Honoring Student Voice: Teaching Writing With a Social Justice Lens

TWTBlog Q1 2019 Blog Series

“Did he read it yet?”  Anxiously, I stared into my mother’s eyes as she stepped inside the house, closing the front door behind her.  After a day of teaching elementary school, my mom dropped her bag of schoolwork just inside the front door and began fishing about inside its contents.  A few days prior, I had asked my mother to please bring my latest writing to my former teacher, Mr. Mills, for him to “correct.” Even though I’d moved on to middle school, I still desperately craved the feedback from this particular fifth grade teacher, a teacher who worked in the same building where my mom taught (my old elementary school).  “Yes,” answered Mom, “he read it.” Smiling, she handed me my handwritten piece of writing. Eagerly, I grabbed it, excited to read what comments Mr. Mills had written. Although I cannot remember the precise feedback offered by my old teacher, I most certainly remember the way he made me feel as a writer. He made me feel that what I wrote about mattered, so much so that he was still willing to read my work well into the school year after I had already left his classroom.  He made me feel like what I cared about was important. He made me feel like I mattered.

Just as Betsy stated on Wednesday, I am not a leader of social justice reform in this country.  As a white male, I can most certainly claim no authority on what it might be like to suffer social injustice, especially within terms of wealth, opportunities, and privileges. But for most of my career, I have become an educator increasingly interested in ensuring that the work I do as a teacher and staff developer for writing workshop (and reading workshop) teachers incorporates themes, texts, elements, and practices of social justice.  This is especially true since my tenure as a staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project where I worked in inner city schools in and around New York. One of those practices of social justice is honoring student voices.

In a professional development workshop a few years back, teacher, writer, speaker (and colleague) Cornelius Minor raised the notion that when we as teachers begin to consider how to more fully bring in what kids really care about, we are committing an act of social justice.  When we do everything we can to include all students in this way, nurturing their writerly identities, making room for what they value, and honoring each of their voices, we are actually helping to create a more socially just community.

Across 27 years of experience in education, I have seen and heard in workshops, articles, and conversations, the well-meaning words, “Help students find their voice.”  It could be argued that this is not our work as teachers, because, really, students already have a voice. But it is our job as teachers to honor student voice.  That is a beginning that can make a real difference.  

How to Honor Student Voice

It Begins with Relationships

Honestly, as I reflect back on my fifth grade teacher Mr. Mills and the effects he had on me, I believe his honoring of my voice as a writer began with a caring, genuine relationship.  In her now viral Ted Talk entitled, “Every Child Needs a Champion,” educator Rita Pierson reiterates the importance of this when she states, “One of the things we never discuss [in education] is the value and importance of human connection.  Relationship.”  She quotes James Comer, professor of child psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center as saying, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”  This begins by listening to kids.  What do they care about? What is important to them?  Coauthor Kathleen Sokolowski wrote earlier this week, “Students need to feel valued, accepted and respected in order to be comfortable sharing their feelings, worries, and hopes.”  Creating such feelings begins with strong connections with kids.

My experience teaches me that as teachers, perhaps we need to work on doing a better job of teaching kids to go after what they care about with their writing. Take informational writing, for example:  In my work with teachers around the country, I have seen some teachers do an amazing job of honoring student choices and voices in informational writing. But I will also say I have at times witnessed scenarios that act as cautionary tales for the dangers of projecting teacher values upon students’ choices and voices.  We must be exceedingly careful about what we implicitly and unknowingly label as “worthy” topics for our students to write about, as transmitting this value judgment can inflict unintentional harm upon student writing identities, and thereby create damaging inequity in our classrooms.  As my aforementioned colleague Kathleen Sokolowski wrote yesterday, Sometimes what they care about does not match what we wish they would write about. However, making students select a topic we think is worthy but is not their choice will not serve them well as writers.”

Help Build a More Empathetic World

My colleague and coauthor Melanie Meehan once said, “Empathy is foundational to social justice.”  When it comes to teaching into informational writing, a few ways we might honor student voice is by teaching kids to think about:

  • How will you educate others about what you care about?
  • What should people know about this topic (you care about)?
  • What misconceptions about this topic might you be able to clear up?

