The Promise of a Humanizing Writing Pedagogy for Black Students

This is an excerpt from the article “Revealing the Human and the Writer: The Promise of a Humanizing Writing Pedagogy for Black Students” by Latrise P. Johnson and Hannah Sullivan, which appeared in the May 2020 issue of Research in the Teaching of English, and for which the authors received the 2020 Alan C. Purves Award. 

Using a critical stance on place, literacy, and humanity in order to examine how the literacy learning and practices of ELA classrooms/schools might (de)humanize and (de)culturize Black students, this study examines the writing pedagogy of a professor who taught a semester-long creative writing class for students at West High School. Through a humanizing approach to teaching writing, the professor and students engaged in writing and being in ways that honored—as well as centered and supported—their individual, cultural, and writerly identities. This article offers ways that teachers of writing might tap into Black intellectual traditions and invite students to use writing as a way to connect to what they do and learn while at school.

Historical perspectives of Black conceptions of literacy position Black people as demanders, creators, funders, and maintainers of educational institutions that have (a) provided literacy for all; (b) apprised individuals of and prepared them for the dominating culture’s institutions; (c) counteracted the pernicious and venal images of African Americans prevalent in popular culture; and (d) engendered group solidarity and commitment to uplift (Harris, 1992).
These perspectives are reflected in texts that historicize and imagine the lives of Black people, as well as in the contemporary composition of authentic portraits of Black people that challenge monolithic, dominant, and damaging narratives. The production and centering of such texts represent what is possible for teaching writing to Black youth, in that these texts serve as a “re-appraisal of . . . aesthetic values . . . [that are] less influenced by the dominant standards” and allow Black youth to “be taught with real conviction the beauties of [their] own [lives]” (Johnson, 1936). These texts also provide models for how writing has been used to add the voices and perspectives of Black people to bodies of knowledge that have historically ignored their contributions.
Therefore, a humanizing writing pedagogical stance begins with the notion that students’ knowledges (which encompass their collective and individual histories) are at the center of what they are expected to know and do while at school (Bartolomé, 1994; Donnell, 2007).
Thus, a humanizing writing pedagogy provides a lens to view Black students’ individual lives and creates opportunities for them to make personal, critical connections to a world where they share collective struggle related to the “circumstances of race status” (Johnson, 1936). With regard to writing instruction and the production of text, humanizing pedagogical processes require that pedagogues enact critical practices that interrupt normalized literacies and dominant ways of knowing and being.
For instance, the full development of a writer depends on understanding oneself in relation to one’s world (Johnson, 2017). That said, humanizing approaches to writing instruction and practice mean centering the writer in the processes and production of critically conscious writing—and, in this case, in ways that involve Black youth in the meaning-making that is part of a rich literary tradition.
Indeed, Black people have historically “needed literacy in order to acquire freedom and power” (Harris, 1992, p. 278). And it is that history and re-centering of Black culture that is integral to humanizing writing pedagogies for Black youth as they (1) recall forms of literacy that privilege and are contingent upon students’ sociohistorical lives, both proximally and distally; (2) are grounded in literate histories and traditions of Black people; and (3) invite Black students to compose and add their voices to various bodies of knowledges.

Latrise P. Johnson is an associate professor of secondary ELA and literacy at the University of Alabama.Hannah Sullivan is a Spanish teacher and PhD student at the University of  Alabama.

Read the full article: “Revealing the Human and the Writer: The Promise of a Humanizing Writing Pedagogy for Black Students”

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

How to Teach Students to Find the Main Idea

Spread the love The main idea is the central theme of a story. Finding the main idea of writing can be a challenge, but it is an essential reading comprehension skill for our learners to develop. Learners who become skilled in this art will benefit from it far beyond the school gates’ perimeters. From the … Read more

Finding Answers for What Works in Writing Instruction

This post was written by NCTE member Deborah Dean. 

