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. This month, I would like to share a reflection on freedom of voice in the classroom and T&W’s philosophy approach to teaching creative writing.
—Asari Beale, Executive Director
One of the basic understandings in a T&W poetry writing program is that it is not the goal of the teaching writer to teach literacy. We’re not teaching grammar and syntax. Rather, the goal is for students to become acquainted with literature in a very personal way, to believe that they, too, can be creators, and to enjoy creating. When a student cares about their writing, when they are paying attention to words and understand the way their words can shift the way a reader feels or thinks, the student may find they care about grammar and want to work on improving it. But if that happens as a result of a T&W program, that result is only incidental. The main thing we’re trying to shift is a mindset about who’s allowed to write and what we’re allowed to write about.
In a T&W program, we start with the premise that poetry is a birthright. In other words, anyone can, given the freedom, tap into the language of their imagination to create moving poetry. Grace Paley, writer, activist, and one of the founders of Teachers & Writers Collaborative, wrote this advice to young writers in Writers as Teachers/Teachers as Writers (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970): “Literature has something to do with language. There’s probably a natural grammar at the tip of your tongue. You may not believe it, but if you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends, you’ll probably say something beautiful.”3 When working with young people, poet Aracelis Girmay states: “I want to be open enough and spacious enough to really hear their idiosyncratic ways of responding to a question.”4
Giving students permission to write in their own voices was as radical then as it is now. Classroom teachers must lift heavy loads: teach students the rules of writing so that they may pass standardized tests, meet state-defined standards, and demonstrate their understanding of classroom assignments. For this there are guidelines, templates, pre-defined formats. Most people who have been schooled in the United States have the five-paragraph essay embossed in our memories as The Way to Write.
The Teachers & Writers artist enters the classroom with the intent to explode all that. The workshop begins with a ritual, often a chant. Here is an example, with students repeating after the teaching artist:
I have a voice.
My voice is powerful.
My voice can change the world.
This ritual defines the teaching artists’ time in the classroom as special. What will happen in the workshop is different and apart from regular school. This separation is a necessary step in establishing that vital life-giving permission to write freely. Writer Susan Karwoska shared with me a story about a young student asking her, in astonishment, “you can say that?” Our goal is to show, in as many ways as possible, yes, you can say that.
The texts that teaching artists introduce to students plays a role in demonstrating “you can say that.” The T&W model has always been to share diverse texts—often by contemporary poets—that they would not likely encounter in the typical English language arts curriculum. More specifically, students in New York City public schools, which are majority Black and Latine, would read works written by Black and Latine poets. They would read works that experiment with language (naturally) and that talk about things that their textbooks didn’t talk about, from the sweetness of mundane life to tragedies of social injustice. The objective here is two-fold: to expose students to the range of poetic writing and to show that literature is not the stuff of old dead men. Anyone can do it.
In an example of this, poet Sheila Maldonado describes a favorite writing prompt inspired by the poem “Datos Personales” by Nicaraguan/Salvadoran poet Claudia Alegría (Teachers & Writers Magazine, “My Portrait / My Secret Self-portrait”). She asks for a student in the room who speaks Spanish to read the poem out loud. In this way she invites students to bring that part of themselves into the classroom. Then she reads her own translation of the poem, modeling the work of a poet, herself, a New Yorker of Honduran descent. The poem’s subject matter is also a departure from the typical classroom text: it is an intimate self-examination in which the poet unflinchingly reveals her flaws. It lends itself beautifully to Maldonado’s writing prompt in which the students are asked to reveal something “secret” about themselves, something that may not be obvious, and that certainly would not be shared in a typical school essay. Here is a beautiful and vulnerable poem written by Nisreen, a 6th grade student, in response to the prompt:
MY SECRET SELF-PORTRAIT
I am Arabic.
I want to walk again
with my family.
I’ve lost how my sister looks,
but I still have her smell.
The poem expresses loss with a candor that, I believe, can only be achieved by the careful and deliberate creation of a safe space for expression.5
I want to clarify that no one needs permission to write what they want. But for students entering classrooms at five or earlier and perhaps not having any other model for interacting with the written word than the one taught in school, they may not know that they don’t need permission. So this freedom, a freedom they already possess, is what the teaching artists teaches. And then they teach ways to play with that freedom: metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, poetic forms, and so on. But the freedom is essential. As poets Quraysh Lansana and Georgia Popoff observed in Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy, & Social Justice in Classroom & Community (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2011): “In spite of all the media swirling in, through, and around us, humans still need to be heard. The quietest student may produce the most powerful poetry, perhaps simply because that student finds safety on the page that speaking aloud does not permit.”6
The transformation that students experience when they enter a space of liberation is exhilarating.
