A New Direction and More of the Same.

This blog was started for a class, but it kind of took off. SO, I’m going to try and continue it. It’s essentially about writing, but now will expand it’s explorations in different ways. Creative writing is my major, though I hope to teach freshman writing, which (though creative in its own way) is not about fiction, creative nonfiction (CNF) or poetry. SO there will be lots of things going on. I’m learning a lot about the history of rhetoric and theories about rhetoric, so maybe that will show up. Maybe it won’t. Either way, I hope to write and share what I learn about writing and about teaching writing, as I did last semester. 


To begin, before the break, I read Stephen King’s ON WRTING. I’ll be honest: I love “Stand By Me” (the movie) but I’ve never read one of his books. The movie version of “Carrie” scared me half to death and still gives me a little shiver when I remember. The trailers for movies or shows that carry his name make me jump so I don’t watch the full version and have never been tempted to read the books. I don’t disrespect him in any sense, far from it actually, but horror isn’t really my cup of tea. ON WRITING is exactly what the title says. 

King offers stories of how he got to where he is and then offers advice. My favorite line is easily that he believes “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I agree. He gives lots of other advice to, but when it comes down to it, he says the same thing my college/graduate professors have said over and over: Read a lot and write a lot. There’s not much more to it, is there? If you want to be a writer, it’s simple. Put your butt in a chair and write. The more you read, the better you’ll write. Books are your best teachers. I think it’s true for creative writing especially, but I think it’s true for writing at large as well. If you want to write in a particular genre and do it well, you have read things in that genre. 

Other good advice I’ve heard recently on writing and reading: If you don’t like a book, put it down. Don’t waste your time. I feel obligated to finish if I start. Why is that? If something isn’t teaching you, don’t waste your time. I like this idea, but I don’t know if I’ll take it. It’s something to consider though. 

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Secondary Teachers: What does writing look like in your classroom?

The project: We were asked to do some research on a topic that interests us. I chose secondary writing workshops. I’m interested in how to incorporate writing in a high school classroom in a way that offers transferability of skills to students. What follows is a position statement on what I’ve found and an annotated bibliography of what I looked at. There are also a couple of sources I consulted, but did not choose to annotate. If anyone in cyber space has recommendations for texts to look at or wants to share practices with me about secondary writing, I would love to hear. Feel free to disagree with my conclusions too! I want to learn.

Short Research Project: Secondary Writing Workshops

Position Statement

In researching secondary writing workshops and writing classrooms, I realized that I have a long way to go in examining this dynamic. Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle and Donald Graves’ Writing: Teachers and Children at Work are excellent foundational texts for creating a writing workshop setting. Atwell writes from the perspective of a middle school teacher and Graves writes from an elementary perspective, but both texts offer extremely practical approaches to writing that are referenced or alluded to in several of the other things I looked at. The articles from Jennifer Wells and Erica DiMarzio and Ryan Dippre offer some more contemporary classroom studies.

From my research, I have gathered that writing in the secondary classroom requires two things first and foremost: time and attention. It seems to be as simple and as complicated as that. Atwell, Graves, and DiMarzio and Dippre teach English courses, which entail both writing and reading. Wells is the only one who teaches a writing course, but her work is valuable to any writing teacher because she focuses on transfer.

My experiences have led me to believe that as a teacher in a public school setting, you will often be placed in an English classroom. In that classroom, you will be expected to meet literature and composition objectives. In conversations with teachers, you essential pick a camp, writing or literature and do the best you can. My research confirms this and I find this incredibly problematic. Atwell is concerned with reading and writing, but she does work with middle school. I cannot help but wonder how she would approach a classroom where students had to read particular pieces of literature.

Another finding that troubles me is that many of the text I looked at equated writing to creative endeavors. While I have great respect for creative writing, I found it disconcerting that so many texts treated it as ultimate genre. Wells addresses this issue, but she has to do so in an elective course.