A recent visit to some junior high classrooms brought back memories. The clothing styles have changed some since my time of teaching junior high, and the technology is vastly different. But those students? They drew me into the past, to my former students in the junior high classes I taught.
There was Dan, who never wrote anything and sat slumped in his seat most of the time, no matter how I tried to engage him. Once, he tried to hit me with his book bag.
There was Matt. He was bright but unengaged, except for once when a writing task took his fancy: we were writing about processes, and he loved the challenge of writing about how to fool your teacher into thinking you were awake in class when you really weren’t. It was amazing.
There was Amy, who had suffered a trauma just before school started when a drug-crazed man held her and her mom hostage in their home for several hours. She was a quiet student who did her work, always on time and competently, until we wrote personal narratives. Then, she wrote so movingly of her experience, using it to write her way out of the trauma, that I have never forgotten it. Or her.
In my recent visits, though I sat in a classroom where I knew no names, I still saw students who reminded me of the question that had been prominent in my mind back when Dan and Matt and Amy were my students. It is a question that has driven me during my whole professional career, no matter what students are wearing or what technology they are using. The question mattered then and still matters today: What works?
What writing instruction works to help students develop as competent, engaged writers? What works to help all these different students with all their different needs and skills and situations? What works in classrooms stuffed with desks and students and too little time? What works in times of pandemic and online school and other challenges?
In 2007, the Carnegie Foundation published the first meta-analysis of writing research in 25 years, and it named eleven instructional practices supported by research (see box). That was a good start to help me answer my question. I wrote about those practices in the first edition of What Works in Writing Instruction, mostly because I had tried many of them and hadn’t always seen the results that the research suggested I should see. I wanted to know why—and my own research helped me see that some effective practices are not easy to implement unless you dig down into them instead of engaging only the surface features.
But that 2007 report was based only on a certain kind of research, and even at that time the researchers acknowledged that there is more to effective writing instruction that hadn’t been uncovered in that initial research analysis. Over the next decade, researchers analyzed other kinds of studies. More than a decade later, when I looked at the additional research, I found answers that added clarity and detail to the initial picture of what works. I found a richer, fuller image of what classrooms should be and what teachers could do: more answers to my lifelong question.
The newly published second edition of What Works in Writing Instruction weaves together the initial findings with those that have been researched more recently and supports what the researchers concluded: that the most important factor in effective instruction is an engaged, informed teacher who knows how to adapt research-based practices to the needs of students in individual classrooms. In short, effective practices must be adapted. Fortunately, lots of really good teachers around the country have shared how they implement effective instruction. Through the classroom practices they share (and the practices I share in the book), teachers can see how they might adapt, shift, and revise to create more effective instructional practices in their own classrooms.
In this way, we see how teachers in a variety of classrooms build a writing community that supports developing writers and how they share their own enthusiasm for writing to help students build interest and engagement. We can see how different classrooms build a writer’s workshop that implements the writing process in individualized ways for classes that are both long and short. We see how teachers make choices about the kinds of texts they ask their students to study and write and how they use the collaborative nature of the classroom community to encourage students at all stages of writing development.
Effective teachers are all different, working in different classrooms with different groups of students and different kinds of external pressures. What they share is that they’ve figured out ways to implement effective practices that move their students forward in their writing development.
Their examples—their stories and their students’ work—can, in turn, give us confidence in our own professional judgment. They can help us know that we, too, might find answers to what works for writing instruction in our classrooms by implementing good principles in individual ways. And that can be a very satisfying answer to a perplexing question that all of us have asked.

Deborah Dean, formerly a secondary English teacher, is a professor of English at Brigham Young University, where she teaches preservice and practicing teachers about writing instruction. She is the author of Strategic Writing: The Writing Process and Beyond in the Secondary English Classroom; Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being; What Works in Writing Instruction: Research and Practices, and the Quick Reference Guide (QRG) Teaching Grammar in the Secondary Classroom.

What Works in Writing Instruction, 2nd edition is now available from the NCTE store! 
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

A Guide to Expository Writing

Spread the love Expository writing is used to express factual info. It is the language of understanding the world.  Expository writing is everywhere, not just in school settings, as it’s present anytime there’s info to be expressed. It can take the form of an academic essay or a report for a business. Defining an Expository … Read more

The Author’s Chair: The Final Step in the Writing Process

Spread the love Teaching writing skills to students has to do with a lot more than putting words and sentences together. Once students have mastered grammar and narrative writing, they have to learn to present their ideas in front of an audience. Using a technique known as the “Author’s Chair,” students, both young and old, … Read more

