you for sharing your experience, especially that last sentence!


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