To create an effective writing workshop, I think I need a more thorough understanding of the way writers develop, or at least the way state objectives dictate how writers should develop in whatever district I teach in. I do think it is possible to conduct a writing workshop within an English classroom in a way that also allows ample time for the study of literature. First, I think a secondary writing workshop’s success will depend on time commitment. Routines are key and the time for workshop must be kept sacred, as should the time for reading and literature studies. Then, I think a teacher must learn about rhetoric and learn how to help her students create a vocabulary to recognize and discuss strategies and processes. This can begin in high school, but it takes commitment.

Annotated Bibliography

Atwell, Nancie. In The Middle. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1998. Print.

The first section is about teaching writing, teaching reading, and teaching adolescences. The first chapter, “Learning How to Teach Writing” chronicles Atwell’s experiences as a beginning teacher with writing. At the beginning of her career, she claims she was a creationist. She created curriculum and sat behind her desk. Her main concern was to foster that curriculum. She continues to give the account of how her ideas about what writing in the classroom should look like changed. She details her transition into what she calls, an evolutionist that works with and for her students to develop their skills individually. She claims that teaching is akin to parenting and then offers some details about writing workshop today (1998).

The next section details Writing and Reading Workshop. In the chapter “Getting Started,” Atwell details what a typical day in her classroom should look like and emphasizes the importance of establishing routines and practices in the first week. On the first or second day, one of the most important tasks the students do is begin their writing notebooks. They start by creating a list of topics they are interested in, genres they write or might like to write in and potential audiences. The list is built on throughout their time in her classroom. She calls these writing territories. They do something similar for reading and she makes sure that students are writing and reading things they enjoy. She emphasizes that she does not have students finish things that do not interest them because she believes it builds a negative stigma around the act of reading or writing itself. On a typical day, her students begin by reading and discussing a poem. Then, there is a writing-reading mini-lesson that can be anywhere from five to twenty minutes. Then, she takes three minutes to ask each student what they are writing about and in what genre they are writing. She takes notes so she can keep up with what they are doing that day. They independently write, and if they choose to go to a conference corner, confer about their writing. A read-aloud from a text of her choice follows and then students have fifteen minutes of independent reading time.

This text was recommended to me as a critical text that influences and shapes a high school writing workshop that is hailed in its community as the best. Atwell discusses pedagogy, but she thoroughly details practices that are successful for her in the classroom. I think its value is in its practicality more than anything. Atwell works primarily with middle school, so she has more freedom to work with than one might have in a high school classroom, but she asks guiding questions and sets out detailed methods for running a workshop in a ninety-minute class. She does emphasize student choice and student authority over their own writing, which I agree with to a certain extent. I find it problematic, however, because it seems to emphasize creative writing. She does mention students who came up with community-related projects for themselves, though. Atwell’s text is a result of reading, researching, and most importantly, being in the classroom.

DiMarzio, Erica & Ryan Dippre. “Creative and Critical Engagement: Constructing a Teen      Vision of the World.” The English Journal: National Council of Teachers of English Vol. 101 No. 2 November 2011: 25-29.

DiMarzio and Dippre develop an extended unit that “attempts to tie the acts of creation and reception together and allows students to experience writing and literature to work for students’ purposes” (25). They work under the premise that creative writing and textual analysis is a false dichotomy that is perpetuated by the high stakes testing atmosphere present in most public schools. As the students are examining literature, which is in fact creative writing, they felt it was time to bring the two together. They began by looking at the text Inside Out by Dan Kirby and then brought their classes together to write in a collaborative setting. Writing, they claim, is a conversation and is in conversation with various texts. They explained the project, which would culminate in a peer-edited anthology of the work they produce, thoroughly at the onset of the project, which they call “The Mid-Teen Experience.” Students wrote creatively, but they also created an anthology that was organized and included section introductions that explained what worked in the various pieces that make them so powerful. It challenged them to use language skills in analytical and creative ways.

This text is useful for looking at secondary workshops because it challenges teachers, and by extension, students, to consider how intimately related the reader and the writer are. It is interesting because it claims that creative writing is often avoided in secondary classrooms because of high stakes testing and the infamous five paragraph essay. It is slightly problematic, because the authors claim a false dichotomy between creative writing and textual analysis. However, n their project, the two acts are entirely separate. It does also give practical approaches to how writing in a high school classroom could look and has valuable insights about collaboration and the connection between reader and writer.

