The Uses of Writing in the Changing Lives Classroom

"Writing to reach you" courtesy of Wim Mulder on Flickr

Tam Lin Neville is the author of the full-length book of poems, Journey Cake (BkMk Press, l998).  Her second collection, Triage, is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press (Somerville).  Her poems and reviews have appeared in Harvard Review, Mademoiselle, American Poetry Review, Ironwood, and Threepenny Review.  She is co-editor of Off The Grid Press and works for Changing Lives Through Literature, an organization that teaches individuals on probation.

Writing is used in a variety of ways in the Changing Lives Through Literature program.  Some facilitators use it to begin a class, and to help center a group and orient the students to the present and to the text at hand.  Others schedule a ten-minute writing period in the middle of class.  The writing from this then becomes ground for discussion. Still others ask students to write at the end of the class, giving each a private moment to reflect and gather his or her thoughts.

Some students write more easily than they speak.  A quiet student may shed her reserve when she takes up her pen.  One who speaks distractedly may become a different person on the page, composed and able to organize his thoughts.

The kind of feedback a student receives from a teacher has a lot to do with the student’s willingness and ability to write.  In discussion, words fly fast and it’s not always possible to respond.  But with writing, teachers enter into a one-to-one relationship with a student.  This is a place where a teacher can really listen and attend.

We all know there are other, more negative ways to get attention.  As one student wrote: “Why do people inflict pain on others? It’s their way of unspoken words.  To get attention.  They don’t know any other way to communicate.”

Professor Taylor Stoehr, in the Dorchester Court Program, has opened up more positive channels for his students.  They begin and end the class by writing for about ten minutes on a question raised by the text.  Stoehr collects the work, then returns a typed and printed version to the students with his comments.Each week one student’s work is “published.” Stoehr distributes copies and sometimes reads the piece aloud. In addition, at graduation each student receives a booklet of their own writing plus an anthology of “Class Writings.”

I adapted this model for use in my women’s class.  On the day I first returned typed copies, I saw a look of surprise, a spark in some faces.  The women felt their work had been taken seriously.  One of my students then showed the piece to her daughters in its “published” form.  Because her story was typed, readable, and at one remove, she was able to pass on her story to her children.

After talking about the text objectively, I ask the students to answer a question that relates the reading to their own experience.  For example, when we read the short story ”Medley” by Toni Cade Bambara, I suggest they write about a time when they received praise or recognition for their work.  After about fifteen minutes, I ask each student to read or “say” what she’s written.  This is voluntary but it’s rare that a student chooses to “pass.”

Writing can be a fertile base for discussion. A student in Stoehr’s class wrote, “My best memory from this class was when we sat in groups and talked about what we wrote about.”  These students are interested in each other and lean forward when they listen.  Also, because something written is a step removed from a writer’s personality, listening to others steers the class energy away from divisive reactions and into the more open waters of a good discussion.

Intriguing questions are an invaluable tool for inspiring students to write.  After reading Tillie Olsen’s short story “I stand here ironing,” Professor Jane Hale asked this question:  “Pretend you are your mother (or father, or grandmother, etc. –some person who raised you). Describe what you were like as you were growing up, from this person’s perspective.” One student responded,  “When you got older and went off to school, I worried when we didn’t hear from you for a while.  It surprises and delights me to see you now as a loving mother.”

Certain texts are especially infectious.  One student wrote, “When I read, I automatically want to write.” Students in Mary Stephenson’s class in England were inspired to write poems after a poet visited their class and read his work.  Observation journals and letters to authors have been generative tools for other students.  Letters to mothers and fathers can also lead to rich, surprising writing.

After reading The House on Mango Street, a book rich in metaphor and similes, I asked my students to use these in their own writing.  To my surprise, it became a game for them, a game they were good at. Metaphor asks us to make connections where we hadn’t seen them; it widens our world and shows us opportunities we hadn’t thought of.

In the CLTL program, students see their lives mirrored not only in novels, short stories, memoirs and poems, but also in their own writing.  One probationer wrote, “It’s like seeing your own experience from a little distance.”  A student’s own writing helps her to objectify experience, and this, in turn, opens the way for change.


4 thoughts on “The Uses of Writing in the Changing Lives Classroom

  1. Thanks Tam . I have always believed that reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. We write what we read and read what we write.

  2. Tam,
    The 2008 movie The Class, a Cannes Palme d’Or winner, deals with a diverse middle school in Paris. The teacher makes several mistakes and the students suffer, but the teacher’s triumph is the writing project he has them undertake: a personal moment in their lives. Writing prompts reflection, the best dynamics in teacher/student relationships.

  3. Hi Tam,

    That was a really interesting piece and very timely for us as we have been discussing ways in which we might develop writing opportunities within the sessions. We have for some years set aside 10 minutes at the end for students’ notes to help them record aspects of the text and/or discussion that really struck them, but we’ve allowed these notes to be private. Recently, however, we’ve been discussing the possibility of publishing a collection of writings that students have made over the last two to three years.

    The Creative Writing department at Exeter University are really keen to develop Stories Connect and run some proper research alongside several groups to establish the effectiveness of the programme. We are currently having meetings led by the Exeter University business manager looking at ways to do this when the current three year funding ends in 2010.

    They will obviously be particularly interested in your piece so I have forwarded it on to them.

    All the best,

  4. Hi Tam,

    I always use writing in my CLTL teen girl groups. The writing opens them up and allows them to be vulnerable in a way they would never be in class. We do mostly creative assignments–letter writing to characters, rewriting pivotal scenes, time travel,etc. — which push and encourage imagination and exploration, both of self and the world around them. I also do a few compare/contrast assignments, where the girls compare/contrast themselves to the main character(s) or compare our book to another work: book, song, or movie. These compare/contrast exercises sharpen their critical thinking skills and also give them practical skills that will come into play in their high school English classes,when asked to write compare/contrast essays. For me, writing is the critical piece that ties all the work we do in the session together.

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