What We Talk About When We Talk About Values: Navigating Discussions of Privilege and Justice in the First Year Writing Classroom

By Leslie Doyle

^That was the title of the workshop I ran, along with Carrie O’Dell, a couple weeks ago. I’d like to continue that discussion here, but I think the title might now be “Telling Stories and Listening.” Rather than propose a problem and discuss solutions, I would like to present a mosaic of moments from classes and readings and student comments. This blog will be more of a rumination; an invitation to swap stories and listen.

Last semester in my ENWR 106 class, we were reading poems and stories that interrogated ideas of justice and injustice. Segregated beaches in Tretheway’s “History Lesson.” Border crossing abuses in Mora’s “La Migra.” The exploitation of children in Blake’s “Chimney Sweep.” Stories that spun responsibility and casualty in complex ways—ZZ Packer’s “Brownies,” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” So I expected, welcomed, questions and theories and different points of view. But at some point, the “different” became the “arbitrary”—“justice,” it seemed, is whatever you want it to be. If the Misfit felt that killing the family was justice, then “for him it was.”

What does that mean, I asked? Essentially, the tenor of the discussion became “justice is whatever you think it is.” I found myself hazarding Godwin’s Law—“Were Hitler’s actions unjust?” Answer: “not to him.”

In a subsequent class, I asked students to think about these concepts as framed by current events. Freddie Gray had just died in Baltimore. The country was asking itself questions about this death, and all the other ones—a list I don’t need to write here; we all know the names. Most students were reluctant to have the conversation.

After the term ended, I received my evaluations. Overall, they were fine; students are kind and thoughtful people. But there was a trend in a few comments that I noticed: some students particularly mentioned having an issue with the topic of “race/class/gender,” that it was some sort of university “agenda,” or that they were expected to feel sorry about actions that “more ignorant and intolerant” people did. Or, to quote a comment: “White people did a lot of shitty things to black people. Thanks, Montclair.”

And so I found myself in a quandary, this summer, thinking about the reflexive non-reflectiveness, the world-weariness, the disengaging—that last comment! I asked myself questions: am I imposing values on students when I ask them to engage with issues of inequality and take positions beyond “in the eye of the beholder”? And if not (and, to be honest, I don’t think I am), then how do I move the class toward engagement without eliciting defensiveness, or worse, boredom? This was especially on my mind as I knew the Montclair Book, Elizabeth and Hazel, engages with those same issues. But I also knew that the students were writing placement essays on the transformative value of education. Okay, then.

Ultimately, I don’t have any hard and fast answers. I’m going to rely on my reliable go-to’s: Stories, Empathy, and Listening.

At heart, Elizabeth and Hazel is a story about two fifteen-year-old girls. David Margolick made that point eloquently at his recent talk, emphasizing how young they were. My students’ first homework writing for the book is to respond to this prompt: “Margolick writes: ‘Lots of students, black and white, identified with Elizabeth. Anyone who’d ever felt abused, or alienated, or lonely, or just different from everyone else—and who in high school hasn’t?—would have.’ Are there ways in which you have identified with Elizabeth? How about Hazel? Discuss in what ways one might identify with each of the two women.”*

I want to challenge them to really listen to this story.

We’ll go into some other stories, both past and present. I’m going to ask them to name Civil Rights milestones they know, and we’ll draw a timeline on the board. I’m guessing that there’s going to be a huge gap between the 1960s and now—an empty space which I’ll invite them to contemplate—does that mean we’re done? It’s all good? Or are there other reasons for the gaps (or maybe I’m wrong, and they’ll provide moments, good and bad, that cover all the decades; that would be great!). And we’ll hopefully move toward discussing the issues of today, the tragedies that keep happening, and do so with empathy, replacing defensive answers with empathetic listening.

A few years ago, our local high school, where my husband teaches, had a poster up which said “the highest result of education is tolerance.” Neither of us really liked that word. “Tolerance” has the connotation of “putting up with.” Not really our aim. My husband had that conversation with the principal, and offered my suggestion instead—“empathy.” And this sign went up outside the high school the next week:


At our workshop, Carrie and I talked about the times in our classes when words got complicated—how we see ourselves, how we define ourselves, how we see and define others. And stories about times in our classrooms that we found the navigation of issues, especially concerning identity of self and of others, to be difficult. The best part of the workshop was the sharing between everyone present of their stories, and those of their students. Even the difficult stories. Maybe especially those.

And so my invitation is, tell us some stories.

*Adapted from: http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/images/webimages/EandHQuestions.pdf

Report Back from the New Jersey Writing Alliance 2015 Conference

IMG_3388 On Thursday, May 28, 2015 a group of us from the First Year Writing Program (FYW) here at Montclair State University ventured out to Georgian Court University in Lakewood, NJ to attend the 16th Annual New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference. Jessica Restaino, Director of FYW, was able to cover our registration fees, and the group of us met as the conference started with breakfast and the keynote address.

