“You Were Meant to Be”: Rethinking Metacognitive Writing, Part 2 of 2

In a previous semester, I asked my students a question I wanted to hear their thoughts on.  They answered this question on their websites/ePortfolios as reflective essays: what was the best piece of writing that you did this schoolyear (in any class) and why do you call that your best?  The students’ answers astounded me, particularly the way in which those students most interested in social justice (and I mean social justice as a process and life commitment, not a graded school assignment) answered so fundamentally differently.

Those students who I would most call activist and conscious talked about what they learned about the world and themselves; how they had committed to social justice issues more than ever before; why they saw themselves as people who had creative and/or political agency to change the world, help their families, and/or write in a way that reached and impacted people. Some of them even wrote this final reflective essay as a letter to their mothers explaining their gratitude and respect or as a letter to a younger version of themselves explaining all that they would soon become if they could just survive that current, ugly moment.

sommersBut then there were those other students: “the good students.”  I was bored by them, quite honestly… and disgusted.  A large number of them, who had the same teacher the semester before, talked about assignments where the teacher changed every word, gave them a new research topic when the teacher did not like the topic they selected, told them what arguments to make in every sentence, changed a word almost every line, corrected every single mistake, drew arrows all over their papers showing them where each new paragraph and idea should go.  For these students, successful writing was when you got your paper back from the teacher and there were no markings on it.  No one talked about A SINGLE idea, content area, or disposition they had learned or developed.  No one talked about writing as a process other than collecting teachers’ corrections and finally receiving an A after correcting (always called “correcting,” NOT revising).  This is no surprise— since ain’t no real learning involved here.  The crazy thing is that I have heard other professors call that kind of teaching: providing students with DETAILED FEEDBACK.  That’s not feedback. That’s marking up a piece of paper or, in digital/google doc versions, doing someone’s writing for them.  When I told my own family about this— family members who have never gone to college and some, not even to high school— they were perplexed: why is it that when high school teachers give students the answers on state tests, they are arrested while college professors can tell students exactly what to say and how to say it and no one even thinks that’s a form of teacher-cheating?  It was a good question to me.

I told my students these stories this semester to let them know that if they are expecting a teacher to correct their writing for them, they are in the wrong class!  I comment to big ideas and ideals as a reader, not microscopic language units. There will come a time when we write public/digital, edited texts where we will look at the form and the surface issues, but that won’t be the entire driving force of a semester.  I certainly learned something very important from those “good students”: a reminder to talk to my students about the pedagogies that they experience, especially when it involves writing, and to be as critical of that as any content they are learning.  Of course, the students who I would call activist and conscious, those who talk about what they learn about the world and themselves vs. stray markings on a piece of paper, are well on their way!

Hell You Talmbout?: Back-to-School in 2015

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 12.32.40 PMOn August 15, 2015, Janelle Monae and her Wondaland labelmates gave a free concert in Washington D.C. that was only advertised on social media. Before the show, Monae and the Wondaland crew led a rally through the streets of D.C. that included a stop at the Capital. The rallying song/chant represented her new song, “Hell You Talmbout,” dedicated to the Black Lives Matter Movement, freely available to anyone on Soundcloud.  On her instagram page, Monae explained the message of the song: she channels and records the pain of her people, her own political convictions, and a challenge to those who remain indifferent.  I’ve decided to use this song as the soundtrack of the homepage of my fall 2015 English 101 course to capture how we will approach writing.

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On this Juneteenth: Black Cultural Literacy in Times of Racial Warfare

At an event that I recently attended, a high school teacher at a prominent and privileged high school told a frightening story about her students.  Her students had read a novel in her class about a young woman who was raped.  During the class discussions, students analyzed the text beautifully, said all the right, erudite things; they even composed wonderful essayist prose interpreting the book.  However, surprisingly to the teacher, the students had a whole other conversation amongst themselves in the lounge/ common space: the victim of the rape was just a dumb whore as far as they were concerned.  Though the teacher was hopeful in regard to the promise of new curricular endeavors, I wonder what it means to teach folk whose violence lies in wait this way.

I am not saying that I have never heard students blame the victims of oppression.  Yes, I have.  All the time. That’s the nature of consciousness-raising in classrooms: help students see, understand, and dissect where these soul-crushing ideologies come from and fight those ideas back.  What I don’t experience much in my classrooms are my non-privileged students (who are the targets of oppression, not the voyeurs looking from afar at it) saying what I want them to say, performing what they think is a liberal, progressive discourse for my approval, and then publicly promoting violence elsewhere.  They just say what they think and work ev’ryone’s butt to the bone to try and convince them otherwise.

