Walking into Stuart Albright‘s classroom at Jordan High School, the first thing you notice are the book jackets covering the wall. This is not surprising, given that Stuart is an English and writing teacher. Up close, the book jackets – from “Officer Love’s Jurisdiction” to “Lyrical Gold” to “Sing Me This Song” – look like any books you would find at Barnes & Noble, professionally typeset and beautifully designed. But each novel, memoir and anthology on the wall was authored by one of Stuart’s students.
Stuart started McKinnon Press in 2005 as a vehicle for his own debut book, “Blessed Returns,” a memoir of his post-graduate summer spent teaching at a rough inner-city school in Camden, New Jersey. He was amazed at how easy it was to self-publish an extremely professional product, and as a teacher, his immediate reaction was to share what he had learned with his class.
“I was blown away by how excited they were,” Stuart says about introducing the concept for the first time. The result was a collection of the students’ best stories, “Unlocking Room 413: A Creative Writing Class Discovers the Power of Words.”
Since that first collection, Stuart has made publishing his students’ work the hallmark of his lauded teaching career. He was a Durham Public Schools Teacher of the Year in 2006, a recipient of a 2008 national Milken Educator Award, which called his work “pioneering,” and the recipient of a UNC Distinguished Young Alumni Award in 2013.
The impact of his work on a wide range of students at Jordan is clear. He has encouraged hesitant writers; allowed students to take ownership of a serious, in-depth project; and he has provided a safe space for students to share personal stories.
“The class is its own community. By the second month
it feels like you’ve gone through some crazy experience together, and now we’re just all friends.”
– Aidan Keaveney, Jordan High School sophomore
“He was the reason I went to Jordan,” says Emily Palmer, a former student who switched out of her districted school in order to take Stuart’s novel-writing class. “I had always loved writing,” says Emily, who is currently a reporter for The New York Times, “but I had no discipline. I just wrote when inspiration struck. Mr. A had us working like disciplined athletes. He suggested putting aside certain hours and sticking to it every day. And he followed up – even when I had to finish my novel over the summer he checked in to make sure I was working. That discipline he taught us is the only way I got through writing my thesis at UNC. It is the only way I could be doing what I’m doing now for the Times. I wrote four profiles in the last two days!”
Stuart’s classes are not just for future journalists. Lilli Morris is currently in the third year of a chemistry Ph.D. program at Cornell. Despite being more math and science inclined while at Jordan, she begged her way into Stuart’s class her senior year. “People told me that it was a course I had to take before graduating.” Lilli appreciated the chance to improve her writing, but she valued the overall experience even more. “He created an amazing environment where we were learning from one another,” she says. “It was a totally unique class, with sophomores from regular English sitting next to seniors who’d taken two English [Advanced Placement] classes. It was such a diverse group. People you might never have spoken with around campus, but in that classroom, we all had one another’s back.”
For Stuart, finding a common ground between students with racial and socioeconomic differences was his primary goal as a teacher. Growing up outside of Charlotte in a “gritty” town divided by a railroad track, he had found that playing football for his public high school provided that kind of rare neutral zone.
After attending UNC, where he studied English and creative writing, and then went on to Harvard for a master’s in urban education, Stuart accepted his first teaching position at Jordan. “I wanted that level of diversity,” he says. “It’s a neat mixture of students that is reflective of our society.”
“Durham has been the perfect place to try something innovative. People here are open to new ideas.”
– Stuart Albright
Stuart’s first attempt at connecting with some of his harder-to- reach students was through coaching football.
“Football was the reason some of those kids were in school at all,” he says.
With writing, he has found another way to encourage those same students. In Stuart’s most recent book, “A World Beyond Home,” he writes about one of his former students, a player on the football team. The student was also, Stuart explains, “a local gang member and [had] almost killed somebody.”
“Being in that writing class helped steer him away from all that,” Stuart says. “He read the sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes uplifting stories of his classmates, and it turned him outward. He stopped thinking about himself and became an incredibly empathetic person.” Indeed, he was nationally recognized for his commitment to community service during college, where he played football and majored in creative writing. He is now on a university football coaching staff.
“The class is its own community,” says current Jordan sophomore Aidan Keaveney. “By the second month it feels like you’ve gone through some crazy experience together, and now we’re just all friends.” Aidan has not decided whether he is more math and science oriented like Lilli or a writer like Emily – or interested in something else altogether. He is taking Stuart’s class because he loves to read, and he was “curious to try looking at the world through the eyes of someone with a totally different perspective.”
“A big part of the appeal is that writing is something you can really commit to,” Aidan says. “It’s rewarding to do something you can put a lot of effort into. And then to see it published is great.”
The cost of Stuart’s publishing program is surprisingly low. Advances in self-publishing technology means that there is no up- front cost – publishing online is free. “It just costs money to buy a copy of the book,” Stuart says. “We try to buy books in bulk to keep the cost as low as possible, and then students can sell them to friends and family. The novels are all available on Amazon. Students own the copyright to their work, and they get the royalties. It can be a money-making venture.”
Stuart has seen the success of the writing and publishing program at Jordan with hundreds of students over the past 10 years. It is only more recently, as he has given presentations at conferences in North Carolina and beyond, that he has realized the uniqueness of his program. Now Stuart hopes to share what he has learned with the broader Durham community by educating teachers and opening his press to students throughout Durham Public Schools. He is working overtime to find grants and private donations in order to put his plan into practice.
“I’d love to publish collections of teacher essays along with student novels and short story collections,” he says. “Maybe poetry collections as well. Maybe we’d have competitions.”
Stuart plans to continue teaching classes at Jordan while expanding the reach of his program. He and his wife live in Durham, in walking distance of Hope Valley Elementary, where Brett, his 6-year-old son, is enrolled. His younger son, Cason, will start there in two years. Stuart loves Durham. His sole novel, “Bull City,” is a murder mystery taking place in, of course, Durham. “Durham has been the perfect place to try something innovative,” Stuart says. “People here are open to new ideas.”