Writing, Rhetoric, and Activism

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I have been talking with my students about the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School last month, and we have discussed and debated the rhetoric around the murder of 17 students and educators – how the media represented what occurred, especially the language used to describe the shooter and the students who survived. We could not ignore the vexing question of race. Black student protesters are cast as violent criminals – whether during the Youth March in Birmingham or lifting their voices against police violence in Black Lives Matter – while the white students have been called “actors” (by the most cynical), “victims” and even “heroes.”


In both cases, we have witnessed youth practicing democracy. The composition classroom can and should be a space where we equip students to have a voice, identify the sources of social problems as critical readers and writers, and enter into conversations. Although I think this assumption has motivated many teachers of writing for decades, others lament a civic education gap. Dahlia Lithwick’s point in a recent Slate Magazine article is that schools no longer focus on the arts, civics, and enrichment that once ensured education was rooted in the day-to-day lives of students and their families. However, she also calls attention to the kind of privilege the students at Stoneman Douglas High have experienced. They have access to a system-wide debate program, a forensics program, and an exceptional drama program. Educators there are committed to supporting speech and journalism programs as the means through which to promote student activism. She observes, “These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.”


The classroom should be a place where students can practice democracy. But it is not enough to argue that democratic values are as important as traditional academic priorities. We must also ask, what kind of democratic values? What political and ideological interests are embedded in or attached to varied conceptions of citizenship? Unfortunately, education reform and economic development have ignored these questions and the very skills and perspectives necessary for building a socially just world in which we want to live.


When my students and I talk about education in general and literacy specifically, it is with the understanding that learning and development cannot be considered apart from social environment. But how should we talk about literacy? Winn and Behizadeh, among others, are right to argue students need to have access to literacies – students’ own creative and cultural literate practices, academic literacy, and critical reading and writing skills. These are tools students need to navigate and transform the world around them, evidenced in the Stoneman Douglas students’ who are speaking out and helping to propel a movement. They have learned the language of power.


However, it is one thing for my students and me to discuss who has access to literacies that promote a questioning, critical frame of mind. It is another to step beyond classroom boundaries into the lives of others where my students can experience worlds quite different from their own – to see firsthand who has access to resources young people need to thrive and who does not.


Using Neuman and Celano’s study of four neighborhoods in Philadelphia as a model, we set out to map the key places and resources in the neighborhoods surrounding our campus. (April Lidinsky and I include an excerpt of their research article in the 4th edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing.) Neuman and Celano are particularly interested in the resources and potential disparities in print environments – the likelihood children will find access to books and other resources.


As my students and I begin to map the neighborhood surrounding our campus (an example of which is pictured above), we start to make a list of places where literacy occurs. This list, as it turns out, is limited to the coffee shop where we observe people having conversations and reading material on their computer screens. When we go into a 24-hour convenience store, we spot just a few magazines and the local newspaper, but cannot locate any books for adults or children. Next, we pass a bank where we see several people making transactions, and four slow fast food restaurants where customers look at their phones. No bus stop that might take people to their jobs. No full service grocery store. What do these limited resources tell us about what matters and for whom? It matters a great deal if you are a child who attends a public school just a ¼ mile away that will close at the end of the current school year. The loss of a school exacerbates the persistent inequality that affects mostly children and families of color who look to that school as a source of stability and social capital.


Walking gives us an opportunity to look critically at our environment, to question the decisions that determine who lives in the neighborhoods we observed, and to write about what makes a flourishing community. I want my students to reflect on what makes a neighborhood thrive, develop a critical habit of mind, and use their skills as speakers and writers to move people to action. I want them to see that all children, that everyone, should have the gift of an education that values their voice and equips them to practice democracy. And it can begin in the writing and rhetoric classroom when we honor our own students’ voices and cultivate the kind of citizenship exemplified by the Stoneman Douglas High students.

Student Literacy Map Courtesy of Sheila Roohan

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About the Author
Stuart Greene received his Ph.D. in English from Carnegie Mellon in Rhetoric. He is associate professor of English with a joint appointment in Africana Studies at Notre Dame. His research has examined the intersections of race, poverty, and achievement in public schools. This work has led to the publication of his co-edited volume, Making Race Visible: Literacy Research for Racial Understanding (Teachers College Press, 2003), for which he won the National Council of Teachers of English Richard A. Meade Award in 2005. He has published a monographic, Race, Community, and Urban Schools: Partnering with African American Families (Teachers College Press, 2013), edited Literacy as a Civil Right (Peter Lang, 2008) and co-edited with Cathy Compton-Lilly, Bedtime Stories and Book Reports: Connecting Parent Involvement and Family Literacy (Teachers College Press, 2011). His current research focuses on literacy, youth empowerment and civic engagement in the context of university/community partnerships. This work appears in his edited collection Youth Voices, Public Spaces, and Civic Engagement. (Routledge Press, 2016), Language Arts, Urban Education, and The Urban Review.