For our first anniversary, my husband gave me a Granny Smith apple tree. He thought he had come up with a unique, thoughtful, appropriate gift with my apple pie baking in mind. This lovely tree, which is currently in bloom outside our front window, is a living testament that my husband loves me — and the pies I make. But I didn’t want a Granny Smith apple tree. I wanted something shiny — or better yet a gift card to the local, independent bookstore.
We as teachers often fall prey to the same thinking when designing lessons for our students. Rather than listen to what the students care about and even more importantly, what they want to write about, we focus on our ideals and what we think will excite our students. I have learned that when students are given opportunities to explore their own beliefs about the world, they become more thoughtful, critical thinkers and writers.
An Inauspicious Beginning (September – November)
Does writing about issues of social justice impact students’ involvement/activities/sense of agency around those issues?
This was the question of practice I wrote that guided both my instruction and survey questions of my sixth graders. I was not surprised to find that the students’ responses reflected that they thought about these issues far more often than they acted on them. I was hoping that after a year of exploring these ideas through writing students would become active citizens.
We began by talking about what is “fair,” and what “justice” means in a broad sense. I used Linda Christensen’s “target/ally/bystander/perpetrator” organizer to give the class a framework to guide their thinking (Christensen, 2009, 85 – 103). This framework suggests that in any instance of injustice, there are at least four “players:” the “target,” the individual or group directly experiencing the injustice; the “perpetrator,” the individual, or group that instigates an injustice; the “ally,” individual or group who is not directly threatened, yet stands up to speak or act against injustice; and the “bystander,” individual or group who witnesses the injustice, and does nothing to actively contribute or stop the action.
We searched through literature to learn about these roles. We studied the novel Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata, the story of a young Japanese American girl whose family is removed from their California flower farm and incarcerated in a US concentration camp during World War II. We analyzed writing by James Farmer who worked against segregation in Chicago in the 1950s. We also read a novel by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 which is the fictional account of a family that witnesses the infamous bombing of the church that killed four young girls in Alabama. I introduced the practice of writing in our class within this structure, encouraging students to write from multiple perspectives and to consider many viewpoints.
A key piece of my writing instruction lies in the conviction that in order for students to know what makes good writing “good,” they must be able to identify the “it factors”: those key traits present in all engaging writing (they often can be encompassed in the six traits: ideas, voice, organization, word choice, sentence variety, and conventions). At this point in the year, we were looking at how authors organize their writing in order to hook the reader and ensure that the reader can easily follow the author’s thinking. We looked at all the pieces we had read and analyzed how the author began the piece, what pattern of organization did the piece follow, and what the writer invited (usually implicitly) the reader to do or think at the conclusion.
After spending several weeks reading and writing about others’ experiences with injustice, it was time for them to explore events and experiences in their own lives that they felt were in violation of their rights. I assumed they would naturally progress from writing about these historic injustices to writing about their own intense and personal experiences with injustice. And they did; but I did not recognize it as such.
First off, although I told the class that they should be writing about justice and injustice, it was made quite clear by the 8½ by 11 inch rubric that I handed out that it was more important for them to organize their writing well rather than tell me anything meaningful about their lives. The message I unintentionally sent was: I’m looking for an organized piece of writing to grade.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I received what seemed to me to be rather shallow responses. My students weren’t writing about institutional racism and global wealth disparity. Where did I go wrong? I thought. Why are they writing about such inanity as cheating during Red Light/Green Light, getting yelled at on the playground, and having to do chores?
Tell Me What You Think: Take Two (December)
After reading their early attempts to write about issues of justice and injustice, and puzzling and pondering over what I deemed the fatuousness of them, I had an epiphany. Not only was I defining “social justice,” but I was also limiting the scope of what the students could and could not hold to be just. I was imposing my own views, rather dogmatically, upon them as writers. So I changed tactics. I loosened up and I invited students to “tell the world what you care about.” I also invited students to ask me what I should focus on when I read their papers, what would they like to work on.
I was excited when I began to hear what they were writing. I let go of my tightly held belief that writing that comes from the heart and soul has to be about big ideas like institutional racism or global wealth disparity. We can write eloquently and exquisitely about video games and how much we love our dogs.
But again, I was taken aback by the finished products. More often than not, the writing’s purpose was to convince the reader that not only did my students think their topics were important, but that the reader should also think the same thing. Case in point: “I love video games and here’s why: they’re educational, they help with hand-eye coordination, and they can help you solve problems.” Again, I felt they had missed the mark. I didn’t want them to convince me to think like them, or even feel they had to justify why they thought what they did — I just wanted them to understand that writing is a mode which they can use to showcase their thinking to the world.
Additionally, they were not asking me specifics about their writing. Instead of requests for pointed criticism (e.g., “Am I using strong verbs,” “Does my voice come through?”), they wanted to know if their writing was “good” and if they spelled the words correctly.
Back to the Drawing Board, Again (January – February)
I wasn’t sure where to go. I met with the students and tried to emphasize what I was looking for. I had given them feedback and conferred with them. I explained that “good” writing is not in the grammar and punctuation. We didn’t love The Watsons Go to Birmingham because Christopher Paul Curtis spelled all the words correctly.
Upon the suggestion of two fabulous teachers and friends, Amanda Adrian and Praxia Apostle, I began to examine essays from the National Public Radio series “This I Believe.” These short pieces (most are 500 words or less) clearly state what the author believes on subjects ranging from the pizza delivery dude to international relations. We analyzed these essays. We looked at how authors began them and hooked the reader. What exactly did they do to conclude their pieces? We noticed that almost every single essay, while differing in content, followed a pattern: grab your reader, state your belief, illustrate how you came to that belief with a personal anecdote, and then state your belief again. There were some variations, but finally, here was a concrete set of examples that showed my class exactly how they could express their beliefs about the world.
This was the scaffolding my students needed — and they blew me away. Jennica, who initially wrote about the trauma of having to do household chores, ultimately wrote a piece about the pain of having an absent father. “My dad has made his mistakes. He can’t take them back and he can’t replace them. Everything you do has an outcome.” She wasn’t trying to convince me to think like her and she wasn’t held back by her worry about conventions. She was writing about a deeply personal topic and seeking clarity what she — Jennica — thought was unjust in her world.
When life gives you an apple tree…
After several years of the Granny Smith tree flowering but producing no fruit we learned that unless two apple trees are within pollination distance of each other, the tree blossoms but fruit won’t grow. In my classroom that translates into my journey from Does writing about issues of social justice impact students’ involvement/activities/sense of agency around those issues? to What do you believe? With the correct scaffolding, my writers’ ideas blossomed and they came up with some pretty amazing fruit. They needed me to listen harder, reconsider my definitions and expectations, and ultimately step out of their way.
I am afraid my husband is getting me another anniversary tree this year. What can I say? I do make a mean apple pie.