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April 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 7

Confronting Inequity / Writing for Freedom

Teach students that writing isn't just an academic exercise.

Instructional StrategiesEquity
I began my scholarly career attempting to extend the important work of Gloria Ladson-Billings in documenting successful practices of teachers in urban classrooms and schools. In that work, I was often stunned by some of the community nominations I received from other educators about what they perceived as "successful" practices. One recommendation I received, for example, was to study the instruction of a particular 2nd grade teacher. Although this teacher's practices were identified as exceptional by some, what I found was that she used writing as a form of punishment when students were "out of line." When I visited her classroom, she had the following dictates written on the board:
Copy 100 times: I will not talk while others are talking.
Copy 50 times: I will keep my hands to myself when walking to the lunchroom.
Copy 50 times: I will raise my hand before answering a question.
It was clear by the way the directions were written and segmented from the rest of the board by a purple horizontal line that they were a permanent feature of the classroom. They were not to be erased. I quickly understood that these directions—writing assignments, in effect—were consistently used to correct undesirable behavior by the 2nd graders.
The students likely learned several lessons from this practice of written repetition. One lesson for sure was that writing is a form of punishment. How can students develop an appreciation and love for writing when it is used to punish or correct them?
Writing can, however, be taught as a vehicle and product of emancipation. Writing for freedom, as I call it, allows students to explore issues of interest and relevance to them and to express themselves with little restriction.
When I was growing up, it was writing that became a difference maker for me both inside and outside of school. Once I understood the liberating purpose of writing, I found I was not only able to write about literary elements and assignments as expected in my English language arts classes, but also to express my frustration with situations I was experiencing and observing in society. I wrote about my dissatisfaction with school assignments. I also wrote about disagreements I had with my parents and siblings and with school protocols that I felt reflected societal injustices. Although I dared not describe it as such, I began journaling at an early age, which allowed me to situate myself within a broader social context.

Reimagining Writing Instruction

This kind of writing won't happen if students are taught to see writing as a punishment or a chore. To help students see writing as a tool and product of freedom, teachers should consider the following when working with them:
1. Stress the anytime/anywhere nature of writing. Students need to be encouraged to write (and read) at any time, not just for school-related work. It was this understanding—that I was able to write at times that made sense for me—that helped me express myself and build my identity. I discovered that writing is not just something you do in school or for school. The freedom to write whenever and wherever one desires is a gift within itself.
2. Expand the what of writing. When students realize that writing is a form of expression through which they can and should consider a range of topics and themes (and not just respond to prepackaged assignments), they are better able to identify and write about issues that resonate with them as students and human beings. Teachers often pretend students have a choice of topic selections for term papers or short essays, but students know this is rarely the case. They are too often hemmed in by the expectations of school norms and expections.
3. Reconsider the how of writing. Most teachers have adopted and supported a standardized way of communicating. But overly stressing standardized forms of composition and expression can stifle students' ideas and desire to engage in writing. Be aware of socially constructed, regimented methods of writing that can repress some students' ways of communicating. Give students the freedom to find their voice, and their mastery of the forms of writing will develop over time. But the point is for them to express themselves without form restrictions.
4. Be explicit about the why of writing. Teachers have an extraordinary opportunity to help students understand the healing nature of writing. It can provide a channel for them to explore their lives and express themselves in ways they might be unable to orally. That was certainly the case for me.
5. Write across the curriculum. In my work in schools, I have seen that when the above recommendations are in place, expanding students' opportunities to write across the curriculum can increase their interest and engagement in writing. It's not just about giving students more writing assignments in more classes, however. It's about helping students reimagine what writing can do and how they can use it, so they can start to see writing as something that's not just for English class.

Getting Out of the Way

Supporting students to write for freedom requires that we make a cultural shift in the very ways that we as educators think about, support, and practice writing in schools. If we get out of students' way, they will have an opportunity to use writing to heal from varying forms of oppression they have experienced inside and outside of school. Let's reimagine how we co-construct our learning environments with students so that they will truly write to learn.
End Notes

1 See Ladson-Billings, G., The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African-American children (Jossey-Bass, 2009), and Milner, H. R., Start where you are but don't stay there: Understanding diversity opportunity gaps, and teaching in today's classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2010).

H. Richard Milner IV is a professor of education and Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Education at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Racing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2015) and coauthor of "These Kids Are Out of Control": Why We Must Reimagine "Classroom Management" for Equity (Corwin Press, 2018).

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