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R.I.P. for the Nine Massacred at Mother Emanuel

church“It is a great honor. The Church has a very proud history and has really stood for the spirit of African Americans and I would even say the spirit of America in Charleston since 1818, a spirit of defiance and standing up for what is right and what is true… Mother Emanuel, since 1818, has stood for freedom and worship for African Americans in South Carolina. And so it is a humbling privilege that I have to serve as the pastor.”

~ Words from the Late Senator and Reverend Clementa Pinckney from  the forthcoming documentary, The AME Movement: African Methodism in South Carolina

“You Were Meant to Be”: Rethinking Metacognitive Writing, Part 1 of 2

What we sometimes call “reflective writing” is still a mainstay in many college writing classrooms.  The idea is that students think critically about the choices and strategies that they deploy in their writing.  Because “writing skills” are hardly transferable from one place to another, many have come to realize that it is awareness of what you do, how, and why that transfers; that we write and learn in communities of practice, not vacuums and dummy assignments of things that might happen later; that static skills mean nothing outside of their context, actual use, and rhetorical purpose.  I believe in these ideas wholeheartedly but struggle to get my first-year college students to write about such awareness in interesting and critical ways.  This is, most wholly, my own fault.  I wait until the end of the semester rather than filter these kinds of conversations about writing throughout the semester. I do not model critical reflection enough.  My prompts are often stale.  Most importantly, I still have not hit the right chord of wanting students to critically reflect on their writing processes at the same time that they politically deconstruct schooling’s white codes of conduct and (re)claim and (re)situate their own cultural self-actualizations.  Yes, writing happens in the context of communities of practice but what gets left out of these conversations in writing/literacies studies is that those communities most often practice racism, oppression, and all of the attending hegemonic norms. That is the kind of awareness I am interested in for my students.

This semester, I decided that I would be more deliberate and conscious about reflective writing in my classes, a requirement in my program. I focused on three things: 1) filtering stop-and-reflect moments at key points in the semester, not just at the end; 2) asking students to situate their strategies, content, and decisions in the context of the sociopolitical moment in which they were living which at the time included the uprisings in Baltimore, and; 3) opening up students’ entire first year of college writing to scrutiny rather than just my class’s assignments.  Students’ responses to the final writing prompt of the semester was most interesting (I will write about that in an upcoming Part II of this post).

SankofaI kept the final writing prompt wide open… and I did this purposefully.  Students had done enough of this kind of writing/thinking all semester so I didn’t need to guide much.  I brought back the concept of Sankofa as the way to understand why and how we have been reflecting all semester, this time using Brooklyn’s Calvin Ray’s re-mix of Ledisi as the framework for asking students to remember that they are defining the professional, intellectual, and social identities that will sustain their time in college and beyond: “you gotta know who you are, you were meant to be”! (press play on soundtrack player above).  There were three questions to answer and students could answer in any way they wanted (video, letter to a younger self, poem, image gallery, etc):

  • Think back on all of the writing that you have done this year.  What was your best and why?  What did you learn about the issue?  About yourself?
  • Now that you look back on your first year of college in general, what can you say are your greatest achievements?  What, if anything, will you do differently and why? What’s next for you?
  • Your first year of college has coincided with some of most charged political events of the 21st century.  In many ways, you have all entered that same kind of social justice advocacy with your own digital projects. Think back on all of the digital projects that you have done this year.  Why did you make these decisions and digitally participate in the ways that you have? What is the digital-justice-footprint you are leaving behind?  Why that?  What’s next for you and why?

Though these questions are rather basic, they took me a while to construct.  It took some time before I was confident that the prompts and the open-ended genre task matched what I claim to be my philosophies of critical metacognition in the context of digital rhetorics.  Ledisi’s song really shaped how I finally came to terms with what a social justice perspective of metacognition for racially marginalized groups might mean in a writing classroom: know who you are… you were meant to be!  Strategies for fulfilling college and/or work’s literacie’s requirements ALONE could never animate an important enough intervention in Black and Latin@ youth’s lives.