What follows is a collaborative write-up of the conference sessions by FYW faculty members Joanmarie Kalter, Henry Margenau, Shelagh Patterson, and Jacqueline Regan. The conference is a great opportunity to bridge conversations between high school and college teachers of writing. Here’s a glimpse of what went on under this year’s theme, “From Common Core to College Composition: How Do They (Dis)Connect?” Continue reading

(How) Do you deal with sentence-level issues in student writing?

From Mike Laser

I’d like to share a problem, and ask a question.

Here are a few sentences written by my students this semester:

  1. The poem, “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe is by far his most famous poem he’s written… When looking at the poem on a deeper meaning though, you can see that Lenore was his love, and she has died in some way.
  2. The author purposely associates this word (“carried”) to this new meaning to reveal how life was like for men in war, including how he once lived when he was drafted into the Vietnam War.
  3. The doll finally came to life and took charge to make a change.
  4. Neglecting to recognize the horrors those people endure allow people to go to war more easily.
  5. She’s only a plaything or maybe you can call her a doll in his mind.
  6. The similarities among the speakers and their author are illustrated differently through their speaker’s separate tones.
  7. The author thinks back at when he was at war and talks about the man he killed and how he was someone he would befriend.
  8. The money in the household shared between the Nora and Torvald contrast the idea of a happy marriage.
  9. Apart from the speakers’ terrible war experience and varied gendered perspective, the poems send out a clear message that wars should be prevented in the future by describing them as gruesome.

I understand that our job is mainly to teach students to construct coherent arguments, and that teaching grammar lessons is largely ineffective—but I’m haunted by sentences like these. I don’t expect to turn any of these writers into Susan Sontag in one semester, but I wish I knew an effective way to help them.

My question: have any of you been able to make a noticeable difference when teaching students who write sentences like these? If so, what did you do?

There may be no easy cure—there may not be a cure—but before giving up, I’d like to hear what experienced instructors have to say.

Trust, Risk, and the Gift of Failure

By Jessica Restaino

Jessica post picture 1

What has it meant—what might it mean—to look at, to honor, to be still with, to see plainly our—and our students’—limits? And, perhaps most importantly, what might it look and feel like to do this together, alongside our students, with both confidence and compassion? What are the risks and what are the potential gains?

I was eight when I wrote in my journal that I was afraid of the new family moving in next door because they were from India. They’d speak differently, I reasoned, maybe not even know English at all, maybe they’d dress differently. Maybe they’d be hateful, mean. I did not write any of this, rooted as it all was in a deeply Italian American childhood, to be read by anyone. My words were confessional and, a few pages later, evolved first into an anxiety about whether the new kids next door would even want to play with my brother and me, different as we all were from each other, and next into a plan to get their attention. If, I guessed, we rode our bikes past the house a few times, maybe they’d come outside. These were days when mothers shooed kids out into the neighborhood, expecting to see us again only when they yelled from the stoop. As kids, we expected to be neighborhood companions, to wander and look for something to do.

I am still ashamed of what I wrote, childish though it was, and yet I have saved this journal all these years, shoved in a drawer among my socks.

Continue reading

Sharing our creativity: What a concept!

Live Lit! evolves each semester, but the core idea, the beating heart – professors sharing their writing with the rest of the MSU community, most notably the students – is brilliant.

I read for Live Lit! last fall, and again last month, and both times I found the experience to be both energizing and daunting. Reading one’s work aloud is like nothing else a writer does. (Maybe that’s why not every writer does it.) It takes what we’ve done in one medium, and transforms it into another. Words on a page – one’s own words on a page – become performance. Poetry, non-fiction, fiction… they’re (usually) not written to be read aloud. Rather, the voices of the author and her characters are meant to come alive inside the reader’s head. Writing a story and sending it out into the world on wobbly calf-legs is an act of purest trust – and utter abandonment. Continue reading

Teaching Drama in 106 (Spring 2015 version)

This post is a follow-up to the workshop on teaching drama in 106 that Carrie O’Dell and I facilitated before spring break. We’d promised the participants there to share some of the material we used during the presentation so here it is. Hopefully others will find it beneficial too.

In the interests of not retreading material I’ve already posted on the blog, here’s a link to the post I’d made on the subject following my presentation on the subject last year:

Teaching Drama in 106 (Spring 2014)

And, in all-new material, here are a lot of different things from Carrie, consisting of a document on approaches and resources, a PPT to use with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a PDF version of a short two-person play (Executive Dance) she has used, and a modern variant ending to Ibsen’s play.

Drama in FYW Resources and Links

Doll’s House lecture

Executive Dance

Gilman dollhouse end

We’d love to hear any thoughts you have on this material, any questions you might have, and, especially, how using any of this in the classroom works for you.