Last year at this time, on the heels of the Kentucky Writing Project Fall Conference, I decided to rebuild my Writing I class around the American Creed documentary using materials inspired by the National Writing Project’s Writing Our Future work. This fall my Writing I class is all about American Creed from the start and I am so happy with my choices — so happy I want to offer three reasons that you should teach with American Creed too!
Teaching argument and critical thinking skills is one of the most important responsibilities of my teaching position, but humans cannot live on argument alone (although the American pundit class would dismiss that idea out of hand). Humans crave stories to understand the world and use stories to make their arguments. Even before we all lived in a post-fact world, it was through stories that arguments were won and lost and beliefs were shifted. American Creed tells stories about America and the multitudes contained within our nation and so offers multiple examples of how story can support argument and vividly demonstrates the ways that personal narrative can be a powerful persuasive tool. While the documentary weaves a much broader message, each individual story within the narrative offers a carefully crafted rhetorical message which gives us, both experienced and novice rhetoricians, examples for crafting our own arguments. I also love that this theme offers so much range and scope for argument topics even though my request that students craft a message about what it means to be an American – in specific making an argument about what they believe our common aspiration as Americans should be – might appear limited at first glance. As we examined those stories we recognized the specific rhetorical choices make by the documentary filmmakers. This experience was further reinforced when we compared these stories to the This I Believe arguments we also explored as models. We began our journey exploring the American Creed trailer, Living Room Conversations, and Sworn Again. Then we progressed to studying a selection of This I Believe essays beginning with “The Rule of Law,” “An Ideal of Service to Our Fellow Man,” and “The America I Believe In.” The This I Believe essays currently under construction in my class include a delicious mix of personal narrative and argument crafted within a useful yet not restrictive framework. All these textual experiences should help my developing rhetoricians learn and grow as writers and critical thinkers.
Last year I was more influenced by Carla Truttman’s “America: A Land, A Creed, A Dream” (found on Writing Our Future: Visit Our Classrooms) because it seemed a great way to build on work I was already happy doing (see Creeds and Comics). But during the intervening year I became more and more concerned with the state of American Democracy and so I decided it would be more meaningful for all of us (in my classroom which is the only place I actually control) to break out of our silos or bubbles and to return to our roots so I chose to begin my work inspired by Dawn Reed’s “American Culture, Values, Creed” (also found on Writing Our Future: Visit Our Classrooms). While our future assignments will dig more into the problematic roots of our nation, I thought it was more important as we began our work to focus on the values and creeds that make America a hopeful dream and beacon for the world. We began that process exploring our personal values and creeds (see Heralding in a new year) and then studying some of America’s key foundational documents (see Snapping from the start). Some of my favorite parts of this work was exploring the Interactive Constitution and asking students to consider whether they are originalists or Living Constitutionists when it comes to the Constitution and the fun we had with our alternative American anthems (see Snapping from the start). Students noted to me that they found the work fun and interesting too and I love how rhetorical in nature this exploration was and how this work helped us all think and grow as Americans as well.
My students keep commenting to me that our work has made them feel more hopeful about America and our future. I am glad that my own worry and despair has not infected them (I do try not to make jokes about the end of the world when discussing due dates but it is difficult). I am horrified that 18 year old kids should not be naturally hopeful about the future, but then I suppose anyone with unalloyed hope hasn’t been paying attention. However, my students do believe that we will survive, possibly battered, but not broken. They believe that America will be stronger for its trials and the world will be better for a stronger, improved America. What really makes me cry though is their vision of a more unified America where all voices are heard and considered and where varied dream are celebrated and supported. I want to live in that America and I believe these young people can make it happen — and that renews my hope. Is there anyone who cannot use more hope?
As a writing teacher, I am fond of themes to support my work and I have found the American Literacy theme to offer a lot of potential for some serious rhetorical work – especially using story to support argument but also working with original documents and a wide range of nonfiction texts. I also love that working with American Creed and NWP’s Writing Our Future project has allowed us to use our critical thinking skills to become better and more informed American citizens. Best of all, my students’ This I Believe essays about their hopes and dreams for America have given me renewed hope for the future. Can we ask for anything more than a theme that offers great scope for rhetorical work, support for critical thinking and citizenship, and leaves us with hope as well as essential skills and experience?