By encouraging these questions, as well as opening the door for kids to write about what truly matters to them, it might be argued that we help our kids see that writing and reading can help to build a more empathetic world.  

Interestingly, two sources have recently reported that empathy in young people has seen a 40% decrease over the last two decades, with the steepest decline occurring over the last ten years. One of those sources, Maryanne Wolf, who cites a study conducted by a research group led by University of Michigan professor Sara Konrath at Stanford University, writes about the importance of Perspective Taking.  In her book Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (Harper, 2018), she writes about how Perspective Taking is so valuable because it can force us to examine our own prior judgments and the lives of others (p. 48).  Another source, Dr. Michele Borba, who cites the same Konrath study, writes about the “Nine habits of empathetic children.”  One of those habits named (as Wolf writes) is– you guessed it–Perspective Taking.  Borba calls this habit “the gateway to empathy, because it helps us step into another’s shoes, feel what another human being is feeling, and understand the world from his or her point of view.”  When students are able to Perspective Take both as writers– helping to foster empathy by teaching about what they care about– and readers– learning to become more empathetic by stepping into another’s worldview– they Perspective Take in two different fashions.  As Borba says, “After all, the world our children live in is “WE” not “ME” and self-absorption kills empathy.”

Make Room for Play, Passion, and Purpose

During his workshop primarily focused on argument writing, Cornelius Minor, author of the new book We Got This (Heinemann, 2018), appealed to educators to teach kids that their voices matter.  Especially as members of a democratic society that enjoys a free press, our students must learn that they all have voices and should be encouraged to exercise their right to be heard.  When we ignite what Tony Wagner calls passion and purpose in this way (if you haven’t already, check out Wagner’s seminal Ted Talk here), we create what Peter Johnston calls “agency.”  Coauthor Beth Moore wrote about Johnston’s important research earlier this week in her post when she referred to the importance of intentionally choosing words we use with students. Words do matter. And we should know that we can do a lot toward avoiding passionless, formulaic writing. I shudder when I think about the parameters placed upon students; how those parameters sometimes squeeze all the play, passion, and purpose out of kids’ writing.  And then we wonder why students’ “final products” lack voice?

What if we posed the following questions to ourselves:  How am I lifting up the voices of my writers?  And what might I be doing that is antithetical to such a notion?  When confronting such queries, all of us will likely come to different responses, realizations, and revelations.  And perhaps one result might be a change in practice, a shift in thinking, or even — think of it!– the unleashing of a chorus of writerly voices in your classroom(s).

 

I’ll never forget what Mr. Mills did for me as a young writer.  Perhaps he was what Tony Wagner would call an “outlier”– a teacher who possessed an unusual talent for sparking the writing spirit in ten year-olds.  Or perhaps he was just a person who took great pride in believing in his students and their writerly voices. Who knows? But whatever label we might settle on, rest assured he was someone who honored student voice in writing.  And in that way, might we all work to emulate him.

Time frame Suggestions for Honoring Student Voice

Tomorrow

  • Consider how you might respond to the two questions below and what that might change in your practices:
    • How am I lifting up the voices of my writers?  
    • What might I be doing that is antithetical to such a notion?

Next week

  • To assess engagement in writing workshop, consider asking students to show with fingers (1=not really, 2=kind of, and 3=totally) how engaged they are in the topic they are writing about.  Then arrange for research-only conferences to create opportunities for listening to student writers.

Next month

  • Collaborate with a colleague(s) to act upon one or two new realizations that arose through tomorrow’s questions (see above).

Next year

  • Allow for “greenbelt writing” or perhaps some independent writing projects fueled solely by student interest, initiative, and voice.

 

Resources

We Got This, by Cornelius Minor

Joy Write, by Ralph Fletcher

Hidden Gems, by Katherine Bomer

On 2/4/19, we will host a Twitterchat that addresses the important topic of social justice. Please join us at 8:30 p.m. EST, using the #twtblog hashtag.

Feb19 Twitter Chat Image
GIVEAWAY INFORMATION:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, February 3rd at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, February 4th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – BEING THE CHANGE. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.