Counterstories from the writing classroom: Resistance, resilience, refuge

by Deb Kelt & Amber Warrington

In a statement that has nearly gone viral in the teaching community, Nancie Atwell urged new teachers to choose the private sector over public schools. Though Nancie’s statement received much press, her words don’t stand alone. Often we hear from teachers leaving their beloved classrooms, stating they “just don’t know what to do about” the many problems they see. These stories crop up all the time on our news feeds — stories about testing, standards, mandates, burn out, frustration, hopelessness.

Instead of telling stories that offer few solutions, stories that seem finite, stories that offer endings rather than beginnings, we urge writing teachers to consider and embrace counterstories of their work —  to find hope and possibility in the nuanced work we do with both student writers and colleagues in public schools.

We look back on our writing classrooms, and we remember moments of struggle–when the test loomed over us like a grim reaper, when curriculum mandates seemed to push against or even contradict the teaching of authentic writing. But despite these struggles, we found moments when the power and joy of writing with students was undeniable. Like many writing teachers we know, we have stories of students making choices about their writing topics, following their own purposes and processes, and publishing for real audiences. Stories of a student crouched over her notebook, trying to make sense of the Boston Marathon bombings: “I ask a lot of questions, Miss.” Or a student remembering his home in Mexico: “I lived on a ranch where there’s one pound of beans, one bag of tortillas, every week. Poor family, like any others.” Poems detailing father/daughter dances during joyful quinceaneras. Courageous letters from students coming out to their friends and families. Students screaming back at Hurricane Katrina. Fictional stories about falling in love for the first time. Editorials defending graffiti as an artform. There was beauty in the process, in the stories, in the way we worked together to craft meaning on paper.

Photo of someone writing on a clipboard with post it notes surrounding her

These stories clarified our decision making. The more we found space for writing, the more we wanted to carve out even more time for students and their words. What’s more, we started to see the connections between the act of writing and the art of teaching. Just as we look at our work with an eye of revision — imagining what a piece could be, what possibilities it may hold — we developed the same eye for our teaching. What could we make? What else is possible? How could this mandate become something authentic and real? The act of creating moved our teaching from inertia to possibility. We may have faced curriculum constraints, but we no longer felt stuck.

Finding time and space to do this work was not always easy, in part because of the well-documented pressures cited by many. But it’s not impossible. While teachers may feel stranded in the midst of mandated curricula and standardized testing, pushing back against this isolation is critical to bringing change to our classrooms. Through working with others, we found the courage to put writing at the center of our curricula. In our local National Writing Project community, we have studied with fellow teachers in summer institutes, book clubs, study groups, and Saturday workshops. In these places, we do not struggle alone; we make meaning together, lift up one another, and work collectively for change across schools in our city.

On a Saturday in January, we gathered with writing teachers from across Austin to talk about how to advocate for authentic writing instruction with administrators, parents, and colleagues.  The days started with conversations about ways to share with coworkers what we knew about good writing instruction.Teachers talked about the struggles of pushing against mandated curricula and of talking with English departments about moving away from prompts and giving students choice in their writing topics. Table groups compiled resources to share with principals to explain what authentic writing instruction looks like and how it benefits student writers. We heard comments of understanding: “I struggle with that too” and statements of encouragement: “Let’s form a study group to talk more about this.” Teachers shared practices that sustain them during difficult times, from practicing yoga to taking evening walks to writing in notebooks. Writing teachers in this community have found a place where they can inquire, learn, express frustrations, share teaching practices, discuss, laugh, problem-solve.

It’s hard to feel hopeless when we have others beside us working toward the same goals. And it’s hard to leave when our classrooms become communities of writers. All these stories lift us, inspiring us to push for more change.  We hope to hear more counternarratives from classrooms and teacher communities; we encourage you to craft your stories this summer and make those stories public, to both reflect on your practice and to give our profession a voice.