Honoring African American Contributions: Playwrights

African American History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in US history. This week we will look at the legacy of African American playwrights.
A Raisin in the Sun is a play by Lorraine Hansberry that tells the story of a Black family’s experiences in the Washington Park Subdivision of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood as they attempt to “better” themselves. With A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry was the first African American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. This lesson from ReadWriteThink.org invites students to explore the things relevant to a character from Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, such as Mama’s plant, to unlock the drama’s underlying symbolism and themes. Students explore character traits and participate in active learning as they work with the play. Students use an interactive drama map to explore character and conflict, and then write and share character-item poems.
Another African American playwright, August Wilson, won critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play, for his play Fences. It’s currently a major motion picture directed by Denzel Washington, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Students can read Fences, then watch the film and compare the two.
Another August Wilson play, The Piano Lesson, invites students to ask a number of questions—big and small—about the characters, setting, conflict, and symbols in the work. After reading the first act, students learn how to create effective discussion questions and then put them to use in student-led seminar discussions after Act 1 and again at the end of the play. Read more in the ReadWriteThink.org lesson plan, “Facilitating Student-Led Seminar Discussions with The Piano Lesson.”
This collection from the Library of Congress presents ten plays written by Zora Neale Hurston, author, anthropologist, and folklorist. Read more about those plays from this blog post. In Zora Neale Hurston in the Classroom, a book in the NCTE High School Literature Series, readers will discover new ways to share the work of this important author with students. The book offers a practical approach to Hurston using a range of student-centered activities for teaching Hurston’s nonfiction, short stories, and the print and film versions of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Interested in musical theater? Read this blog post from the Library of Congress for some fascinating details about historical Black musical theater.

Curious about the NCTE and Library of Congress connection? Through a grant announced recently by NCTE Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick, NCTE is engaged in new ongoing work with the Library of Congress, and “will connect the ELA community with the Library of Congress to expand the use of primary sources in teaching.” Stay tuned for more throughout the year!
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Connecting through Writing: A Collaborative Writing Project Inspired by the National Day on Writing

This post was written by NCTE member Carrie Conners and guest author Bethany Holmstrom.

Over the last two years at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY, we have embarked upon campus-wide collaborative writing projects to emphasize our shared connection as writers, no matter our discipline, major, or position at the college. We wanted to celebrate the ways that writing is vital to all of our lives through collective efforts.
In the fall of 2019, LaGuardia Community College celebrated the National Day on Writing for the first time. As part of the celebration, students, faculty and staff at the college were asked to respond to the prompt #WhyIWrite on posters across campus, the Library’s “Question of the Week” board, Twitter, or emails sent to Carrie Conners, the event organizer. Conners took the 365 responses and composed, “Why LaGuardia Writes,” a collaborative list poem divided into 33 sections of 11 responses each, in honor of the 11th annual National Day on Writing.
Sections of the poem were read aloud by students at a Writing Open House—students could choose from stations of writing activities, including six-word short stories and surrealist language games—on the day of the celebration and shared with the rest of the college community afterwards.
The responses range from pragmatic (“If I write, I remember more”) to romantic (“To say, ‘I love you,’ to my girlfriend”) to therapeutic (“To heal our scars”) to funny (“For a cramped hand”) to profound (“To remind myself that I have a purpose”). On the posters, people began commenting on other’s comments; those comments and the collaborative poem as a whole demonstrate how writing connects people and has the power to build community.
In October of 2020, LaGuardia had its second annual National Day on Writing celebration. Bethany Holmstrom organized the celebration, and the theme of the collaborative poem was “How Does Writing Keep You Connected?” to reflect distance learning and the power of writing to sustain relationships while physically separated. After gathering responses from over 100 students, faculty, and staff using GoogleForms, Holmstrom stitched together lines and phrases to create five stanzas, loosely clustered around themes.
Even in the midst of a public health crisis, the contributors found solace in writing, saying that it kept them “Sane, whole, and connected to humanity: / grounded, reminding me to breathe / at times when I am not able to.” The actual celebration occurred—like so much else during the pandemic—virtually. At the Zoom celebration readers shared the first five stanzas of the collaborative poem. Celebration attendees were then asked to contribute more thoughts on how writing kept them connected, in the group chat or verbally. A sixth celebration-stanza was created from these contributions, with a final reminder to our community that:

words are my eternal power
though there are many languages
feelings and ideas connect everyone—
a reminder that history is vast
and my griefs and joys join me
to a universe that continues to unfold.