Graves, Donald. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Exeter, New Hampshire: Heinemann Educational Books, 1983. Print.

Graves lays out the purpose in the preface to the text: “it will introduce help in the context of everyday teaching that fosters children’s writing fluency.” The text is designed so that someone wishing to move into direct practice can read it from beginning to end. Someone interested in the theory behind the choices might read the final chapters of the book and then come back to the beginning to read about the practices. Much of the book is based on findings from a study conducted in Atkinson, New Hampshire from 1978-1980 that was funded by the National Institute of Education. It is also based on Graves’s experience as a writing teacher.

Graves begins by claiming that children want to write from the very first day they attend school and we take control away from children and place unnecessary road blocks in the way of their intentions. These road blocks are shortly followed by teachers to making the claim that students do not want to write. Graves spends the first two thirds of the book detailing practices to use in the classroom. He puts a lot of emphasis on making sure teachers do not fall prey to the blank slate mindset. The last bit of the book details the theory that drives the practice. It discusses the writing process on several levels and identifies commonalities, such as composing and revising. The text does deal with elementary level writers and does discuss writing in a way that denotes creative genres.

This is a critical text and author that is cited in several of the works about teaching writing in K-12 settings. I think the text is valuable because it does detail the early writing process and what students are going through in the classroom. The practices are useful as well. There is an entire section dedicated to writing conferences that is very useful in terms of practicality. Graves also shares the theory and by doing so, provides excellent driving questions. It deals with elementary level writers, but some of the practices are definitely transferable. The basic understanding of the way a writer develops is also important to teachers working with students who are constantly developing physically as well as mentally.

Wells, Jennifer. “They Can Get There from Here: Teaching for Transfer through a ‘Writing    about Writing’ Course.” The English Journal: National Council of Teachers of English Vol. 101 No. 2 November 2011: 57-63.

To help students transfer literacy-based knowledge from high school to college, a high school teacher asks students to investigate the kinds of writing they will have to do in their future major/field and to begin practicing the specific genres they find. The teacher creates a Writing Studies elective course to accomplish this. The author designs the class with two overarching concepts. First, they learn how to write about writing. Though she does not explicitly state it, the first portion of the class is learning the basic tools of rhetoric. They also work on composition as they learn what rhetoric is and how they see it working in real world texts. Following this, students look into their futures. Students are mostly juniors and seniors and have some idea about what field they think they would like to enter. Projects in this portion of the class are directly tied to genres they may write in the future. The students actively put the tools they learned in the beginning of the class into creating texts for final presentations.

This text is valuable because it is the only one I have encountered that focuses on rhetoric and composition rather than creative writing. The author explicitly states that this course is still very new and enough time has not passed for her to follow up with students who have gone from it into college. The content was writing and while they looked at articles about writing, they also looked at Facebook. They worked on critical thinking skills. Wells has offered something valuable to the field because while her course is an elective, it focuses on writing transfer in a way that many of the other texts I have looked at do not. She claims as teachers, we believe the skills will transfer, but conversations with former students showed her that transfer does not just happen. She is calling out for teachers to be more explicit about processes so that transfer is a possibility.

Hillocks, Jr. George. Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice. New York: Teachers College Press, 1995. Print.

Hillocks argues that reflective practice requires an integration of a variety of theories (process, Vygotskian learning, discourse theory, and a Deweyan constructivist theory of inquiry), a personal practical knowledge of students and teaching practices, and research.*

Kittle, Penny. Write Beside Them: risk, voice, and clarity in high school writing. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 2008. Print.

Kittle presents a flexible framework for instruction, the theory and experience to back it up, and detailed teaching information to help you implement it right away.*

*descriptions from the back of the texts to give an overview of sorts. I read several chapters out of each, but they did not appeal to me as strongly as those annotated above.

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To Collect or to Engage?

I found Richard L. Larson’s “The ‘Research Paper’ in the Writing Course: A Non-Form of Writing” very compelling. He says he does believe that “writers should identify, explore, evaluate and draw upon appropriate sources as an integral step in what today we think of as the composing process” (216). He makes the argument that first year writing course are not doing that. He claims “conceptually, the generic term ‘research paper’ is for practical purposes meaningless” (218). I don’t think he’s wrong.