¡Adelante! Digital Storytelling is…

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 8.27.07 PMI began experimenting with digital storytelling (DS) in my classrooms last spring and continued with it this spring.  For my purposes in my own classrooms, DS is a short video (4-6 minutes) that showcases a powerful story in your life (I used Cynthia Davidson’s assignment as my initial model). I am not as interested in students’ final products as I am in their processes though.  They upload their final videos to their ePortfolios but they have many webpages along with the video (about the music, the story, their images, their process, etc).   Here are some of the questions that I also ask my students to reflect on:

  1. When we combine ALL of these elements— sound, images, video, and words— what does this achieve for rhetors?  For digital rhetorics?  
  2. What makes your work part of 21st century storytelling?
  3. Your first year of college has coincided with some of most charged political events of the 21st century (bookended by the kidnapping/murder of 43 students in Iguala, Mexico to mass uprisings in Baltimore).  Local media— largely through social media/digital outlets— insist that national news coverage got it all wrong and inserted its own voice.  In many ways, you have all entered that same kind of social justice advocacy with your own digital projects. Think back on this digital project.  Does it too make an intervention?  How and why (or why not)?

For my ¡Adelante! students (a Leadership program for Latino students who I follow for two semesters in my first year writing courses), however, I asked an additional question… a rather simple one, but one that I thought most critical:

What is ¡Adelante! Digital Storytelling (ADS)?

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The Savagery of U.S. Monolingualism, Part 2 of 3

nypd-stop-and-frisk-2011-infographicIn my first semester at my college, before we had even reached the midterm, one student talked openly about what it meant for him to be an Asian American male in the context of Stop-and-Frisk policies in New York City. He is a HipHoppa whose friends are mostly Latino and Black. While he identifies with and as them, as a man of color, he is not targeted for Stop and Frisk. What does this mean? was the question he asked frequently. This is a rather typical exchange in my classrooms. What was not typical, however, about this particular incident was that I decided to talk to colleagues about what I was witnessing, something I rarely do.   When I told my colleagues about the kind of reading/writing/thinking that was happening in this class, the only response I ever heard was: but is his prose correct? How’s his grammar? And that’s it. All of these things that students are politicizing and all these fools can talk about is grammar.  Even more problematically, the Asian man is a second-generation Chinese-American, but my colleagues assumed he was FOB—fresh off the boat. Based on European/Ellis Island histories of American assimilation and upward mobility, it has not occurred to them that second-generation immigrants are not living the same high life, have a critique of race, and are highly literate in American codes.

2012_Stops_by_RaceI stopped talking to my colleagues about my students and my pedagogy on that day. When I think through what I am seeing in my classrooms, I take my thoughts, excitements, and ponderings elsewhere… and I plan to keep it that way.  I have talked to my colleagues across the country about this young man and unlike my local colleagues, they have been fascinated that a first-year freshman took on the research task that he did.  The student decided to do a qualitative study to better understand multiracial, New York college students’ experiences of and perspectives on police profiling.  He specifically interviewed (using a semi-structured protocol) white, Asian, Latin@, and Black students, a decision motivated by his quest to see and hear what it means to be allied as an Asian man not targeted for profiling. How could he understand this and more, importantly, how might he ensure that his relative privilege not block his own criticality?  Like with all qualitative studies, you just don’t know what might happen when you get out there in the down and dirty…

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(Re-Blogged) Happy Mother’s Day to the Women Who Have Kept Me

mothers-day-poetry-2015After my mother lost her job in the recession crunch a few years ago, I had to do some financial wizardry and move her from Ohio to Brooklyn and become a new head-of-household of sorts (I have always been able to make a dollah outta 15cents but this took a little EXtra creativity).  As I get older, I realize that most of us daughters will be facing similar circumstances in caring for aging parents. My mother, however, does not consider herself aging so we go to a Jazz Brunch/Bar in Manhattan every Mother’s Day and by Jazz, I mean a real quartet that does covers like “All Blues” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, NOT that Kenny-G-Twinkle-Twinkle foolishness.  It has only been in the last few years that I have even been in the same city as my mother on Mother’s Day so I figure we may as well go all out. And the older I am and the more older sistahs I know (who remind you to count the blessing of your mother’s time with you), I realize that every moment counts since having lotsa time with your Mama is no longer something we can take as much for granted.

"Fruit of Generosity" by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

“Fruit of Generosity” by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

I must admit that I like a day to put it all on pause for mothers. For me, that means all the women in my family who have raised me… which is a lot.  I have strong memories of being a little girl and various adults, especially my family and close neighbors, asking me: “who keep you when your momma work?”  OR “who keepin you right now?” (the second question was for when I was on a part of the block where I wasn’t supposed to be or at the corner store without permission). Who keep you?  That’s always been a favorite expression of mine.  No one in my family or immediate kin network ever asked “who babysits you?”   I was never babysat, I was always KEPT.

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