Teaching Writing: An Approach Grounded in Values

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A year ago I wrote that teaching with American Creed restored my faith in America and Americans, but I almost opted out of teaching American Creed this semester. After all, have you looked at America lately? I was terrified that my classes would quickly default into ugly divisions that made it impossible for us to build community and learn together. In the end I decided to go forward with one adjustment: We would focus on values. And that may be one of the best choices I could have made because our class community is strong (in spite of another semester of pandemic teaching/learning) and we have all been uplifted by the experience. Focusing my American-Creed-themed class on values has restored my faith in humanity while helping my students grow as writers and critical thinkers. Here’s how we did that together.

Grounded Creeds

As I wrote in Shared Values, this work drew us together from the very beginning as we celebrated the personal stories that grounded our values. But when we began to explore the personal values we hoped to see America focus on it was magical. It brought me to tears, and still does, but also had a powerful impact on the community as I saw over and over in student reflections. My Shared Values explains what we did that first week, but the second week was even more powerful as we explored the Declaration of Independence for the values that our country was founded on and the American Creed documentary for the values Americans currently hold and then shared our proposals for new American anthems that uphold the value we find the most important. Then we adopted This I Believe essays as our models and crafted American Creed essays about values such as love, kindness, and service. I cried a lot during that unit because my students’ kind hearts and generous spirits were a balm for my soul. But, over and over, I read in student reflections that they had written more, worked harder, and engaged more deeply in this work than they had for past writing assignments because they cared about this work, this topic was personal for them, and so this writing mattered. There is an important lesson there. My first unit is always a narrative argument steeped in personal experience, but focusing on values raised engagement to another level.

Grounded Analysis

For some time now my second unit for Writing I has focused on rhetorical analysis and my rhetorical analysis work always centers popular culture texts. However, this semester we continued to focus our work around our personal values and how we saw, or hoped to see, them reflected in American values. This meant analyzing popular culture sources for what they could tell us about American values. This is always a favorite unit because students are able to choose their focus text and I urge them to select a book, movie, or TV series that they know well – perhaps even a childhood favorite. However, we saw, just as with our Creeds, that emphasizing values made this work more personal and more interesting. In fact, I suspect that bringing values into the analysis offered another tool to help my students dig beneath the surface of a text in search of meaning. It certainly seemed to work that way as I read essays exploring traditional tales from Cinderella to the more modern Incredibles. Examining the values of our favorite stories and heroes was a profound experience that brought us together as a community and shaped us as rhetoricians.

Grounded Argument

It has always been my goal for Writing I that my students’ arguments should be built on the work that came before. That is, after all, one of the great benefits of using a theme to guide the work of a course. However, in the past many students, even with a lot of gentle guidance, tended to a more scattershot topic selection than I hoped. And yet, once again this fall, centering personal values has kept my students much more focused and made claim development so much easier. As we began our work on this unit we did take a look back at our journey identifying the personal values we hoped to see in America, then examining the personal values displayed by popular culture, and ultimately using that journey to frame a claim that made an argument about America that was grounded in our personal values. I then sent my students into the wild, actually a carefully curated corner of it, to locate examples of their personal values to support their argument as well as provide mentor texts to study and once again I am inspired by the evidence of core values at work in America and in my students’ lives. This work has been focused on my students’ rhetorical skills, but I know it has had a profound impact on the humanity of our community.

As we wrap up our semester by focusing on final projects that pull together the arguments we have explored all semester, I continue to be struck by the benefits of centering our personal values in our writing. I have always hoped to teach my students to love writing as much as I do or at least respect its power. Yesterday, during a writing conference a student told me that our work together had reminded him how much he loved writing. However much was wrong about this semester in this terrible year, at least we got this right. We stayed true to our values as humans and grew as writers by developing our rhetorical skills.


Artwork by Nick Youngson and made available by Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0

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