Regina Chaney faces an uphill struggle in today's video-dominated culture.
She is an English teacher, and she likes to teach the old-fashioned way. She makes students diagram sentences. And when she teaches Shakespeare, she insists on using the full-length plays, not the truncated versions used by some educators.
Chaney, 38, teaches seventh-grade English at Lindbergh Middle School in North Long Beach. The school draws students from the nearby Carmelitos Housing Project and has some of the lowest achievement test scores in the district and the state.
But Chaney, who also writes poetry, has been successful at motivating youngsters to write, Lindbergh Principal Max Fraley said. When she taught in the Compton schools between 1983 and 1987, Chaney and her students put out a book of student work called "Good Times and Bad: An Anthology of Poetry, Artwork and Prose by Inner City Youth."
At Lindbergh, where she has taught for three years, Chaney is trying to raise money to publish three more editions of the school newspaper, the Eagle Express, before the end of the school year.
A shrinking budget has forced officials to drop the journalism class at Lindbergh and limit the newspaper editions to two a year, using a mimeograph machine, Fraley said.
Chaney wants to increase the number of editions and to publish the Eagle Express on newsprint. "It will have school news, but it also gives them a chance to publish the work they did in class," she said.
She said she believes it is important for youngsters to see their work in print. Once students discover that they can write, Chaney said, they "need to . . . They have things they want to say." Poems, plays, stories tumble out, she said.
To raise the money, Chaney is staging a poetry and jazz festival at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Birdland West, the Long Beach jazz and supper club. She said she did not want the youngsters to sell candy or magazine subscriptions to raise the money. "I don't believe in kids having to sell things. I really believe the schools should provide the things the kids need."
Chaney is hoping to get 100 people to pay $10 each to hear her and two other poets, Moss Humphrey and Fannie Tatum Hawkins, read their work. Blues pianist Al Clark and the Al Williams Trio also are scheduled to entertain. Proceeds from the $10 cover charge will be donated to the school.
Since the students are too young to go to Birdland, their teacher has arranged to have the poetry reading videotaped.
"The whole effort," she said, "has done wonders for their self-esteem. For some reason this generation doesn't have any self-esteem. They don't have any dreams, any goals. It's the strangest thing. It's learned hopelessness."
For many Lindbergh students, Fraley said, "school is the best place they have to come to."
Chaney said that reading material is so scarce in most of her students' homes that she does not assign students to make collages from magazine pictures. She added: "I have kids who have never experienced a fairy tale."
Chaney's determination to give students a classical education and to teach them that they can write, Fraley said, is fired by her own "love for the written word."
Chaney wrote her first work, a play about a tugboat, when she was in the third grade. She has four books of her own poetry in print. She frequently participates in poetry readings around the Southland, where she was raised. Her father is the Rev. Joseph Chaney Jr., pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Long Beach.
Chaney said that she writes poetry because she wants "somebody else to read it." Her students crave the same satisfaction, she said, so she looks for ways to get their work into print.
Although she believes in traditional instruction in English grammar and literature, Chaney acknowledges that she also "breaks all the rules" to prod her students to put pen to paper. "All the teachers I responded to in my youth did the same thing," she said.
The first writing assignment, for example, may require students to write a "Dear Abby" letter. Then she asks students to exchange letters and write advice to a classmate.
She has also been known to bring a box of candy to class and, with her students, spend the better part of the lesson tasting and discussing every flavor. Then she asks them to write about the flavor they liked best and why.
"I put on a production in here," Chaney said. "It's theatrical. It's dramatic. I laugh with them. There's so much life there. There's so much potential there. You never know who you're teaching."
One of her students, Nicole Redmond, said English is her best class. "I always look forward to coming to this class," she said.
"I like it when you tell stories," Joseph Torres told Chaney. His favorite stories, he said, describe her travels around the world when she was a student with the University of the Seven Seas.
Chaney said she always addresses her students as "Mr." or "Miss," using their last names. "I give them that respect. They act differently. . . . I find I don't have the same kind of discipline problems other teachers do."
Her classroom walls are covered with posters that feature rock and television stars promoting the virtues of reading.
Chaney concedes, though, that youngsters are reading less than ever, and that the trend is troubling.
"When people stop reading," she said, "they stop thinking."