A Foundation in Activism

Reflections on the history of Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

Social justice was at the roots of the formation of Teachers & Writers Collaborative (T&W) when, in 1967, a group of writers and educators met to reimagine the teaching of writing in schools. They crafted a manifesto for teaching writing which emphasized that “children should be allowed to invent the language by which they manage their world” and be “encouraged to make uninhibited and imaginative use of their own verbal experience.”1  This emphasis on allowing children agency in the use of language and a safe space in which to create authentically remains central to the work of T&W today. 

Children in New York City face increased wealth disparity, poverty (one in 10 NYC public school students was homeless in 2020-2021), and unequal access to the arts; mental health and learning challenges exacerbated by remote learning at the height of the pandemic; and a world increasingly overshadowed by news of violent crimes, racial and political unrest, and injustice.2 T&W believes that when students are given the freedom, tools, and encouragement to express themselves through imaginative writing, they become empowered in a way that extends far beyond the classroom. 

Members of the T&W family recently contributed reflections on our work to the forthcoming German anthology
Literacy und soziale Gerechtigkeit: Theorie – Empirie – Praktiken (Literacy and Social Justice: Theory – Empiricism – Practices) edited by A. Bramberger & S. Seichter. With gratitude to the publisher, Beltz Juventa, we will share these reflections in Teachers & Writers Magazine in the coming months. This month, Nancy Larson Shapiro, former T&W director, reflects on the founding and early years of the organization. Stay tuned for more reflections from us. 

—Asari Beale, Executive Director

T &W was conceived at a conference (in 1966) bringing together educators and writers. Writer Grace Paley attended, and she gets credit for the “manifesto” published at the meetings’ end,3 pointing to what the new organization would do: send writers into schools and community sites to teach (usually “in collaboration” with classroom teachers), have the writers keep diaries reflecting on their experiences, and publish a magazine and books so that others might benefit from what was learned. 

The timing of this conference coincided with enormous upheavals in American society. The Civil Rights and Feminists movements were having visible impacts; the Gay Rights movement was about to be catapulted into the mainstream (through the Stonewall Riots of 1969). The escalation of the Vietnam War (1955-1975) was underway, with a draft from 1964 to 1973 for all 18-year-old boys/men. Conference attendees were activists, most teaching at the college level, and their concerns about what was happening politically merged with their ideas about teaching language/writing and teaching children/youth. Phillip Lopate wrote in Journal of a Living Experiment: a Documentary History of the First Ten Years of Teachers & Writers Collaborative

Because they were writers they addressed themselves initially to what they saw as disastrous shortcomings in the English curriculum; but their concern for language and the ways that schools traditionally choked off students’ creative, alive, use of language was only a metaphorical starting-point for larger concerns about educational tracking and racial and social injustices that seemed to be taking place in the schools.4

T&W’s founding by socially conscious activists laid the groundwork for the organization’s commitment to social justice in and through literary arts education. To start, T&W writers bring in poetic models for children to use as a spur to write, and usually model poems are by adult writers, thus engaging students with the literary world. T&W poets use literature that has inspired them, rather than work created specifically for children. Lopate writes, “In the early years of the Collaborative, writers introduced contemporary poetry and fiction language into the classrooms not merely as an enrichment, but with the intent to supplant or subvert another code: ‘school language.’”5

Phillip Lopate describes in depth “Issues of Language” confronted at T&W in its early years, issues which are still relevant today. These issues include: challenging the code; contemporary poetic language (as a model); the great spelling question; “Black English, Racism, Reverse Racism, and Double Binds”; and censored language.5 Anyone who has followed the philosophical vicissitudes of both teaching language and social justice over the years knows that being a thoughtful educator requires recognizing complexity. 

In one instance, June Jordan, a Black poet teaching for T&W, takes issue when a white administrator questions the “authenticity” of a Black child’s poem in response to a model poem:

Jordan defended her student Deborah’s falling under the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson and writing in that high style, rather than in her own native Brooklyn-Black tongue, by saying that children should learn what is in the libraries, and that poets have always developed by creative mimicry. But, beyond that, she says, “a poet does not write according to the way he talks. Poetry is a distinctively precise and exacting use of words—whether the poet is Langston Hughes, or Bobby Burns.”7

The book of poems by children in Jordan’s workshops was called The Voice of the Children (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970).8  It champions a practice that has always been at the center of T&W’s work: listening to what children have to say in language that they generate. T&W has published thousands of anthologies of student writing over the years, and our approach has been to honor the writing and the student-as-writer.

One last word about social justice and poetry. Both are serious matters, but only poetry can also be playful, and sometimes in play, children reveal their understanding of justice.  

Read more from this series:
Serious Play: Creating Liberated Spaces for the Making of Poetry” by Asari Beale

Using the Broken Pieces: Reflections on Writing and Teaching Poetry” by Javan Howard

1 Lopate, Phillip. Journal of a Living Experiment. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1979. 32. Print.

2 “More than 101,000 New York City Students Experienced Homelessness in 2020-21”  Advocates for Children, 08 Nov 2021. https://advocatesforchildren.org/node/1875

3 Lopate, Phillip. Journal of a Living Experiment. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1979. 31. Print.

4 Lopate, Phillip. Journal of a Living Experiment. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1979. 7. Print.

5 Lopate, Phillip. Journal of a Living Experiment. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1979. 105. Print.

6 Lopate, Phillip. Journal of a Living Experiment. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1979. 100-118. Print.

7 Lopate, Phillip. Journal of a Living Experiment. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1979. 113. Print.

8 Jordan, June. The Voice of the Children. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. Print

Nancy Larson Shapirois an educator and arts administrator based in New York City. She was the director of Teachers & Writers Collaborative from 1982 to 2007. She has worked and spoken exhaustively to advance the literary arts and co-authored to bookThe Point: Where Teaching & Writing Intersect(Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1983).