Writing for the Culture: Centering Marginalized Youth Perspectives on Their Writing Experiences

By Dominique McDaniel

A Snapshot of a Virtual Writing Summer Camp

Reflecting on my experiences as a classroom teacher and a graduate student, I thought about what youth themselves would have to say about their own writing identities, writing experiences in and out of school, and their perspectives on how their race and culture impact their writing. Then, I thought about investigating the storied lives of marginalized youth, initially guided by the following questions:

  • How do Black and Brown youth engage in literacy, specifically reading and writing? 
  • What do Black and Brown youth read and write about in school and beyond? 
  • How do Black and Brown  youth write about their racial and literacy identities?
  • What is needed pedagogically to advance and strengthen Black and Brown youth  literacies, specifically their writing?

Those questions led me to the following two inquiry questions:

  • How do marginalized youth engage in literacy identity work through counterstorying in an out of school space?
  • How do marginalized youth use counterstorying to make sense of and push against societal representations of race and culture through their writing?

With these questions in mind, I created a camp for Black and Brown youth, which ran as a culturally responsive literacy workshop. This post seeks to highlight the camps’ components, which ended up being 100% percent virtual due to circumstances surrounding COVID-19. What triggered this thinking? Honestly, it all goes back to depictions and stereotypes of Black and Brown youth that I often heard in the very space youth occupy the most, our educational school systems. 

Countering Deficit thinking 

“Why don’t my Black and Latino students seem interested in writing? I know for a fact they do not read or write outside of school because I can’t even get them to participate in class. I am glad they are not required to pass the State Writing test like they used to have to do years ago.”  – Middle School Language Arts Teacher 

“My African American and Latino students don’t care about writing. I’ve tried everything, and if I give them free rein, they won’t choose anything with substance. I don’t know why I am shocked, and they struggle with my reading material so their lack of writing about the class novel should not be a surprise to me”. – High School English Teacher

As I sat in yet another Secondary ELA workshop required by the district, I could not help but jot down the above comments and several other statements like this I heard from fellow middle and high school teachers as they talked to each other about their perspectives on their students of color. Little attention was on professional development, and more on the problems middle and high school teachers were having with engaging minoritized youth. As a Black middle school language arts teacher in a predominately White school, I am one of the few people who seem to notice and seem to be aware of this kind of deficit talk and who point it out. I have heard my fair share of conversations like the ones above from teachers within my mostly White school and at district led reading, language arts, and English workshops at the elementary, middle, and high school level. 

These deficit-based generalizations are far too common in teacher workrooms and professional development training sessions. These statements, echoed for as long as I can remember during my teaching career, are a stereotypical view, rooted in deficit thinking of marginalized youth, which has become normalized in educational spaces. This perspective of marginalized youth is the dominant narrative of how youth of color are situated within and beyond school spaces. This camp was created as a response to the deficit perspectives surrounding Black and Brown young writers. By explaining how I created a workshop for these youth, you may find applications for a classroom model based on the components of the camp.

A Camp was Born 

I started the workshop with the following goals in mind: 

(1) engaging marginalized youth in writing

(2) understanding the power in thinking of minoritized youth as writers who draw from their racialized experiences and culturally-infused perspectives

(3) discovering the ways youth take action to change and counter negative representations of race, culture, and themselves through writing counterstories, explained as a critical race methodology which provides a tool to “counter” deficit narratives, or counterstories as it is named. 

(4) privileging youth’s voices by exploring what they are saying about writing and explaining how their school, community/societal, and literacy experiences impact their perspectives. 

As I prepared to design a literacy workshop that addressed all the factors above, classroom application was essential. Therefore, keeping teachers and writing implications in mind, I created a workshop that included: having conversations with youth about their writing practices in ways that embrace the culture of marginalized youth, allowing youths’ authentic lives into the classroom, and welcoming a culture of writing rooted in youth’s experiences, into the classroom spaces for all students. 

Beyond “Doing It for the Culture” Literacy Workshop Design 

To counter deficit thinking about marginalized youth, I created a free summer writing camp that ran as a literacy workshop, held over the summer that focused on Black and Brown middle and high school youth’s literacy experiences and perspectives. The camp took place online due to the pandemic and COVID-19. Over one month, four youth and I met four times on Zoom for two hours each. I engaged in the workshop as both a facilitator and participant. Here, you can see images of youth in action below. 

