“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.

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