Print, Privilege, and Power: Starting a Conversation About Equity in Our Writing Workshops

When we embrace diversity, we strive to make the demographic of our schools and classrooms diverse. When we embrace inclusion, we ensure that diverse people are seated at the tables where learning is happening and decisions are being made. And when we embrace equity, we create environments and cultures where diverse people can show up authentically, as their complete, and wildly diverse selves, in order to be seen and appreciated, and in order to make the best contribution to all of that learning and decision making. 

Some of you know that quite a few years ago, I began an action-research project intended to help me better understand the resistance I was noticing in the writing workshops and classrooms I supported. I used grounded theory methodology and shared my findings in my first book, Make Writing. I was also clear about the fact that the approaches I was recommending were highly experimental, and I invited other teachers to experiment with them, too. I wanted to keep learning in the company of others. Many answered that call, and another research cycle began. This time, I studied the relationship between organization, meaning, and print in writing and how distinguishing them with intention influenced the writers we all support. Once again, I used grounded theory methodology, and the findings were shared in my second book, Hacking the Writing Workshop. Those discoveries also inspired my current research cycle, which began a few years ago now. I want to know why MAKING writing is working, beyond the simple notion that it is fun. I’ve done plenty of fun stuff as a teacher over the last twenty six years. None of it has had this effect. 

Something different is happening here. Or, as I’ve learned, doing something different seems to create space for what (and more importantly, who) has always shown up in our workshops, but far too often remained unrecognized. It’s made our past present, and it’s illuminated much that many of us have been unable to see. Including me. And I’m still not seeing clearly yet.

So, each of my Sunday posts in November will unpack a bit of what I’ve been learning for those of you who might be interested. I’ll also be speaking to all of this and sharing some of the approaches that support it best during my keynote and break out session at Bringing IT Together conference in Canada this week and at the annual NCTE convention in another few. If you’re planning to attend either of these events, I hope you will find me and say hello. I’m still learning. All of this is still experimental. I’d love to chat more.

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It’s a tale as old as time, set in Ancient Greece. There, it was Socrates who condemned the proliferation of written language while his student, Plato, used print to record some of the most cherished lines in human history, and Plato’s student, Aristotle, was one of the first to experience the shift from oral to print culture. He was a prolific writer, a reader, and a thinker who transformed nearly every area of knowledge he engaged with. 

No wonder Socrates was so worried about the power of print. 

Photo by Puk Patrick on Unsplash

To be fair, his concerns were pretty valid. For instance, he recognized that oral and written words functioned very differently in our intellectual lives. He also believed that oral language demanded more from human memory than writing ever would, and he feared that its rise would soften rather than sharpen our abilities to internalize knowledge. Socrates also recognized the intimacy of orality and its influence on morality and virtue. (Wolf 2017).

When writers bend over a page, they do so in isolation. Rather than turning toward that which they are striving to understand, they turn away. Rather than connecting to their humans in their company, they disconnect. Socrates worried that the very practice of putting down print and in particular, the kind of abstract thinking that writing often demanded would “separate the knower from the known.” (Ong 2012, p.43). It would remove knowledge from the context of the live, human interactions that created it. In essence, it would release the writer from the responsibility of building and sustaining close relationships. And those relationships mattered more to Socrates than any advantage print might have offered.

Socrates was aware of print’s potential to preserve cultural memory and carry history well into the future. He also knew that writing might reduce the cognitive load on the brain, freeing up space and increasing our capacity to think and create differently. He realized all that could be gained from the rise of print, but he was more concerned with what might be lost. (Wolf 2017)

Sound familiar? I’m pretty sure I heard a similar argument unfold in the teacher’s lounge in my own school district when our leadership team began introducing the use of computers to sixth graders in 2004. My department chair was a skeptic at heart. She was cautious and wise, and I played a poor Plato to her Socrates. We were good together that way. Hindsight is 20/20.

Anyway. These early teachers further warned of the unintended consequences of reducing oral arguments to print. While they agreed that writing could facilitate the establishment of sources and proof, they also reasoned that in order for rhetoric to be truly persuasive, it must be spoken in a particularly compelling fashion and involve an exchange of ideas between humans who were present and responsive to one another in real time. 

