Writing in Student-centered Alternative Education
College Writing and Authentic Student Voices: In the Words of New School Students
New School at Dawson is an alternative school within the College. Founded in 1973, New School is the Quebec CEGEP system’s longest running alternative school, and we follow a critical humanistic education approach in English and Humanities courses, open to all Dawson students. It is a place where students learn about themselves and their core values often by using a sharing circle as one tool for community-building. WID provided me with a number of instruments to help better craft and scaffold assignments, and to improve and prepare rubrics and marking schema, but it also introduced a new framework through which to consider New School learning, moving it from the ever-present oral learning circle to more writing. In what follows, I ask, ‘how can writing further the goals of critical humanistic education’ and then ‘what might New School writing exercises look like’? To explore these questions and create reliable data to support my thinking, I created two in-class activities that gave New School students themselves a chance to reflect on writing, speaking, and thinking in their own words.
How Can Writing Further the Goals of Critical Humanistic Education?
Writing can promote critical thinking itself. Let’s start with this. At New School we are particularly interested in engaging in a form of education that reflects on education, as one manner in which society reproduces itself. While the social and political aims of education may be varied and at times perceived as restrictive, and the social baggage of the learner herself may advantage or disadvantage her from the outset, in critical humanistic education, we optimistically focus on facilitation-led learning that ‘prizes’ the perspectives and experiences of the learners, hoping that through examination of their multiple and varied views, their honest dialogue, and a real engagement with the topic and resource materials, we may all come together in critical thinking. In this context, writing may assist students in determining what they would like to express about the topic at hand, and how they are going to express it with their peers. This is writing to think. While I had long used writing as a tool for assessment, through WID I saw it could also operate as an informal processing or journaling device by students, to help them formulate their thoughts before (and after) group conversations.
Writing to help you think?
ACTIVITY 1: Preparatory Writing
How does it feel to put forward an idea, assert an idea, talk in public, critique or criticize a person or a point of view after you have written it down, before you share with each other?
Student A – Sometimes writing down can make the sentences a lot clearer and it gives time to reflect on a way of approaching a sentence.
Student B – Writing before sharing allows to organize and settle ideas. Often, when you start thinking about something, you know you have an opinion, but can’t put it into full, literate sentences.
Student C – Writing it down helps to calm down my emotions. Helps me to create a sort of script so I can feel more confident in sharing.
Student D – Having always been a shy kid, it was hard for me to risk saying something stupid or irrelevant without thinking about and preparing for it extensively. […]. I think that being more visually-oriented, laying my ideas down on paper gives me an anchor for when the time comes to share them, it gives me a sense of security.
Student E – It depends on the topic at hand. I sometimes cannot phrase my sentence spot on and need time to write it down before talking.
Student F – When reading my sentences, I do feel a sense of accomplishment if they are good.
These responses affirm that writing can help students figure out the mechanics of sharing, of communicating with each other, and assist in reflecting on strategies of better communication of one’s values and ideas. The use of writing to think allows students to avoid using personal anecdotes as ‘proof’ of general axioms or truths, instead sharing them as personal ‘journal-like’ text, using personal anecdotes to help define and strengthen their point of view before they speak. They use the writing process to establish confidence and calm, to give them a break where they consider the mechanics of writing and crafting sentences, safely anchored in the phrasing of their ideas. They are thinking of the script. This set of revelations then begs the question of whether writing before speaking sanitizes what they have to say:
A – Of course written language is standardized, because without a standardized structure, it would be more difficult to communicate and convey ideas, ideologies and concepts. Languages are unique, and some connotations, understanding, structures and worldviews are different from one language to another.
B – Standard English was used by colonizers of many ‘black countries’, therefore I believe it is fairly normal for us to feel like our identity is not reflected by using that language.
In WID, our reading of Mike Rose’s “The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the University” suggested that school is considered by students to act as a socializing force to integrate them into the ‘academic discourse community’. So at the same time as a standard idiom is required for mutual intelligibility, this type of standard also serves to replicate the status quo. Those who do not conform risk being marginalized when identities are not reflected. If they are successful at acquiring the new language, concepts, and approaches, they risk losing their existing identity or sense of self through their experiences in academe, as evidenced in these next series of student comments:
A – I find it very difficult not to use ‘I’ when writing an essay and I do not understand why this limitation is being imposed in classes, it seems quite unnecessary.
B – I do find that I feel slightly disconnected with my writing whenever I have to write more formally.
C – Writing tends to take away the emotional, personality-linked part of the answer, which takes away from the whole that was being created initially in the person’s mind. It gives a watered-down final meaning.
D – I hate writing in formal English because I feel restricted, uncreative. It’s not who I am as a person, or as a writer. Makes me try to be someone/something I am not.
C. S. Peirce in his considerations of language suggests that for him language is “the sum total of myself”. In saying this, he suggests that not only is language a socially-embedded process rather than a neutral skill, but that language is constitutive of what some of us in Western culture consider our most intimate and safe-guarded identity, our ‘self’. This might be a key reason as to why students at one and the same time assert the benefits of writing to think before you speak, but also are suspicious of the impacts of standardized or formal English. Some writing results in the loss of a sense of self.
Writing to Share?
ACTIVITY 2: Group Writing
Use this time together for brainstorming, producing a collective map of ideas, and to better focus your ideas. Please discuss the reading from different viewpoints. Consider the experiences you personally bring to reflect upon your subject, and how you engage with and know the subject. After brainstorming, reflect on how sharing your ideas in writing made you feel:
A – When brainstorming in a group, some ideas and meanings can be lost because some works and concepts have different meanings and connotations from person to person.
B – Brainstorming sometimes confuses me because when everybody speaks and tries to express their ideas all at once, it can get very disorganized and I have difficulties concentrating.
C – Brainstorming can help me be on the right track but can also make me doubt or be more confident in the ideas I’m to share with others.
D – Once you have an idea, brainstorming in groups might make you change your idea so it fits with the way the group thinks. If you don’t come up with any ideas for yourself, you may find yourself influenced by others and you might just go along with everyone else instead of being original and creative.
E – Small group brainstorming has different effects. It can change my opinion and make me not share my initial opinion because I’ve convinced myself it’s irrelevant. But brainstorming can also help give words to my ideas if they are more abstract to begin with.
Students tell us that writing does help them to process, since they may at times be puzzled, confused, and often when exploring deep beliefs, uncomfortable. But brainstorming has more varied results. Here it serves as a marker of this dissent and groupthink, that is further accentuated by writing. While individual writing does feel like a respite, group brainstorming followed by writing serves instead to further question assumptions and core beliefs.
So are teachers complicit in producing ‘no-self’ loneliness and confusion? How can teachers go about encouraging the development of independent and strong minds while at the same time requiring standard language and expression? At New School, we take an approach that couples writing with speaking, speaking which is conventionally viewed as ephemeral but is often actually also very memorable. There is something quite substantial about writing and the commitment to writing that we explored through WID, and if this can be coupled with the emotional connection to course content that occurs in the speaking circle, we really have made optimal use of this writing-speaking-writing cycle to determine and challenge our views before and after airing them in a group. I would even venture to say that this is a true engagement with critical humanistic education.