Respecting Student Creativity: Teaching Writing With A Social Justice Lens
The learning I am most proud of is the learning I received in the absence of words, books, or perfectly crafted lessons. The learning came from growing up with my sister. My sister never walked, and she never spoke an established language. My sister unable to talk, or to use sign language, found her own form of self-expression through gestures and audible sounds. We learned to understand her language, we didn’t demand she use prescribed gestures, the attempts would have been futile. The work of giving my sister the social justice she deserved fell upon the listener.
The people blessed with the ability to look past preconceived stereotypes and prejudices were the ones who truly knew my sister. I haven’t walked a path in life yet that I haven’t used the lessons my sister taught me.
Just as my sister found her way to self-expression, our students must be given the same opportunities to discover how they are most comfortable in developing and sharing their voices. Whether students choose to express themselves in the form of writing prose, poetry or creating a video, the choice belongs to the writer.
The girls in this video, A Muslim and Jewish Girl’s Bold Poetry Slam exemplify the confidence and agency I want to instill in students. The passion and conviction in which these poets spoke and performed left me awestruck. What had their teachers done to help them reach this level of confidence and self-expression?
Work like this shows freedom to explore identity while feeling safe in their exploration of who they are in the community as well as a confidence in who they are as individuals. These writers have been provided powerful mentors and time to work to find their voice. The poets’ choice to share their message widely shows their knowledge of the power of an audience. The teacher respected the girls’ choices as writers, and they didn’t spoon-feed formulaic essays or prompt writing to them. If we want to teach students to be citizens who can use writing to express their ideas, how can we set the conditions from an early age to make that possible?
SETTING THE CONDITIONS
We Give Them Multimedia Mentors
Plethoras of multimedia options open up opportunities for writers but this can feel overwhelming at the same time. To combat this feeling, just as we would in any unit of study, we begin by surrounding students with the writing they’ll be doing, in this case, multimedia writing. We discuss the genres, platforms, and media and the author’s intended purpose. We ask students to consider the work and envision new possibilities. As a class, we discuss how this would change the writing. Then, we step back and let the students spend time exploring these new ideas.
As we navigate these many possibilities with students we reach out to colleagues across the hall or through supportive social media networks. We comb through the web like we do the shelves of the library curating our own personalized multimedia library.
This curating of mentor text allows the gentle ushering of writers as they discover the power of choosing tools for self-expression.
We Empower Everyone
Digital tools are a natural part of how we interact in the world. The world of multimedia empowers everyone to express and hear the voices of others. No longer do we abide by one form of communication. Reading and writing in traditional ways is laborious for some students and can stifle self-expression. The integration of technology allows students to find new ways to express their thoughts and feelings, leveling the playing field, and empowering everyone.
A variety of digital tools in the writing workshop means I lean on the students more than ever. In Christopher Emdin’s TEDx talk, Reality Pedagogy, he suggests letting students teach us. When students are teaching others, they find teaching empowering and the students receiving the information see the message easily relatable. So as we are working to build student agency and mutual respect it seems a natural fit that we ask the students who are exploring the apps to teach the class about the tool. The students’ needs are varied, and when we share the teaching with the students, we can be more responsive to the needs of the writers.
Ultimately, the most potent learning we offer our students is in the absence of our words, books, or perfectly crafted lessons. It is in our gift of listening intentionally. It is in hearing the needs our students express. It is in allowing creative freedom. When we genuinely look to our writers, we come to understand them organically and give them what they need to be citizens who can use writing to express their ideas.