My experiences with ‘research papers’ in high school and in first year writing courses said I should gather data and present it. I was meant to remain objective, and simply present. The missing element of this idea, I think, is the engagement that Larson is talking about. The “research paper” has no practical purpose, because it’s rare for research to be simply that. People, sciences or humanities, conduct and engage research to answer a question in my experience. Every article we’ve read for this class even is making some sort of argument, which arises out of analysis, which is engagement.

The reason I’m drawn to Larson is because he is touching on the things that I see and hear regarding first year writing that make me crazy. The idea of a “research paper” seems to be what underlies all of the objectives outlined by the university for first year writing. I am going to venture out and use a term that is somewhat new to me: information literacy. Beginning with paper one, we are teaching our students to analyze things. We’re supposed to provide them with rhetorical tools to look at the various texts they encounter. The second portion of first year writing is supposed to be about research, but only the final paper is emphasized as a research paper. The term is arbitrary because students are meant to engage texts from the very beginning. It seems to me that the variety of texts is meant to increase in the transition from 1100 to 1120, but all of the papers are building on one another. Research is involved. Some instructors have their students look at whatever song, video, or image they choose and the student is responsible for contextualizing it. That’s research. So, our responsibility is to teach them how to engage those texts in a meaningful way.

All of this, I think can take place in first year writing, but it’s complicated. While I don’t think that texts should be the meta of class, I think they are useful in learning how to talk about the meta. I stand by belief that to be a good writer, one must be a good reader. I think texts are useful in composition classes because they give me an avenue to work out a language for talking about writing with my students. It also shows them what I mean when I talk about arguments or thesis or strategies. I do, however, advocate the use of such texts with extreme caution. It’s incredibly easy for a first year writing course to become about something besides writing, and I don’t think that’s useful to students. I think I have a limited amount of time and space to give them transferable skills. To bring it back to Larson, one of those skills does involve research, but it’s not about collecting data, it’s about engaging with it. This means part of my job is working with students to see how collecting and presenting is different from engaging and responding.

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Do you journal?

Notebooks from the past few years...

Or keep a notebook? Or write to understand something? This week, I’m talking about a chapter on Writing Across Curriculum, a movement that is apparently almost thirty years old (from the book A Guide to Composition Pedagogies). In college, maybe high school, I had teachers in various subjects asking me to write in various ways. Write down your questions. Write down what’s important about the cardiovascular system. Write down why you got this math problem wrong. Write what you don’t understand about Jim Jones and the kool aide. Write. Keep a journal. Write every day, because you should be writing. What I didn’t know about these things was that they sprung out of WAC. The journals and the ideas carried over into my study life. Those notebooks have everything from my recaps of how the heart works to my latest short story endeavors. I write to find understand. The other side of that, and the WAC pedagogy, is writing to communicate. Writing to learn is for yourself. Writing to communicate is for an audience.

I found Susan McLeod’s discussion of Writing Across the Curriculum very compelling this week. The major tenants of the pedagogy are: writing to learn and writing to communicate. They are two separate, but very intimately related things in the classroom. Writing to learn, I’ve seen over and over again. I’ve experienced teachers pushing that on me over and over again. I think I’ve had teachers use the one-minute write in every class except for maybe math. In my experience, however, writing to communicate was not a part of upper-level classes because of the assumption that we should already know how to do that.

The most interesting thing about WAC is that for it to be successful, all disciplines participate. McLeod does not advocate something that is just supposed to manifest itself in individual classrooms. Faculty members are supposed to actively meet for their own workshops to discuss what writing in the classroom could look like. I’ve actually been to a workshop for secondary teachers that did just that. It was hosted by the Sunbelt Writing Project. While there were a couple of exceptions, most of the participating teachers either taught English or History. I often wonder how much other disciplines write in school. I talked to several math teachers and they use writing to learn. They have students map out how they solved a problem so that they can replicate the process later. What would writing to communicate look like for a math professional though?