Writer Sheryl Noethe described a writing workshop in the small town of Salmon, Idaho in Poetry Everywhere: Teaching poetry Writing in School and in the Community (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2007):
“We rid ourselves of the notion that student work was to be judged and graded, and instead made it our task to write poetry with honesty and energy, poetry to shake things up and engage the imagination. . . . It was as though the children of Salmon had been waiting all of their lives to write poetry. I found myself in the midst of a loosed river of wit and memory and celebration.”
When students are freed from judgment and grades, they take to poetry readily and see themselves as writers.7
I want to conclude by talking about the importance of play in T&W programs. Joy is an act of resistance in a grind culture that celebrates achievement over wellness. Quraysh Lansana and Georgia Poppoff write: “As teaching artists, we are often more concerned with creative and critical process than outcome. We hope our children will find joy in the process, and seeing them experience that joy is enough for us.”8
Prioritizing joy, prioritizing love, is serious work. Poet Aracelis Girmay describes leading a T&W program with youth in this way: “I felt especially aware of how vital and critical these hours with each other were—that it was a time for us to feel how very possible we were! . . . As I plan for a class, or for whatever I’m teaching, I want to be so clear about what I hope I’m bringing. I really want to be clear about love being at the center of my practice when I’m working with young people. I feel very serious about that responsibility, that privilege.”9 Through tools like the opening ritual and relevant texts, and through their own presence as writer role models, teaching artists create an environment that allows the poetic voices of students to emerge.
A classroom is a practice community. In the writing workshop, then, we are imagining a community led by poets. The work of poetry requires observation, attentiveness to detail, careful listening, and fearless truth-telling. To quote Grace Paley: “A student says—why do you keep saying A Work of Art? You’re right. It’s a bad habit. I meant to say a Work of Truth.”10
As T&W continues its work of increasing access to the literary arts in New York City public schools, we do so with ongoing belief in celebration as an antidote to oppression. When students can celebrate themselves through their writing, they know their own power. And empowered youth are the fuel of movements of social change. Georgia Poppoff wrote it well in these introductory classroom comments:
“Let me make it very simple for you. Words are power. The more words you know and can recognize, use, define, understand, the more power you will have as a human being. Hear me when I say this. The more language you know the more likely it is that no one can get over on you. This is the most practical reason I can offer as to why you want to listen to me speak to you about poetry.”11
Read more from this series:
“A Foundation in Activism: Reflections on the History of Teachers & Writers Collaborative” by Nancy Larson Shapiro
“Using the Broken Pieces: Reflections on Writing and Teaching Poetry” by Javan Howard
“A Foundation in Activism: Reflections on the History of Teachers & Writers Collaborative” By Nancy Larson Shapiro
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.
3 Paley, Grace. “Some Notes on Teaching: Probably Spoken.” Writers as Teachers/Teachers as Writers. Ed. Jonathan Baumbach. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. 202. Print.
4 Burgess, Matthew. “The Beauty of the Snail and the Blinking Rain: A Conversation with Aracelis Girmay about Poetry, Teaching and Picture Books.” Teachers & Writers Magazine, 6 Feb. 2022.
5 Maldonado, Sheila. “My Self-Portrait/My Secret Self Portrait.” Teachers & Writers Magazine, 17 June 2021.
6 Lansana, Quraysh and Georgia Popoff. Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy, & Social Justice in Classroom & Community. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2011. 39. Print.
7 Noethe, Sheryl and Jack Collom. Poetry Everywhere, New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2005. IX. Print.
8 Lansana, Quraysh and Georgia Popoff. Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy, & Social Justice in Classroom & Community. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2011. 38. Print.
9 Burgess, Matthew. “The Beauty of the Snail and the Blinking Rain: A Conversation with Aracelis Girmay about Poetry, Teaching and Picture Books.” Teachers & Writers Magazine, 6 Feb. 2022.
10 Paley, Grace. “Some Notes on Teaching: Probably Spoken.” Writers as Teachers/Teachers as Writers. Ed. Jonathan Baumbach. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. 204. Print.
11 Lansana, Quraysh and Georgia Popoff. Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy, & Social Justice in Classroom & Community. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2011. 40.
Asari Beale is an Afro-Latina writer, educator, and leader deeply committed to children’s literacy. She is the Executive Director of Teachers & Writers Collaborative, a member of the Board of Directors of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable, and a steering committee member of LitNet, a network serving America’s literary arts community.