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Connecting through Writing (The Council Chronicle, Sept. 05)

This is a longer version of the story that appeared in the print edition.

When students and teachers take writing beyond traditional classroom walls, they and their expanded communities often make new discoveries—about the world and about themselves.

Coming Together over Writing

Tobi Jacobi, an assistant professor of English at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who works with incarcerated women writers through creative writing workshops, says the experience can expand participants’ understanding of themselves and challenge public stereotypes.

Held once a week for 6-10 weeks, the workshop sessions focus on writing, revision, and sharing drafts for comment and conclude with a public reading and a printed collection of works.

Access is the biggest challenge that Jacobi has encountered during the five years she’s done this work. “The women I work with are marginalized by society and the prison system. Education in prison is vastly underfunded, and even volunteer courses/opportunities are limited by regulations that are often difficult to understand. Since there are fewer women than men in the system, women's educational programming is often neglected. The only federally mandated program is the GED, which means it is often the only program available. That, coupled with the 1995 ban on Pell Grant for prisoners, means that many incarcerated people have little organized opportunities for educational advancement.”

Beyond this, there are other challenges, which include facility “lock downs” during workshop times, women not being allowed to attend sessions, writers’ confidential writing being confiscated, a lack of writing materials, and a lack of space to write between sessions.

However, Jacobi has witnessed successes. For example, she’s observed that the workshop setting enables participants to overcome their often-negative experiences with schooling. “Workshops offer them a chance to view writing in a new way, as a tool for expression and perhaps change rather than a product that reveals their deficiencies.”

Eventually, Jacobi says, the women start to take ownership of the workshop by suggesting writing prompts, offering commentary on works, and helping others with writing mechanics.

Women also recognize a larger reality, she says. “Many women in prison have suffered physical and emotional violence and have not had the opportunity to recognize it as a pattern affecting others. The workshop sometimes facilitates the disclosure of such experiences as a close community is formed.”

And, for women who have not been listened to, workshops give them a chance to speak and feel their experience has merit. Finally, Jacobi says, some women try to “revise their social value” by sharing their stories with family, friends, and others. Still others take up activism, creating documents meant to cause social change.

Jacobi also sees the possibility for public education. “Often the women's writing can offer testimony that opposes the myth of the deviant woman. The public circulation of their words can help redefine how we view the prison system, our legal system, and make visible the racialized, sexualized practices that women and people of color face. While I recognize the risk involved for many writers who make their words public, I also value their willingness to name some of the problems within our social system.”

Getting Teens Involved

Who says teens don’t care about their world? After Colleen Ruggieri explored this topic with her high school students, she designed lessons that “had students running to class each day to see if we’d received letters, and cheering when we did!”

Ruggieri, who teaches English at Boardman High School in Boardman, Ohio, reports, “One project I’ve had great success with is writing to the local newspaper at the end of March, reminding the community that National Poetry Month is on the horizon. I ask people living in our area to send me copies of their favorite poetry.”

Her classes enthusiastically respond to the approximately 100 poems they receive with a thank-you note. They also write a poem of their own that is inspired by the poetry they’ve read.

“We’ve had people write back to us, thanking us for the responses,” Ruggieri says. “We also noted that in many cases, it’s the senior citizens who’ve written back to us—and they were thrilled to be communicating with young people.”

For two other community-oriented writing assignments, Ruggieri asks students to complete interviews—one that they submit to Teen Ink (http://www.teenink.com/) or the “Listen to a Life Contest” (http://www.tcpnow.com/contests/ltal.html), and another that they use as a source for an I-Search research project.

“We’ve had students interview local doctors, firefighters, teachers, and others, and they’ve come to appreciate the fact that even in a town like ours (which is often stereotyped as being a defunct steel suburb of Youngstown, Ohio), there are amazing people who are rich with knowledge!”

Ruggieri describes two other lessons that combine writing, the community, and publishing in “Publishing with a Purpose: Caring for Our Community” (English Journal, May 2001). In one, students write a book about their community; in the other, students compile a community cookbook.

As she concludes in that article: “With the publishing of the two books in my English class, I have witnessed the transformation of my students into more caring teenagers who have a far greater appreciation for their community. Though there will always be people in the world who accuse young adults of being apathetic toward their communities, the hundreds of people in our school’s town know otherwise.”

Keep Efforts Manageable

Vainis Aleksa, director of the Writing Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), has seen that students are drawn to community service.