The Ancient Greeks worried  that writing was a recipe for disaster– a method that could forever ruin memory, obliterate truth, and distance people from one another. (Wolf 2017)

Arguing with Socrates

As it turns out, Socrates wasn’t altogether wrong, but this didn’t make him right, either. Writing remains one of the most important inventions in human history, and while some might attribute its power to its indisputable efficiency, elegance, and portability, it’s contribution to the evolution of human thought and behavior is far greater than that. For instance, neuroscientific findings suggest that writing has a profound effect on brain development and particularly, higher order thinking skills. (Wyse 2017).

Cultural historian and philosopher Walter Ong, one of the few scholars who dedicated his career to the study of orality and literacy, suggested that writing conditions the mind to become increasingly agile and analytical. In order to express ourselves without the benefit of body language, movement, facial expression, intonation, or the reaction of an immediate audience, our writing must stand on its own. Nuance, precision, and craft matter. This is what makes writing rigorous, and it’s that rigor that changes the brain. (Ong 2012).

So, what happens when writing doesn’t happen? Our brains fail to develop the cells, dendrites, and neural pathways that writing brains do, and we become increasingly dependent and often, despondent learners. 

And writers.

Writing invites codification, classification, and  organization, as much as it provides a means for interiorizing and holding oral language. Writers document history and record our memories, and when they position themselves as readers, their access to more and better information fosters better decision-making, too. What’s spoken is impossible to contain or revisit without some form of documentation. Writing is sustainable, retrievable, and portable. It travels and it lasts. That’s why it has served us all so well for so long.  It engages with us anytime, anywhere. And here’s another interesting thing that Socrates may not have imagined: The analytical skills that are fostered by writing also tend to elevate the quality of our speech. (Wyse 2017) 

For all of its artificiality, there is much to revere about the written word. And this is why we worry when young writers fail to embrace and master it. We know that writing will build their cognitive muscle as much as it will help them connect to others and grow their influence in the world. Writing is power. 

It’s also protection. 

We know that when we fail to grow good writers, we sentence them to a lifetime of adversity. And this is often our greatest concern for print resistant writers. 

Who are Print Resistant Writers, Anyway?

When we speak about the achievement gap in American culture, we tend to totalize and generalize. We make things black and white and a bit about poverty, but we don’t often do our homework here. And we rarely problem solve through the lens of our specific work inside of the field, the very place where we might make a difference and do some real learning, rather than simply lifting and dropping the practices we’ve picked up from the experts who came before us. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and we need hold best practices in high regard. When those giants are typically white and male and wealthy, this must give us every single one of us great pause, though. This is why I value action research and why I embrace and am committed to improving my use of grounded theory methodology. It is grounded in the lived experiences of writers and teachers and driven by qualitative data. I have much to learn here, but my emerging discoveries are solid enough to share. I’ll do my best.

What does it look like when a child fails to achieve in our writing workshops? And what does resistance have to do with it? I know that when I invite kids to make writing, I engage all of them. Every time. And the quality of what they produce is far better. I haven’t understood why this happens, though. Not until very recently, as my third cycle of research has begun to wind down. 

What I learned left me wondering: Is it the print resistant writer who suffers inequity or is it inequity that produces print resistant writers?

I’ve been investigating this for the last several years, and the answers–while complex and varied–aren’t very hard to find. I’m astounded that we don’t discuss them far more often in our field. They’re far too important to ignore.

I must be honest: When I take a cold, hard look at all of the evidence-based reasons why writers might be struggling to thrive in the schools and classrooms where I work, it’s tempting to rest my eyes and my heart on all of the external factors that appear to be outside of my control or any other educators’. It’s taken a long time for me to learn that the damage done can be undone, though. Even if teachers didn’t cause it. Even if we’re still uncertain how to fight inequity on a larger scale. 

If we can understand who print resistant writers are, how they distinguish themselves from print comfortable writers, and why this divide may exist in the first place, we can begin to problem solve and do better in our own little corner of the world. 