Even when the noise of standardization becomes deafening, we can hear each other, we can hear our students, and we can hear ourselves: We have many reasons to stand behind teaching writing in public schools.

Deb taught English Language Arts and Reading in public schools for 20 years. Thirteen of those years were spent in urban schools in Dallas and Austin, TX. She now teaches at the University of Texas at Austin and co-directs the Heart of Texas Writing Project.
Amber has taught college and high school writing courses and is currently a doctoral student working with preservice and inservice writing teachers and learning more about making writing curricula and assessment more meaningful and equitable for students.  

4 thoughts on “Counterstories from the writing classroom: Resistance, resilience, refuge

  1. I tried to resign my position as a teacher of teachers of English at the end of the spring semester and I did this because after 28 years things have gotten worse and the forces pushing against good instruction have gotten stronger. That is reality and I can name you hundreds of moments that contribute to my sense of utter frustration and the undermining of my long held belief that things would get better. The trouble is that there really is not effective counterforce to the forces that are driving education at all levels toward becoming training programs to insure complacency in a society where the behavior of those with power cannot be accepted by sensible people with good sense of reality and understanding of the inhumanity that shapes that current reality. Thus, those with power do everything they can with their power to keep people away from the understandings they need to be aware of why the conditions of life today as they are and prevent them from doing the things they need to do to change the conditions, that is, deal properly with those who hold power over them. Teachers gave up the fight long ago, deciding to give in at every turn to the edicts whatever they have been, no matter how damaging following out those edicts may be for those they teach. This is a harsh thing to say, but the reality that teachers have allowed to come into existence, that they could not find a way to fight, for which they would not put their jobs on the line, is one that sensible people like Atwell understand for what it is and how it came to be.

    For some reason my institution would not accept my resignation and I have resigned myself to two or three more years but without any sense that I can tell the teachers I will teach what I know is right without them getting in trouble for believing me. The teachers they will have as models will be the very people who have told my students for years not to listen to the crap I teach, idealistic crap because it has to do with helping other human beings find their full intelligence and to know how to use it to make the world a better place in which to live. They will go to internship with people who have bought into doing the job as those who run the schools tell them to do the job and they will not engage in the kind of discourse that would lead to meaningful discussion of just how bad things are. To do that would hurt them, make them feel some responsibility for the world in which they have been teaching. Teachers do not want that responsibility on their shoulders and they feel ever so weak when confronted by those with power. And this is the problem. Teaching writing, or anything else that involves thoughtfulness, is what the powers that be do not want and teachers know this and have known it for a long time. The testing that so many teach to, forced to do so, of course, is a rather stark sign of what those making policy want, people who will answer as they are told to answer. To teach to surrender takes people who are willing to surrender. But they have no right to surrender others and that is what happens when teachers either give up or come to the job without a strong notion of what it means to be human and what part thoughtfulness contributes to the meaningful human experience. My feeling now is that if one is afraid to confront the powerful, especially if one is a teacher who is supposed to be adept in the arts that allow one to confront others reasonably and with force, then those people should not be teaching.

    My feeling is that there are too few with the will to do the work and take the heat that will come with doing the work well. I know far too few teachers who refuse to acknowledge the primacy of the tests, too few who will help students understand how to go about understanding in ways that they may understand who is screwing with the world, with their lives, understand how to use knowledge and skills to through off the yoke of those who want them to work FOR them, for those who have even if such work returns them, the workers, little in terms of the freedom they are afforded by the laws of nature (see the Declaration) and little time to think about their lot, this a godsend to those who desire an uninformed and passive public.

    It is about time that people like Nancie begin to speak some truth. Trouble is the truth hurts and it hurts worse the egos of those who want to believe they are doing the right thing when even they know that they are not. I am stuck in this hell a little longer and without much hope of using my talents to change things. Perhaps a few signing on for the revolution would raise my spirits and, perhaps, Nancie’s too?

  2. Pingback: Writing for the Culture: Centering Marginalized Youth Perspectives on Their Writing Experiences | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

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