In an interview with me, EB explained his support of the BLM movement and higher education. He said, “I come from an educated family, my mom got a master’s degree from UNCG, my aunts went to great colleges, and really my whole family is very educated. I hope to follow that line.”

Here, Jordynn discussed how her church community was a support system for her and other youth. She said, “I have a leadership role in my church community. I am in a praise and singing group, and I am a mentor for younger kids at church; they look up to me.”

In a group session, JD discussed how he referenced hip hop artists such as Jay-Z and Tupac in his writings often. In one piece, he wrote, “Tupac said it perfectly. Penitentiary is packed, and it is filled with blacks. A song that is related to everything that is going on in the world today is Trapped by Tupac, that’s how Black people feel, trapped.”

Livi spoke about the social change she wished to see in the world in an interview with me. She wrote, “Prejudiceness is happening in our world right now, and it’s hurting our world with all this hate going around. It changes people’s moods and may lead to depression or even suicide.” Livi makes sense of race and racism by thinking about it impacts people’s lives, drawing on the effects this has on others.

I followed a workshop routine for each of the four meetings, incorporating mentor texts such as informational text, media representations such as video clips and audio read aloud, writing prompts that speak to youth lived experiences, real-world issues, and race-related topics, and a set block of uninterrupted writing time. Further examples of these components are provided in great depth in the lesson plan document, and a few are highlighted below. Facilitators of a writing workshop can use this model to bring together the different components. Doing so, I sought to cultivate youths’ literacies and uncover how race and culture impacted their experiences within and beyond school.

Mentor Text and Media Representations

Youth participated in reading, analyzing, and responding to various mentor texts and multimodal literacies, which spoke to the experiences of Black and Latinx people. Youth engaged in dialogue with each other about the text or multimodal representations of minoritized people. Youth read, viewed, and interacted with short texts and multimodal media such as video clips, art, and spoken word poetry. Here are some examples of mentor texts and multimodal media from the workshop, and other examples can be found in the lesson plan document linked above.

Mentor Texts: Informational Text 

Students engaged with these mentor texts (see linked lesson plan document for more examples of mentor texts used in the workshop) via Zoom as I used the screen share feature on the video collaboration tool to read text aloud to youth, ask them to volunteer to read, and implemented the read aloud feature embedded on web pages so they could listen and follow along to text being read. 

Media Representation: Video Clips

Media Representation: Spoken Word Poetry

Here are some examples of youth engaged in dialogue about spoken word poetry, the youth’s favorite multimodal text representation.

JD explained his admiration for this multimodal text, saying, I feel like spoken word poetry helps remind ourselves about what our culture is. Spoken word poetry should be in the school curriculum because it resonates with us better when we hear spoken word from someone like us.”

Livi said, in response to spoken word poetry in general, “I think it is more powerful than just reading it; she is expressing her feelings and what is going on in 2020 and your world you feel that”. 

EB commented, in response to spoken word poetry in general, “You can see how they feel, when you read traditional there may be some words that you may not think are important…but this way you can hear and feel what words they embrace and what words they don’t.”

Writing Prompts & Topics

In addition to interacting with selected mentor texts, the youth responded to prompts and topics I created. They did so by composing, writing electronically, or using their writer’s notebook. Youth also had opportunities to write freely, without the confinement of the facilitator selected tasks. Prompts and writing topics sought to explore youths’ racialized experiences and perceptions within the school context and beyond. Furthermore, topics aimed to contribute to youth’s engagement in writing and sought to cultivate their literacy identity work through counterstorying, by making sense of and pushing against societal representations of race and culture. These short prompts guided youth to worry less about writing conventions and focus sharing their experiences and perceptions.

I was not surprised to find that the youth wrote counter-narratives centered around race relations. The literacy workshop was developed to highlight racial conversations during the study as the nation called for justice and equity towards people of color, specifically Blacks in America. The youth were prompted to talk and write about their experiences and perspectives regarding racism and injustices attributed to race and culture. Writing prompts were used to guide youth in a way that fostered responses grounded in counterstorying. 

Overall, the youth in the group wrote about how they made sense of and pushed back against society’s representations of what it means to be Black to a great extent. I also found significance in how youth engaged in writing to (re)create their narratives as youth with a lot to say about their experiences and perspectives regarding life, culture, and literacy. Here are some examples of writing prompts and topics youth responded to throughout the workshop:

  • What I wish others knew about me, my culture, and my community? 
  • In what ways am I proud of my identities, race, culture, and community?
  • How will you try to challenge prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination?