I found this pedagogy both inspiring and disheartening all at the same time. I like the idea of Writing Across Curriculum. I think, as a writing teacher, it’s important for me to understand those different things (like tense in history research and objectivity in psychology writings), but the way McLeod breaks it down, this really takes major faculty collaboration. The way she tells it, each discipline has someone who focuses on writing and is available for consult for the composition teacher. I’m not sure that’s available to me. I think WAC sounds wonderful, but I also have a feeling that it would be difficult to implement in a single classroom.

Yet again, I find myself with a question. This pedagogy seems to inform the content to a certain degree. McLeod does outline some practices, like peer groups and circles and an overall feeling of student-centered, but the pedagogy informs the curriculum. The pedagogy is about writing itself, which also digs into critical thinking. Does this mean that a rhetorical tradition or theory about writing is simmering beneath the surface? I’m intrigued by the fact that this is the first pedagogy in a while that considers writing, rather than how students should look at the world when they leave, as the main focus. I do think writing and thinking are intricately woven together and I’m very interested in citizenship and valuing student voices, but some of the things we’ve studied recently discuss writing as the appetizer rather than the entrée. Is it possible to really engage both of these elements? I mean writing and critical thinking. To me the two are so linked, that it’s hard to separate them, but in our readings, it seems that they are separate.

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Who Knew? The Versatile Blog Award

I was shocked. My blog was born out of a class assignment. This basically made my day. Thanks, Christina Lim.

So what does receiving the Versatile Blogger Award mean? It means that someone has chosen my blog as one of their 15 featured blogs. My award came from Christina Lim, a maker of one of kind jewelry and accessories. . She has talent, http://blackfrangipani.com/ Check it out, you’ll love it.

And now, as an award recipient, I need to:
1. Thank the person who gave me this award and provide a link to their site in my post.
2. Share 7 things about myself.
3. Pass this on to 15 deserving bloggers and let them know about it.

7 things about myself
1. Word games, like Scrabble and Words with Friends are my favorite.
2. I have two cats, named Pete and Albus (yes, after Dumbledore).
3. There’s nothing I enjoy quite as much as cracking open a new book.
4. Everyday I ask myself if I’m doing what I should be doing.
5. I would rather trip in public than dry my hair 98% of the time.
6. I was once in a zombie movie.
7. Broccoli was my favorite food as a child. Still pretty high on the list.

I will be adding some blogs to check out soon!

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In Which I Attempt to Explain the Way My Brain Works AND Make a Point – Multiculturalism

Somewhere along the lines, a professor or twelve, who I will now call multicultural pedagogues, applied their teaching theories to me and in doing so, both directly and indirectly made me think outside of my own perspective. I believe this what multiculturalism in the classroom aims to do. Sidler and Morris outline a heuristic that was used on me. Gere explains how this awareness of others can develop outside the traditional realm. Harrison (who I cannot say I am a fan of, necessarily) makes some good points. She articulates some things that have run through my head ALL semester, like student-centered. My question, as always, is what is the point of 1100? What is the goal? I asked a friend who took it in the last two years and she said to learn to make a strong argument in writing. A second year said writing is thinking, and so part of our job is to teach thinking. I think that multiculturalism lends itself to this in a variety of ways. There are certain conditions that are necessary for it to work though. The teacher picks the texts and backs up. My impression is that class discussion fuels the writing, the invention. My only real question from the Sidler and Morris text is this: what makes a cultural text? It’s related to my other question: what is critical thinking?

Now, I digress into the ways in which I see myself as a product of this pedagogy. Agreement or disagreement is much appreciated, as always, because I’m attempting to define how I see this working in a classroom. In one class, I had a professor who was very in our face. He gave us texts that would elicit discussion, like Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X. He gave us statistics of incarceration rates and stories [1]of people trying to find a voice that haunt me to this day. People disagreed with him and he disagreed right back. This may be the case of the imposing your ideology on your class that Harrison speaks of, but at the same time, extreme cases call for extreme measures. How, for example, could he stand by when someone defended the Holocaust as population control? (not an exaggeration). My feeling though, is that he assigned text that many of the typical students at this university would find troubling. He challenged us with a picture of the world as it is and left it up to us on whether or not we would do something about what we learned. This was a world literature class, so writing wasn’t exactly the focus (papers written outside of class), but he did more for my writing in office hours than my freshman comp classes did in two semesters. We talked about claims and evidence and argument and purpose and arrangement on three or four vacuum packed occasions.