Holmstrom also created a website which features both the 2019 and 2020 poems, as well as readings from LaGuardia’s Creative Writing faculty and alums, video writing workshops led by Creative Writing faculty, and writing prompts to provide students and faculty a toolbox of inspiring writing resources whenever they want to access them. This page features both collaborative poems. 
Although these collaborative poems were college-wide projects, faculty at the college have also used them on a smaller scale in their classrooms. As a beginning-of-the-semester ice-breaker, one faculty member shared “Why LaGuardia Writes” with students and had them write and share their own reasons for writing. Another shared “How Does Writing Keep You Connected?” to energize a composition class at the midterm and to encourage them to think about the importance of writing beyond the classroom.
After the college moved to remote learning in March of 2020, Conners used the collaborative writing technique with her Introduction to Creative Writing class to help sustain a sense of class community by creating a poem together. The course emphasizes observational writing, but since the city was the epicenter of the pandemic at the time, most New Yorkers were staying home as much as possible. So the students were asked to write a line about something that they observed from their window to compose the collaborative list poem, “Out the Window I’ve Seen.”
Here are its closing lines:

People trying to live normal lives in abnormal times
A spring that never sprung; the leaden sky wrapped around the Sun like an N95 mask
An empty street filled with the sounds of birds chirping and squirrels scurrying about
A mural with the words Love and Hope graffitied onto it
My Earth, looking back at me.

To read the poem in its entirety, see The LaGuardia Community College Library “COVID-19 Story Project” in its Institutional Archives.
Collaborative writing can build community, across campus, in a traditional classroom setting, or when physically distanced and learning asynchronously. The practice emphasizes that writing is not a solitary, isolated endeavor, and that one of its highest purposes is to help people connect with one another.

Carrie Conners is a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY where she teaches composition, creative writing, and literature. Her research focuses on contemporary American poetry, and she is also a poet. Her poetry collection, Luscious Struggle (BrickHouse Books, 2019), was selected as a 2020 Paterson Poetry Prize Finalist.  
Bethany Holmstrom is an associate professor of English at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY. Read more about her scholarship, writing, and teaching at bethanyholmstrom.com 

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Honoring African American Contributions: Manuscripts

African American History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in US history. Let’s dig in to some manuscripts written by African American authors. A manuscript is a written or typewritten composition or document as distinguished from a printed copy.
In his classic novel Native Son, Richard Wright tells the story of a poverty-stricken young black man who takes a job as a chauffeur to a white family in Chicago, accidentally kills the daughter, and tries to cover it up. For decades, the film version of “Native Son” didn’t tell the whole story—the result of censorship before its US release. The collection of the Library of Congress includes Wright’s original vision, both on film and paper, for future audiences. View the manuscript here.
As a lecturer, political activist, and educator, Mary Church Terrell dedicated her life to improving social conditions for African American women. The digital collections of the Library of Congress contain a wide variety of material associated with Terrell, including the Mary Church Terrell Papers from the Manuscript Division. Terrell helped to organize self-help programs promulgated by leaders such as Booker T. Washington to directing sit-down strikes and boycotts in defiance of Jim Crow discrimination. She aided in the founding of two of the most important black political action groups, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The Terrell Papers reflect all phases of her public career.
The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress presents the papers of the nineteenth-century African American abolitionist who escaped from slavery and then risked his own freedom by becoming an outspoken antislavery lecturer, writer, and publisher. The online collection, containing approximately 7,400 items (38,000 images), spans the years 1841–1964, with the bulk of the material dating from 1862 to 1865.  Many of Douglass’s earlier writings were destroyed when his house in Rochester, New York, burned in 1872. The Speech, Article and Book File contains the writings of Douglass and his contemporaries in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements and includes autographed copies of editorials and opinion pieces from Douglass’ antislavery weekly, North Star, and a partial handwritten draft of Douglass’s third autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
Today is also the celebrated birthday of Frederick Douglass. Although Douglass was born into bondage, and never knew his birthdate, he chose to celebrate every year on February 14th. Douglass Day is celebrated this day each year as a collective act of service for Black history.
Curious about the NCTE and Library of Congress connection? Through a grant announced recently by NCTE Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick, NCTE is engaged in new ongoing work with the Library of Congress, and “will connect the ELA community with the Library of Congress to expand the use of primary sources in teaching.” Stay tuned for more throughout the year!
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.