And that matters. That’s why I’m devoting my next several posts to this topic.

It matters to the children we serve, and it matters to us, too. I spent a very long time languishing under the burden of my own ineffectiveness. When teachers struggle to move writers forward–especially writers who identify differently than they might in any number of ways–they often carry a very quiet but pervasive shame about it. And that shame depletes them. It burns them out. 

Knowledge is power, and our willingness to be perfectly imperfect, vulnerable in our attempts, and willing to seek help and company is everything. We need to know more about why this is happening. We need tangible strategies that will enable us to do better. We need a community of other caring and wildly different educators and parents and kids to share our learning and work and struggles with. We need to allow ourselves to be humbled–this has been my biggest realization. This is hard on my English teacher heart. We tend to be prideful. We tend to be a bit uptight, too. Me, too.

It might help to begin by defining who print resistant writers are and how they distinguish themselves from those who are print comfortable. This is how I do it. This definition is based on my own action research inside of my own classroom, in the writing studio that I founded and ran for a decade, and in the classrooms I’ve worked in within and beyond the United States over the last fifteen years.

Perhaps you’ll recognize some of your own students here.

Print Resistant WritersPrint Comfortable Writers
They’re uncertain how to structure their writing, generate and develop ideas, and/or use text to produce and refine a draft

They’re passive or disruptive, but rarely engaged in purposeful writing

They experience and struggle to manage unproductive levels of frustration

They act out and/or have poor attendance, both of which enable them to evade writing

They’re inexperienced and require consistent and careful scaffolding

They are often exceptionally fluent in the use of mediums and modalities other than text to express themselves

They’re growing their abilities to structure pieces, generate and develop ideas, draft, and refine their work

They’re engaged in purposeful, yet imperfect writing experiences

They engage in productive struggle with consistent support

They attend writing workshop regularly and write consistently

They require scaffolds only when they’re attempting something new and complex

They are often uncomfortable using mediums and modalities other than text to express themselves

Does race matter here? Of course it does. So does poverty. So do the social-emotional and psychological needs of all of the writers in your room. You may work with children who are newcomers to this country, who are just beginning to learn English, and who are struggling with culture shock at the same time. You may also support children who have special rights. They learn in uncommon ways, or perhaps, at a rate or in a state that many other children do not. I’ve stopped referring to these learners as disabled, though. They have strengths that many do not, but because they are atypical, they also have special rights inside of the spaces where standards are expected to be met.

Those we call resistant writers come from all walks of life and the reasons for their resistance are often varied. One thing is undeniable though, and the research is abundant and clear: Students of color, English language learners, and those who live in or come from poverty are systematically under-served in our classrooms and schools (Allington, McGille, & Frazen 1989, Darlington-Hammond 2001, Oakes, 2008). In fact, our system was built on a bedrock of racism and inequity that no longer needs us in order to thrive. It simply is. Unaware of our own biases and ill-equipped to disrupt this system or teach in culturally responsive ways, it isn’t uncommon for resistance to grow. 

And perhaps this isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps it isn’t the fact of resistance, but our interpretation of it, that is all wrong.

I’ll share a bit about what that looked like in my own classroom next weekend and how the cultures that children come from have much to do with why and how they write. This post is already going too long, but in the mean time, I wonder: How is the past present in your own classroom? How is it present in you? And how might your identity influence the curricular and instructional choices that you are making for kids who are very different from you? How might it influence the way that you design your assessments? And why does all of this matter, anyway?

References:

Allington, Richard L., and Anne Mcgill-Franzen. “School Response to Reading Failure: Instruction for Chapter 1 and Special Education Students in Grades Two, Four, and Eight.” The Elementary School Journal, vol. 89, no. 5, 1989, pp. 529–542.

Darlington-Hammond, L. 2001. The Right to Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools that Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ong, Walter. 2012. Orality and Literacy. 3rd ed., UK: Routledge.

Wolf, Maryanne. 2008. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Harper Perennial: New York.

Wyse, Dominic. 2017. How Writing Works: From the Invention of the Alphabet to the Rise of Social Media. UK: Cambridge University Press. 

 

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