Exploring the American Dream

All, Teaching Tips

This semester I centered the work of my Writing I students around the American Creed documentary and the resources developed by the National Writing Project for the Writing Our Future initiative. I am happy to report that I enjoyed the work, the students enjoyed the work, and we all learned things about America, about critical thinking, and about writing along the way.

As we wrapped up the semester I asked my students to write reflections about our American Creed journey, the lessons they learned, the most meaningful part of the journey, and whether or not they would recommend this work for future Writing I classes.

Say Yes To The Journey

Overwhelmingly students urged me to have future Writing I classes take this journey. There were only a few students who said no and their reasons varied. One student thought the journey might be too challenging emotionally which could be supported by another student’s reflection that examining America’s flaws felt too negative. There was some criticism from both supporters and opponents that at times the work felt too repetitive (I believe they meant my weekly writing prompts not the assignments). It was interesting to me how many students loved how our journey forced them to think more critically about America’s past, present, and future. Most students felt this critical examination actually gave them hope as they realized that there are many good Americans working for a better future and allowed them to recognize the many wonderful things about our country. The work also helped many students see a part for them to play in the future of America.

Gaps For The Win

Most students noted that our examination of the gaps and barriers to the American Dream was the most meaningful part of the experience and many noted that their favorite assignment was the argument paper exploring one specific barrier more closely. While crafting their own American Creed was a close second, it surprised me how many students really enjoyed researching and writing an argument paper inspired by this journey. I am accustomed to students taking pride in their argument papers or being glad they could pursue a topic of their choice, but for many students writing a long argument using sources to be their favorite assignment when there were much more fun and creative assignments to choose from? That is astounding to me. Several students noted that it was the process of critically examining the topic and being able to give voice to their opinions that made the assignment their favorite. They felt empowered by the powerful claims we crafted and the evidence they assembled to support those claims. They said that this work made them feel like better Americans.

Gaps For The Fail

As I wrote at the start of this journey, I built four assignments into our American Creed work: creeds, rhetorical analysis, argument, and projects. I think my students did excellent work on the first three assignments. Their creeds made solid (if not nuanced) claims about what it means to be an American. We all enjoyed the rhetorical analysis of a variety of popular culture explorations of that question (so much so that some did identify that as their favorite assignment). The majority of their argument papers were built on strong claims (although come to think of it – the coaching work involved may be why some complained of repetition) although I do need to work harder to scaffold the collection of their evidence next time as its collection spanned the spectrum. However, my true failure came with their projects. I did not allow enough time and that fact combined with the usual end-of-semester stress (for all of us) I know that I did not provide enough coaching and support. There were some very good projects and some of those will never see the light of day because of my own systemic failure to learn the platform ahead of time. But I will not abandon the assignment as several students noted how much it meant to them to be able to communicate their story to America. I just need to work out some problems with the assignment cycle and support.

I hope my students’ enthusiastic support will inspire other educators to take their own American Creed journey and Writing Our Future with their students. You do not need to go all in as I did, but could instead focus on one specific writing goal or you could give your students full rein to respond. There are wonderful resources available on the Writing Our Future site to inspire your journey. I do urge you to consider a larger project as I believe it was our in-depth exploration from multiple angles that inspired my students’ critical thinking and writing. What are your thoughts about building a writing class around a theme?


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