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"Writing White"

couldntthinkofanoriginalname's picture

"...if our option is for (wo)man, education is cultural action for freedom..." ---Paulo Freire Saturday, I began my first day on the job as a MAST writing tutor to high school students excited at the chance to be a resource and mentor to four brilliant, students of color. Not wanting to impose, as Ivan Illich would say, my views around education, teaching, and, of course, literacy, I gave my students the freedom to design the writing curriculum and classroom space.I was very pleased with the outcome! My students wanted to learn how to write resumes, research papers, SAT prompts, and to write poetry! I was extremely impressed, not because their answers were not expected, but because I definitely did not worry so much about these things my freshman year of high school. Before the start of class, I had been instructed by my superiors to collect writing samples from my students. And so, on a topic of their choice, they each wrote a one page argumentative paper. However, when reading their writing samples, I became incredibly sad and discouraged as a tutor. My kids, who knew what was expected of them academically and even professionally, did not know how to write "well." It was more than grammar and spelling (these areas could be worked on easily), it was the style, the flow, the tone, the words used in their writing that I knew would be looked down upon in higher education. They had not mastered what one of my students had labeled as, "white writing." So now, I am struggling with many conflicting thoughts. I believe Freire when he says education is cultural action for freedom. Yes, these students should be free to write how they please for it is a representation of their culture and upbringing. And if that is their culture, are they not free to act upon it and label it as their education? Although I don't want to admit it, I feel like the answer is no. In this country's education system, where it cannot be disputed that there is a definition of literacy that sets the standard for all, I would be at fault if I did not teach them how to "write white"---would I not be setting them up for failure in this country's dominating discourse? Although education should be a cultural action for freedom to some extent it is not. There is very little freedom in the classroom for these kids to write the way they do; therefore, there is very little room for their culture to be in the classroom as a way of learning. And so, I fear in learning a second language (I think academic writing/speaking a.k.a "writing white" is a second language for many students in America), my kids will grow up realizing that their original understanding and acting out of literacy is, in fact, second, perhaps non-existent, to what I feel pressured to teach them in the classroom.


couldntthinkofanoriginalname's picture

Re: Can conflict and "complex personhood" exist within freedom?

I will answer/respond to what I can since I have not gotten to those readings yet. First, I have to ask, is it possible to approach trilingualism without acknowledging that "urban" slang, for instance, is inferior to academic writing? Is it the responsibility of the teacher to let that be known or should a student just go through life to figure that out?  From what you said, I like that Baker is suggesting that diverse forms of literates should be introduced in the classroom and categorized for different settings. Now that I am realizing, thanks to Pim's class, that language is closely tied to race, class, and culture, when we fail to acknolwedge their literacy in the classroom, we fail to acknowledge large populations---it's as if their identities don't exist outside themselves. 

I haven't figured out exactly how to allow cultural freedom while being sensitive to the dominant discourse but I believe I am headed in the right direction. Saturday, I did two separate activities with my kids, one was on resume writing and the other on poetry writing. I think in doing these two activities, at their request by the way, they realized that they had more freedom, cultural freedom, in writing with poetry and none in resume writing. I think I accomplished in some way what Baker suggests in her writing! :)
alesnick's picture

Can conflict and "complex personhood" exist within freedom?

Thank you for laying out these vital concerns in relation to your MAST practice and in connection with your advocacy and solidarity with your students, which I claim, as well, from a different subject position.  Lisa Delpit, a literacy scholar, has attended to the issues you raise over many years and books.  Our course reading speaks to how irresponsible it is for educators not to be honest about the culture of power and how it is tied to language use.  Judith Baker frames a way to resolve this in the move towards "trilingualism" -- working with students to investigate, and broaden if needed, their and others' use of different languages for different purposes, rather than telling them how to speak and write.  

I hope we will keep talking about how to hold with education as cultural action for freedom AND with sensitivity to the important role of dominant discourse in access to social goods.  With your MAST lesson planning, how could you take this both/and approach forward?  

couldntthinkofanoriginalname's picture

In preparing for the

In preparing for the portfolio, I read this blog post again. You mentioned Delpit and guess what?...I read The Silenced Dialogue as part of a pysch discussion on literacies, cultural capital and power! Although I have personal issues with validating what I know and feel through scholars who may or may not be removed from what they are writing about, it felt good to know that there are other people who are just as passionate and concerned about the lack of respect for the cultural capital of inner-city youth. With that said, I do wish that Delpit talked more about how discourses outside of the dominant discourse in the classroom should be introduced in schools. Of course there is no concrete method but if the goal is to have both white and colored teachers learn how to best teach inner-city youth, I fear her ideas, and mine as well, will fall on deaf ears if there is no practical component to the argument.