In addition to these writing prompts and topics, youth composed pieces to many other prompts and topics. You can find more examples in the linked lesson plan document.

Uninterrupted Writing Time

Youth engaged in writing uninterruptedly for 30 minutes of each of the 4, 2-hour online sessions. They could choose to write electronically via Google Docs or traditionally using a notebook and pen and paper for those 30 minutes. The youth used this time to create counterstories, as they reacted to the mentor text and multimodal literacy representations and the prompts and topics presented. As participants wrote, they developed stories that responded to and countered deficit thinking about marginalized communities, specifically people of color.  

During this writing time, youth participated in various writing tasks such as poetry, flash fiction, memoirs, etc. This uninterrupted writing time provided youth opportunities to reflect on their perceptions and experiences as minoritized youth. Here are some of the youth’s writing examples presented by genre type:

Student Writing: Poetry 

Jordynn, a 13-year-old- Black girl and rising 8th grader, decided to write a poem titled, “Say Their Names,” instead of an “I Am Poem.” Jordynn wrote, TRAYVON MARTIN, ALTON STERLING, ATATIANA JEFFERSON, BOTHAM JEAN, DEBORAH DANNER, AHMAUD ARBERY, GEORGE FLOYD, MICHAEL BROWN, BREONNA TAYLOR, BRENDON GLENN, SANDRA BLAND, PAMELA TURNER, SAMUEL DUBOSE, KORRYN GAINES, FREDDIE GRAY, PHILANDO CASTILE, TERENCE CRUTCHER, ERIC GARNER, ANTRONIE SCOTT.

 

JD, a 13-year-old Black boy, and rising 8th grader, wrote: I am cool and calm. I wonder if I will see the next day. I hear gunshots everywhere. I see everything I want to be. I am cool and calm. I understand my Blackness. I say life is time. I dream of being great. I try to make this world better. I hope the best for everyone. I am cool and calm.”

 

EB, a 13-year-old Black boy and rising 8th grader, said, I am calm and collected. I wonder about my future. I hear Bigfoot screaming. I see Arcadia. I want to play basketball. I am calm and collected. I pretend I’m Zion Williamson. I feel an angel’s touch. I touch the moon. I worry about the future. I cry for my mom. I am calm and collected. I understand people’s feelings. I say life is a privilege. I dream about taking care of my mom in the future. I try to dunk. I hope I’m working in the highest field for basketball. I am calm and collected.”

 

Livi, a 14-year-old biracial girl, mixed with Black and White, said, I am tiny and sweet. I wonder when we can go back to school. I hear kids screaming. I see the sun shining. I want AirPods. I am tiny and sweet. I feel clouds. I touch the stove. I worry about my health. I cry when someone dies. I am tiny and sweet. I understand hurt people. I say it is going to be ok. I dream of going to school again, not remote learning. I try my best to make people happy. I wish this world would go back to normal. I am tiny and sweet.”

Student Writing: Flash Fiction 

JD wrote about the success of a Black man in changing the world, writing, A black man named Tyrone wanted to make the world better – people told him he couldn’t, but because he believed, he became what he wanted to be, an important man, and changed the world.”

 

EB said, I am writing a story about a boy facing racism, and I want to publish and finish it by 2021.” He also wrote, “My name is EB, I am black, and I live in America. It’s 2020, and I’m surrounded by police brutality and racism. COVID-19 is going around, and it is killing hundreds of thousands of people. 2020 has not been an amazing year.”

 

Livi said, I am Malia is a Black girl and she was poor so back then, life wasn’t as good as it is now. They had barely any food, clothes, or water and got picked on for not having things other people had.”      

 

Jordynn wrote “BLACK GIRL AFRO,” which she categorizes as “a story about this little black girl named Jasmine, who wore her hair in a lot of twists and braids, which her mother did for her every day for school.  One day Jasmine was sitting in the bathroom and was thinking, Jasmine, should wear her hair out in an afro. At first she agreed with it; still she had went to school and had walked down the hall; everybody was looking at her weird, calling her names and laughing at her. Jasmine’s mom had talked to her and said, you are a beautiful black little girl who has beautiful hair, skin, and face. You shouldn’t let no one put you down just because of your hair, race, or culture. Be proud. When Jasmine’s mom finished talking to her, she felt much better and hugged her mom and said thank you. The next day Jasmine had worn her hair the same way she did the other day. Jasmine walked down the school hallway and kids were still laughing and calling her names still, but she didn’t care; she was confident in her and proud in her race just like her mom had told her.”