“I’ve been doing this for about eight years and have seen cycles. When students have [a community service project] they see how much work it actually is and they stick to it, but it’s hard to draw people after a while, once they’ve seen the work that is involved. But if there’s not [such a program], almost always a communal feeling develops where people feel, ‘we’re piling up a ton of experience helping others; isn’t it a shame that we can’t take this out to the world in some way?’”

Undergraduate tutors in the Writing Center currently volunteer for two community outreach programs under the Writing for the Enrichment of Living and Learning (WELL) banner. In one, tutors meet with residents of the Cathedral Shelter/Higgins House, which provides crisis intervention and addiction recovery. They discuss writing cover letters and other practical correspondence; and, because it was requested, the group also works on creative expression. In the other program, tutors are working with high school students to help them start a peer tutoring service at their school.

Aleksa says it’s important that students keep their efforts manageable, meaning the focus shouldn’t be on the number of people served. There are a host of other priorities, he says, such as choosing a location that’s easily reached; finding a time that works for students and community members; securing enough student support to cover demands of the project; listening to community members and providing the services they want; and taking steps to pass the project on to the next generation of tutors.

Although he says students need to attend to “the unglamorous aspects of doing this very good work,” Aleksa notes that the rewards are great. “This is work that they’re very proud of—where they say, ‘I can break the barrier between the academy and the community without “colonizing” [community members] and without being condescending, and help [others] in the way they want to be helped.’”

Amy Cohen, who coordinates the WELL program, is a senior English literature major with a classical civilization/literature minor. She became involved in community writing and literacy projects when she started to see how crucial reading and writing skills are for expressing creativity and for participating in a society.

“As a tutor, I have seen how beneficial the Writing Center has been for UIC students; these community programs enable people outside the UIC community to gain access to these skills.”

Cohen reports that an especially good moment came when writers from the Cathedral Shelter joined students in sharing poetry during the school’s Writing Day. She adds that tutors and writers went on to attend other “open mic” reading events held in Chicago.

“I have found a great deal of satisfaction in these community writing projects on a number of levels. It’s one thing to take the things you enjoy and contribute them to the community, but it’s really incredible to actually see people respond to your contribution [with their own contribution].”

“The Best Teaching Experience”

Laura Hammons, an English instructor at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Mississippi, learned a lot from venturing beyond the traditional classroom to teach creative writing at a youth correction facility for males.

“Two days a week for two hours each day I drove on county blacktops to Oakley Training School outside of Raymond, Mississippi, for what turned out to be the best teaching experience of my life.”

Working without a text, she offered some structured activities, assignments, and journal writing, but mostly she let her students determine the focus as they worked toward producing an anthology of their work. A goal of telling their stories to others through publication encouraged the students to invest a lot of energy in their writing, says Hammons.

Hammons read and responded to students’ writing not with grades, but with notes, suggestions, sympathy, and encouragement to try something more. Students grew in their willingness to share their own work and offer suggestions to others.

“When I felt they were ready, I encouraged them to write short stories and later to move on to drama. They set the pace, and I followed the best that I could. Several of them did collaborative poems. At the end of the term, we all sat around the laptop and wrote a play.”

The successes didn’t come easily, Hammons says. “At first they saw me as another link in the correctional chain. They were clear about why they wanted to be in that classroom—they wanted to tell people who read their words that they were no different, that being in prison meant nothing except that they had been caught or had screwed up. I was there to provide the paper. They resisted liking me for a long time, and I was discouraged and felt defeated. But I did what all good teachers know to do when this happens: I changed course. I showed Seabiscuit for two class periods, and they loved it. It was the perfect choice for that setting.”

Students’ test scores also reflected growth. Hammons reports that on average students’ reading skills increased 1.5 grade levels in 12 weeks, with one student jumping 4.5 grade levels.

Hammons thinks her status as a community college teacher added to the bond she developed with students. “After they shook off their initial bitterness, they began to feel special that a college teacher was in that room. Many of them wanted to go to college, so I took catalogues and talked about degree requirements. I stressed the idea that I would recommend any of them to any college or program they chose. They felt that they had an ally, and it goes without repeating that most of the guys only rarely experienced that feeling.”

New Book Addresses Writing and Community

Writing Our Communities: Local Learning and Public Culture, edited by Dave Winter and Sarah Robbins, puts the focus on writing and student inquiry. Students engage with their communities as they work on projects that tap history, culture, the environment, and other learning sources. Ready-to-use classroom resources are included in this book that is published by NCTE and the National Writing Project. Stock #59206. For more information, visit NCTE’s Online store at http://www.ncte.org/store, or call (toll free) 877-369-6283.

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