Another class, another professor: The Civil Rights Movement. This teacher gives us texts, some extremely radical, some not so radical, all in conversation with each other and lets the class deal with the issues. People say some downright nasty things and I can see in her eyes that it hurts her, but she keeps her mouth closed and takes a leap of faith that her students will handle it, and we do.

In both of these situations, cultural texts are being examined. I could go on. I could tell you about my world history class and how the professor made us read the literature (from the Holocaust for example) because that helps you put yourself in a position outside yourself. I gather that multiculturalism is about recognizing that I sit in my little fish bowl and see the world from it, but I need to recognize that everyone is in a different fish bowl. In an unrelated conversation today, I was reminded of Star Wars, when Obi-Wan tells Luke, “you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view,” in Return of the Jedi. My sense is that this is what multiculturalism is about, finding those truths.

So, all of that being said, this is the part where I jump on a soapbox and try to explain my brain. Please excuse the duhs and any Harry Potter references that may result. I’m trying to paint an accurate picture. As a writer, I often find myself going “duh” in my head when talk about writing. We talk about making claims and supporting it. In any good short story, all of the little pressures (grenades) point to the ending. Duh. The ending of a short story, even a novel, should be inevitable. A good piece of writing (academic and otherwise) should lead to its inevitable conclusion. Duh. Writing is a conversation. In 1100, we use peer groups. As a writer, I am apart of writing workshops and writing groups. Duh. People do not sprout brilliance. If someone says they write for themselves, they aren’t writing to get published. Luckily for our students, they at least have us to write for so they can’t use the “it’s my art” excuse.

With this all in mind, including what I said about where I think I learned to really examine texts as a reader, I will now say “To be a good writer, you have to be a good reader,” a phrase that it often repeated by one of my favorite professors. What these classes (in your face and Civil Rights, among others) did for me, is turn me into a good reader, which has in turn made me a good writer (and I’m NOT just talking creatively, though I like to think I’m good at that too). They showed me how texts are in conversation with each other and taught me to ask questions. Their work was furthered by others and was probably preceded by just as many, but they stand out to me as strong examples because they dealt with real issues and problems, which may or may not mean that they brought “cultural texts” into the classroom. So here’s the kicker. I blame them (and others) for the red pen that flies through my head always. I read for fun, but I can’t read for fun, especially being a writer and knowing that writers do embed an internal conflict and an external conflict that we, as literary scholars, later try to tease out and analyze. If you think Harry Potter is about a boy wizard and Voldemort, and that’s all it’s about, you’ve missed something HUGE. The first book ends with sacrificial love. I can’t say all the literary buzzers were going off in my head when I first read that book as a sixth grader, but when I read the seventh book, there were literary analyzing fireworks. The Hunger Games? Possibly one of the most political series of books I’ve read in a while. It takes place in the ruins of a place once called North America, for goodness sakes. Sometimes I think young adult authors are the craftiest of them all in that way. I can also pull you into contemporary adult books though. Take Joshilyn Jackson’s Gods in Alabama, for example. The first line (if I remember correctly) is “There are gods in Alabama, I know, I killed one of them.” It deals with the South, and football, and interracial relationships, and on, and on, and on. I can’t read a book without considering these things. The other night, I was watching Grey’s Anatomy and I started thinking about the rhetorical skills they doctors were using to try and get Chief Weber to give their departments money. Arizona Robbins (peds) was going for ethos- look at all the children. Dr. Hunt was pulling the logos angle- we need to be better prepared for trauma (in lei of a hospital shooting).

Based on what I just read, I’m fairly certain my professors used steps similar to the ones described to make me pick apart and analyze everything around, which is the best and worst thing for a person. I don’t want to think about that stuff watching Grey’s Anatomy, but I was thankful for it when I went to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in the spring. They took one of Shakespeare’s plays, set it in British-occupied India, and made the one actress of Indian descent play the slut. DING DING DING. PROBLEM. They even altered the role to fit that end. In these ways, I find that if I am indeed a result of multiculturalism, it can be successful. I’m a very observant, very questioning, very aware citizen of the world. I became a good reader, and then I became I good writer. It helped me in the classroom and extended beyond.

