creativity · digital tools · digital writing · Self-expression · social justice · voice

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?


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.


  • This giveaway is for a copy of Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension (Link to Thanks to Heinemann (Link to: for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
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13 thoughts on “Respecting Student Creativity: Teaching Writing With A Social Justice Lens

  1. I love this post for many reasons, but mainly for your authenticity in writing it. You are coming from a unique lens that your sister showed you. Thanks for sharing that part of yourself and helping us see how we can do better to be better.


    1. Margaret,
      This piece was a difficult one to write. I am pleased it is pushing the thinking of so many. Diana, my sister had a very happy life, but I am sure she felt she was missing out on so many things. It brings me peace to know I can help others make better choices, be better and in turn give social justice to others. Diana speaks to me and through me every day, she is my voice. I miss her every day.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an amazing post, Deb! I’ve been interested in inviting students to read and write about social justice ever since we read A Long Walk to Water years ago with 6th graders, and they were inspired to make their own changes in the world. Now, as a consultant and coach, I’ve been interested in creating experiences with teachers to support them in inspiring their own students to use their powerful voices. Thank you for this resource!!


  3. It’s so interesting how those young minds have so much to teach us and writing is such a powerful way to do this, but I really loved the beginning of your story. We do speak so much before anything is actually said. Maybe if we listened for that more, our perceptions would look like the two young women holding hands.


  4. I’ve been following Two Writing Teachers for a while now, but I really connected with this blog post because of my own special-needs daughter. This quote especially, spoke to my heart – “The work of giving my sister the social justice she deserved fell upon the listener” – and it accurately reflects my own experience in a way that is deeply personal. Opportunities for self-expression, using their unique voices, are paramount for all our students. Thank you!


    1. Gina,
      Growing up alongside my sister taught me to me to appreciate people deeply. As our world becomes smaller I find this way of seeing others goes far beyond the physical or mental abilities but also includes perspectives, religions, personal beliefs, flesh tones, gender identification, and so much more. When I say I haven’t walked a day in my life that I haven’t used the lessons my sister taught me I mean it! From my days as a special education teacher to my current days helping teachers and students find their way with technology, Diana is speaking to me and through me, She is my voice and I am hers.


  5. Kathy,
    Thank you for stopping by to read my post and taking the time to comment. Allowing our students teach us how they feel comfortable expressing themselves, what tools they prefer to use and how to use various tools is transformative to our teaching. We, as teachers, are responsible for sharing in this learning as we teach students how to use technology to create, process, and share their voices. Students may know HOW to use tools, or pick them up easily, what they DO NOT always know is the ripple effects, positive or negative of their work, this is where we stand.


  6. So interesting. It’s the time. Students need the time to explore and develop their voice. Writing about things that are important to the.


  7. Being the Change is a read I would love to have a copy of for my classroom. I teach middle schoolers and this is an important concept for our students.


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