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Writing to Embrace the Future

posted: 10.7.13 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

For our first writing project, my students were invited to choose a place that held significance for them—and to write an essay that made a persuasive point about that place. We read drafts together—as a whole class, in pairs and small groups, with me in office hours and over email. I soon realized that very few writers had chosen school as a favorite place. Nor had writers in last spring’s class in the Bronx written much about school as a significant place.

I remember the countless “literacy narratives” that I have assigned over the years in previous classes, essays about learning to read and to write, or about memorable moments from school and schooling.  Sometimes those assignments generated profoundly moving results. I learned that people had experienced deep transformation in school, that students can thrive in frustrating conditions, and that books ought never to be judged by their covers, as Professor Shaun R. Harper’s research for the Study for Race and Equity in Education suggests.  Rather than focus on negative stereotypes, Professor Harper asks: What strategies make young people excited about learning—and motivate them to attend and complete college?

At the same time, I paid attention to literacy narratives that seemed less than compelling. Rather than write an analysis of germinal moments in their education, writers instead composed general summaries of their schooling. When I asked for more details, I soon discovered that many writers had not experienced germinal moments—and that school was quite forgettable if not counter-productive, as Sizer, Anyon, and others have described.  At first, I attributed the differences to my own white privilege. Yet, as students across region, race, class, and ethnicity wrote less about school as a significant place, I sensed a generational shift as well. For many of my students in this rising generation, school has not been a place that inspires engaged writing.

By contrast, after reading descriptions of non-school places, I understood that both my sense of school and my contexts for attending school were quite different.  In grades K-8, I fell in love with writing (if not always with school itself) because my best teachers presented writing as an imaginative and creative process.  I remember their classes well, even as my schools physically no longer exist. Each of the schools buildings met different fates: two were shut down for asbestos abatement, one was burned down by disenfranchised youth, and one was remodeled, renamed, and repurposed for smaller post-baby boomer populations.

The disappearance of those school buildings remains a symbol for concurrent educational losses. After I completed my K-12 education in the 1960s and 1970s, creativity and imagination appeared to surrender to movements for standardization and back-to-basics. This second loss seems even more unfathomable than the loss of my old school buildings. While I feel relief that children will not be exposed to asbestos, at the same time I acknowledge frustration at the absence of creative outlets for many children, such as art and music. Learning those non-verbal modes of communication certainly enhanced my abilities and interests as a writer—and also provided outlets at school for all of my inexpressible energies.

So, for our next writing project this semester, I want to try a thought experiment. What would happen if we really, truly embraced learning for learning’s sake? Not learning to pass entrance or benchmark or exit tests, not learning to place out of basic or traditional first-year writing courses, not learning for gaining enough credits for financial aid or graduation or a vocational certificate? But learning for growing as learners and for sharing our learning with our communities and with future generations?

What if we were suddenly able to teach and learn in environments in which learning for learning’s sake mattered to everyone—to students, parents, teachers, administrators, legislators, and other stakeholders? What if every student in every course—from pre-school to grad school—were treated as a potential honors students, as Phi Beta Kappa material? What would happen to our schools, our colleges, or our universities? What would learning look like and feel like in your definition of the ideal 21st century school?

What would happen if students chose to focus on one or more of these questions—and to create an essay that would move the audience to act on these visions as innovations for the future?  On what would students choose to focus—and why would this focus be significant for the audience?

Indeed, Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) has issued such a challenge. One of the stated goals of the CCCC Listening Tour Survey is to include “the voices of writing students and those who advocate on their behalf into the national discussion!” Self-advocacy remains a crucial step in becoming aware of our responsibilities to communities larger than our writing classrooms.  Let us begin today to reflect, to listen, to act, and to embrace the future.

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One Response to “Writing to Embrace the Future”

  1. Rochelle Says:

    I like what you have to say about creativity and imagination. You’re right that the “absence of creative outlets for many children, such as art and music” makes true learning difficult, if not impossible. If we stop teaching to the test, I think we’ll see more of the fine arts incorporated into the classroom.