[1] For example, he told us a story of a woman who killed herself in another country. Not only did she kill herself, she waited until she was menstruating to make sure that it was known that she did not kill herself because she’d shamed the family by getting pregnant outside of the family (which would be the typical reason). She wanted to make sure her death was investigated because she was involved in something highly political and rather than completing a mission she didn’t agree with, she killed herself.

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A Product of Service Learning and Better for It

While I have lots of concerns and questions about critical pedagogy, I must write about service learning this week, because that was one of the primary facets of my undergraduate education in a teacher-training program. I think by the end of my foundations series, I’d logged fifty-seventy hours of “service learning.” It was not a part of a writing classroom, but I’d be interested to see how that works. My experience entailed helping at the Auburn Boys and Girls Club and Opelika Middle School’s extended day program. For the four or five semesters leading up to my internship (including summer semesters), I also went on my own the Lee County Literacy Coalition and tutored a man in reading and writing one hour a week. The classes involved lots of reading about American Education and social problems and how we fit into that as teachers. We had to do reflective writing of course, but it didn’t necessarily stretch as far as the readings suggest it ought to.

I was, however, drawn to this definition in particular about what should be happening between public intellectuals and the communities they reach into: “They create knowledge with those whom the knowledge serves” (my emphasis; Cushman 511). In “The Public Intellectual, Service Learning and Activist Research,” Ellen Cushman pushes for the interweaving of those three things and as I read I was constantly shaking my head, yes, yes, yes! Since we started this grand adventure into the world of rhet-comp theory and preparing ourselves to teach freshman composition, I’ve constantly been asking myself, “What is the goal?” It’s complicated by so many factors. We are dealing with so many possibilities that it seems impossible that common goals are feasible. We could have a group of students who are majoring in zoology, or politic science, or pre-health, or god-forbid, English. We could have twenty-five students with twenty-five different majors. How is it possible to make writing relevant to all of them? While I don’t see service learning as an ideal, necessarily, I do appreciate the community aspect of it. At the very least, it emerges students into real world situations.

I think Cushman defines a unique and useful experience in describing a service learning class that entails research, serving (participating) and writing. I liked the emphasis on the dangers of this situation as well. Being a service learner is a difficult situation to be in. I have a vested interest in low-income communities and situations and social change, so I was happy to do it. Part of me wanted to do more (hence the LCLC). Some service learners count down the hours. They complain and sit on the side and gripe about the loud kids that hit each other. Others are just there. They play with kids, they enjoy it, but then in class they say, “I have to go to service learning today” and bang their head on the desk. On the other side of the coin, the organizations that invite service learners are also in a difficult position. They know that service learners are there mostly because they’re required to be. Some of them treat you that way, because they know they’ll see you for these six weeks or these fifteen weeks and then they’ll never see your face again. In certain situations, like the Auburn Boys and Girls Club, you do stink if you just go for six weeks and you leave. Why? Because you reinforce to those kids that they don’t really matter that much that you don’t have as much fun as you say you do. They embrace you, with smiles and joyful greetings, because they know you’re going to give them attention, but they aren’t fooled. They know you’re going to leave, just like every other Auburn student that came through those doors. And then, every time you drive past Martin Luther King Drive, you’ll feel like you proved them right. I did, anyway, do.

So, what’s the point of this? I like the idea of service learning pedagogy. I like the way Cushman describes it. I think for students like me, it will be awesome. I think it’s also difficult on so many levels. The things I appreciate the most though are the community involvement (because that makes the writing more relevant to the student than a narrative or something), the research (because it makes them look critically at what’s going on in the world), and the fact that Cushman forwards the idea of creating knowledge with the community, rather than for the community. This seems like the first pedagogy that has potential for preparing students for the world rather than the classroom. I want to prepare them for the classroom too, but I also recognize that teaching the kind of writing I do won’t do most of them any good. I may love literature. I may have an intimate knowledge of how stories are constructed (still learning of course), but my students may not need those specific skills. I want my approach to the classroom to acknowledge that. It’s important that what they learn about writing is applicable for their field and for the world.

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