Student Writing: Six-word Memoirs 

JD wrote, “Living life to the fullest everyday. 

EB wrote, I am special in my way!” 

Jordynn wrote, I AM A STRONG BLACK WOMAN!! 

Livi wrote, “Interesting, Happiness, Craziness, Broadness, Madness, Dangerous.

Classroom Application: How this workshop integrates into the classroom

Teachers can use the workshop design and lesson plan model (linked above in the section Beyond “Doing It for the Culture” Literacy Workshop Design and linked in this section) utilized in my literacy workshop to transition to classroom adaptation. The lesson plans serve as a model for teachers to add students’ racialized experiences and culture into teaching practices they already use, such as mentor texts, multimodal texts, writing prompts, and assignments, and allocated time for writing. Practitioners can incorporate video clips, spoken word poetry, informational texts, and group discussions just as I did within my workshop’s lesson plan to engage marginalized youth in writing, using resources by Black and Brown authors, content creators, etc. 

Furthermore, teachers can use the model I implemented to have conversations with youth to inquire into their students’ schooling, community, societal, and literacy experiences and get useful insights into their writing practices and lived experiences. During one-on-one conversations, I asked youth questions that span across different categories such as school, community and society, literacy, and counterstorying. All youth were open and honest about their perspectives and engaged in this idea of “real talk,” in which they revealed their truths, personal views, and accounts on writing within and beyond school contexts. Talking to students, showing interest in their culture and racialized experiences, and inquiring into their daily lived experiences is a great way to build community and create an inclusive learning environment. 

Here, I provide a model for having conversations with youth about their writing practices.

What Youth Learned: Writing for the Culture, By the Culture

In contrast to the comment at the beginning of this blog post and statements like it, youth in my workshop were engaged in writing, shared positive experiences regarding writing, and embodied a sense of authenticity in their writing. Youth also wrote a lot more outside of school – more than the teachers at the workshop thought they would, and more than society gives them credit. More so, youth learned how to use their writing to take action for social change, challenge negative representations of themselves, race, and culture, counter stereotypes, and challenge racism, discrimination, and deficit narratives. 

Taking Action: Writing Counterstories in an Out of School Space for Social Change

Youth advocated for social change as they wrote counterstories in the summer camp. The camp setting created and held space for youth to feel comfortable engaging with each other and independently.  Additionally, the camp also afforded youth opportunities to demonstrate their passion and interest in social change, equity, and justice.  The curriculum was culturally responsive, relevant, and centered on youth and their lived experiences, cultures, and context of minoritized individuals’ lives, which led to the counterstories youth wrote.

Many scholars (e.g., Cammarota, 2014; Fernandez, 2002; Solórzano & Yosso, 2002) have argued for the importance of counterstories with Black and Brown youth. Creating space for youth to offer their counterstories has the potential to challenge deficit representations of themselves, their race, and their culture. This camp did just that. It was a place where youth could create counterstories that rewrite dominant narratives about Black youth in today’s society. 

Challenging negative representations of their self, race, and culture

Youth situated themselves in a way that challenges the status quo. Too often, youth are represented as people who do not engage in reading and writing outside of school. Also, minoritized youth are portrayed as lacking academic capabilities in literacy.  Too often, youth are dismissed as not concerned about things that happen outside of their immediate lives. 

These representations are challenged, countered, and changed as youth create their narratives. The literacy workshop provided youth with opportunities to build counterstories that tear down deficit representations of their race and culture. The youth wrote to make sense of themselves and what is going on around them. Also, they wrote to push back against how systemic injustices and mainstream representations. As youth did so, they created narratives that showed admiration of their lived experiences. It was clear through youths’ writing that they wanted to shift the way Black and Brown people are represented in society and took great pride in expressing the assets of their culture, Black culture, and the Black community.

 

Dominique McDaniel is a doctoral candidate and graduate assistant in the Teacher Education and Higher Education Department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, studying Black and Brown youth’s literacy experiences. Other research interests include the identity work of minoritized youth, marginalized youth’s experiences in literacy contexts, specifically in and out of school, and the literacies Black and Brown youth engage in within unsanctioned spaces, such as within their personal lives, online contexts, mainly social media platforms. Dominique taught for ten years, most recently in middle grades language arts, and holds licensure certifications in Elementary Education K-6, Middle Grades Language Arts 6-9, High School English 9-12, and Reading K-12.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

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