Sunday, October 28, 2012

Changing the world through writing

This year, I was assigned to teach 9th grade Language Arts. Exciting, indeed, but completely unknown territory for me. This summer, I decided that the entire course would have one goal: to change the world through writing.

So we started by writing about our personal passions, those things that excite us, that put that feeling in our stomachs or in our minds.
Frankly, I was expecting to hear a lot more about MMA street fighting or shopping, but as always, the students helped the old adage about assumptions come true (except that I was the only donkey).

Our next step was to think about how those passions could help other people. Most of their interests had to do with other people anyway, and so in most cases, the connection wasn't much of a jump. Jose, who came alive after a summer camping experience, immediately decided to create an outdoor education trip of his own. Christian, who is obsessed with all things fashion, began creating his own clothing line that would be modeled after Toms' One for One business approach. Yadi wants to become a missionary surgeon; German is determined to make pacifist decision making an option for everyday Americans; Diego wants to help "normalize" mentally impaired people...for some the connections to other's needs was immediate.
Then there were others, like Elizabeth. Elizabeth loves to perform. She is naturally dramatic. But how does theater help others? I decided to like Elizabeth figure that out for herself, and she came up with some decidedly relevant propositions. First, she said, performance is a cultural activity that brings people together, helps express emotion, and retain and promote socio-cultural identity. Therefore, performance should be accessible for all, not just those who can afford to go to professional performances or who have theater programs at school. I was impressed: that is a very clear link between her interest and the well-being of other people.

We needed more information, so we spent about a week online, researching their topics and finding an "e-mentor" (someone or some organization that writes about their field of interest). We spent a day learning about commenting and they all made comments on their various blogs.
Lo and behold, some of the e-mentor answered. Christian received a reply from Toms. "They think I'm a real adult!" he said, quite triumphantly, but not without an honest dose of surprise.
Diego received a detailed email from his e-mentor, who told him that she was impressed by his ideas.
German received answers back from professionals all over the United States, including university professors, priests and social workers.

At this point I got a bit nervous. Is this ok? Am I crazy to think they can do this? Looking for some outside input and in a bit of a leap of faith, I asked the students to write essays for our school's Board of Trustees. These essays explained why they are passionate about these topics, what they are planning to do and how the Board can help them in their process. I shipped off four sets of essays and one of our school's largest donors wrote back. She said:
"I was most impressed with your thoughtfulness and ideas for improving our community.... While I have spent a great deal of time as an adult trying to make the world a better place, I know that when I was your age this had never entered my mind. I am greatly inspired by you."
Now that was a jubilant day in class.

This is all very exciting, don't get me wrong. But this is also not yet any sort of real change. So I set them free. They could do whatever they wanted as long as it involved writing or reading, it was related to their topic, and it was school appropriate.
Magic happened. Christian started designing dresses and calling fabric stores for donations. Diego invited the entire school to participate in a charity walk for disabled students. Elizabeth made phone calls to local hospitals with children's wards, asking if she can come teach the kids the basics of performance. Jose wrote business letters to the local chapter of Leave No Trace and No Child Left Inside.

Are they getting better about comma splices and sentence fragments? Marginally. Can then parse a sentence? Probably not. But here's what they are getting:
-They know that writing is useful in real life and not just something they'll use in school.
-They know that writing is not boring.
-They know that their dreams are not merely fantasies but instead valuable and actionable plans.

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