American Literacy: Exploring the values underpinning a writing class

All, Reflections

This semester my Writing I students and I embarked on a journey exploring our American Literacy using the documentary American Creed and the National Writing Project’s Writing Our Future: American Creed lessons and publication forum to support our work. We explored our personal values, our cultural values, and the challenges facing our country then wrapped up with a direct appeal to our fellow Americans about what it means to be an American. Just this morning I engaged with an Insider Higher Education blog post about how to evaluate a curriculum and it really reinforced for me my judgement about the value of my American Literacy approach to teaching Writing I. In his blog post, John Warner challenges the “standard” that writing to a text is the primary (only?) goal of writing instruction by listing five qualities that he uses to judge a writing curriculum. I intended to reflect on my American Literacy journey with my students this semester and decided that his framework offered a great way to guide that reflection. Warner’s five things we should look for in a writing curriculum:

Genuine Rhetorical Situation

Specifically Warner states: “It involves a genuine rhetorical situation with an audience other than a teacher assessing for a grade.” I have long argued against disposable writing assignments. Like Warner I believe writing assignments should inspire the writer by giving them some agency and voice as well as the opportunity grow as a writer. We are not alone as Ken Lindblom argues for authentic writing vs. school writing using a variety of sources to support his claim. My students were challenged to write about their personal values and what they believed was the most important responsibilities of Americans using This I Believe as a mentor text then crafted their own American creeds. They chose a popular culture text (a book, movie, TV show, etc.) and explored what that text had to say about America. Then, inspired by our writing, reading, and listening over the course of the semester, they wrote an argument about how we could make America better, and then finally they were given the agency to determine the form and function of a direct appeal to their fellow Americans. Over the course of the semester my students were writing to discover what they thought about our country, its policies, and its values and they wrote passionate appeals concerning those ideas. That feels pretty authentic to me.

Supports Learning

Specifically Warner states: “It creates conditions where students learn something they did not know previously. This can be content related and/or related to their metacognitive understanding of the writer’s practice.” Too often students are asked to do the same type of writing over and over and over again through all their years of schooling. They write short responses to text, they write five paragraph essays, they write five paragraph essays in response to text. They don’t know why they write what they write and they don’t know the backstory of the rules they are given for that writing. None of these exercises are authentic writing and none of these prompts require students to actually engage in the rhetorical practice of writing where they make rhetorical choices. And this is why, even though students write throughout K-12 and college they struggle to transfer the “lessons” they learn from one class to the next. My students learned a lot about our country during the course of our American Literacy work. We studied the Constitution and other foundational documents and read/heard the stories of Americans whose lived experiences differed from ours. But they also experienced, studied, and crafted a variety of different texts to support their thinking and writing about America. We listened to and crafted slam poems, we drew pictures and crafted flyers, posters, and signs. We snapped about the texts and ideas of others as well as used snaps as tools to think about our own messages as part of our metacognition process to prepare ourselves to write. Every class and every assignment asked my students to think and to explain what they are thinking and why.

Creates Writers

Specifically Warner states: “It invokes multiple dimensions of the writer’s practice (skills, attitudes, knowledge, habits of mind of writers.)” All of my writing classes guide students through the writing process and support feedback loops to support those writers. We spend a tremendous amount of time engaging in low-stakes writing exercises to brainstorm and develop ideas for writing. We develop the standards for each achievement (more commonly known as a unit), workshop our claims and drafts, and engage in conference-based assessment. I feel pretty good about our work on the “multiple dimensions of the writer’s practice” in general but in specific know that I need to do more to support student’s development of multiple drafts and revision process.

Interesting

Specifically Warner states: “The writing is intrinsically interesting for the students themselves.” This is one of the reasons my classes have themes and I support student choice when it comes to selecting a topic within that theme. Warner writes in his blog post and his book, Why They Can’t Write, that allowing students to write about topics they find interesting is crucial to engaging them in the process of their own writing development. One of my students noted in her final reflection for our class that too often during school writing “all personality and joy is bleached from the process” but that she found our class “rejuvenating.” Another noted that he grew as a writer: “I really feel like I was able to improve a lot, and a big part of that was because I was able to talk and write about things I cared about and had my own opinions on.” Another wrote that she didn’t believe at first that she would really be allowed to write about what she wanted: “As a writer, I learned that I’m far more passionate about things that I ever believed I was.” Similarly another student exclaimed “you opened a can of worms and there’s no stopping me now.”

Reflective

Specifically Warner states: “There is an opportunity for reflection in order to improve students’ metacognitive understanding of the writer’s practice.” I wrote my last blog post about the final reflections that my students engage in every semester. But I challenge my students to think about their writing throughout the semester as well. I regularly check in with them (which of course forces them to reflect about where they are with our current deliverable) and we develop the standards for each achievement and engage in conference-based assessment.

How do you evaluate a curriculum? Do you find Warner’s standards an useful guide for your reflection? How do your classes hold up to your personal values of what is important for nurturing and fostering writers? I knew that I agreed with John Warner on many things, but upon this self-examination I am satisfied that my classes match my personal values as a writer and teacher of writers.

Artwork by Nick Youngson via Picserver

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