Another summer almost over: grandnieces Audrey and Lila start school in just over a week (7th and 3rd grades respectively—a very big deal), and frosh are starting to pour onto campuses across the country. My favorite time: a new school year.
This summer, though, I’ve had the exhilarating experience of teaching Writing and Acting for Change at the Bread Loaf Graduate School of English, and so it has given me a jump-start on this school year and on thinking more and more about how important it is for students to have an opportunity to use writing to make things happen. That is a definition of “good writing” that emerged from a five–year longitudinal study of writers I and colleagues did at Stanford. As the students progressed, they turned away from instrumentalist and reductive definitions of writing and began to say, over and over, that good writing gets up off the page and marches out to make something good happen in the world.
I’ve taken that lesson to heart, and thus try to provide opportunities for such expansive public writing in all my classes. And it certainly proved true in my summer Bread Loaf course. Reading/viewing/listening to the final projects left me breathless, from high school students and their teacher in Vermont working with brand new immigrant youth through a new course on media literacy; to high schoolers in Illinois taking on a narrative action project aimed at using podcasts to document the construction of a digital archive for the Mother Jones Museum; to the development of a new spoken word project at a Massachusetts high school where students will use poetry to act as teachers, advocates, and agents of positive change; to Kentucky teachers and students creating a new course—Cooking 101—that will introduce students to planting and gardening and harvesting skills as well as to cooking what they grow and studying its economic and environmental footprint, to . . . well, I could go on and on. These projects are the epitome of assignments that make things happen in the world, and that keep on giving gifts to the students who carry them out. I can hardly wait for the report that should begin to trickle in as the year begins and the Bread Loafers put these projects into place.
So I was thinking a lot about the wonderful bounty of good and purposeful writing for change during a recent visit to the University of South Carolina’s writing program. There I met with faculty and graduate student instructors who were preparing for the first days of class and working on curricula. The two first-year courses they teach allow for writing that makes good things happen, and while some brand new teachers will take it slow, all seemed committed to the idea of fostering writing that is active and engaged. I spent a delightful day talking with the teachers about the major issues they face in the classroom: too-large classes, too little resources provided from upper administration, and all challenges of turning a disparate bunch of college frosh into a learning community. They were full of brilliant ideas and, as I always am at this time of year, “fired up and ready to go.”
On my way out after a day of meetings, the Associate Director of the program, Nicole Fisk, gave me a gift, a book written together with the students in her first-year class, which had taken a service learning turn. The students and their teacher had gotten to know a displaced Syrian student, a refugee, studying at their university, and they had talked with her about her experiences. Out of these discussions grew their project: they would study the refugee crisis in Syria and would try their hands at writing a children’s book to raise awareness of the war(s) in Syria and the suffering of countless children. I Had a Home in Syria is the result of their collaboration; together, they wrote it, worked with an illustrator, published it (Grog Blossom Press in Columbia, SC), sold the book online, and mounted a GoFundMe campaign. All proceeds went toward the tuition of the Syrian student they had gotten to know. One of the students who worked on the project later said, “I was somewhat opposed to helping refugees before taking this class, just because that’s what the status quo was, but once you meet a refugee face to face, everything changes.” That’s writing and acting for change . . . and using writing to make something good happen in the world. When I think of all the projects like the ones I’ve described here, happening all over the United States, it gives me cause for hope and reaffirms my belief in all our students.