Blog #11: Cultural Responsiveness at Turning Point G-House

As I discussed in my last post, I’ve been moving to a much more flexible model of workshop.  Though I am still very committed to lesson planning, and thoughtfully putting together materials that will, hopefully, be both fun and educational, I am less concerned with coming up with an entire 16 week curriculum for workshop.  This has changed for me, in part, because of trying to be “culturally responsive.”  Because the writers at Turning Point Girls house change so frequently, sticking to a strict schedule would deny the needs and the interest of the group dynamic as it shifts with arrivals and departures. 

Part of being culturally responsive is active listening and paying attention when workshop does not go well or we notice a drop in focus, engagement, or participation.    And as discussed in Blog #10, this has much to do with developing relationships with the group.  What do they want to learn?  What concerns are most interesting to them?  What do they enjoy doing?  What home concerns/interests do they bring with them into group?

Hensen says that all literacies are those “constructed and transformed by race, socioeconomic status, and gender and sexual orientation” (35).  I believe this, but also believe that the skills to critically examine these literacies are developed and not necessarily inherent to the discourse community.  To that end, we have used Def Jam slam poetry, rap and hip hop, fan fiction, and other mediums to explore how we are represented, how we respond to representation, and how we represent ourselves.    Mediums that both appeal  to the workshop audience and speak to their concerns, have a power for transforming the workshop to a place of mutual learning.  I have become far more literate in popular teen culture—as defined by the young women in our workshop—and I hope that they have become more interested in writing as potential for powerful communication.

If given more time, I would hope to find a better balance between flexibility and form.  In the past few months, I’ve been happy with how engaged the women have been in workshop, and how our relationships have developed and deepened.  I have not been as pleased, however, with the lack of time to really work on revision, feedback, and technique.  While our writers seem to be excited to spend time writing and talking every Wednesday, I question if the skills of the group have increased as much as they could have.  Though critical exploration is crucial, and being culturally aware and responsive is significant, I am concerned that we have not been as impactful as possible in teaching some of the skills we have the privilege to learn here at the academy.

Blog #10: Considering Privilege at Turning Point


“Community literacy tutors can interrogate the common, but problematic, frame of altruism by looking at their own positioning within institutionalized power and privilege by involving their partners in discussion and collaborative research into this question as well” (49)

 It was hard not to read this article from the lens of my thesis, which is about autoethnographic writing projects in rural Zambia.  Postcolonial power influences on relationships and representation is, of course, incredibly present in the question of how to ethically work within a transnational composition program.  In reading, however, I continued to try and reframe how this also occurs within the space of a community writing project at Turning Point.

 I have found in working with the girls that sometimes the way to access more challenging “literary” or “school” concepts is through relationship.  When I began this project last May, I encountered resistance to the foundational poetic elements.  

 I went in thinking of myself as a “teacher,” though I had attempted to move away from this notion even before walking through the door.  But since my prior workshop./class experiences had all been in more traditional spaces, I fell back on the identity/role of teacher rather than facilitator or mentor.  I had had a few experiences in facilitating individual workshops in a more informal capacity, but I had never been given the job of coming up with a curriculum and ideas and attempting to shy away from the power position of teacher.

 As we’ve continued working through the year, I’ve become much more comfortable with flexibility and relational ambiguity. It does become more difficult to harness the workshop in a limited amount of time—we only have an hour weekly—once relationships have been established.  The young women often want to spend time talking with us before workshop begins so they can tell us about their lives:  what they are working on in/out of school, their relationships, how they are doing in the rehab programs, the new book they’re reading, etc.  These conversations, however, often can extend into our workshop time.

 As Goodbee contends, I believe this friendship in itself pushes back against institutionalized power and privilege.  However, because our time is so limited, we have had to place some boundaries on these off-line discussions. Even though it is often in a chatty and non-teacherly way, we’ll ask to “refocus” or to bring the room conversation back to the topic at hand through a transition question or by asking a participant if they want to share their work.

 We have not had much overt discussion about how power and privilege work.  As facilitators, we have been somewhat reticent to talk much about ourselves—what we do as graduate/undergraduate students.  Of course some of this comes out through our prompts.  All of the interns/volunteers who work at Turning Point have become active participants in the workshop and share their own writing and experiences.  We never want to conceal elements of our identity in order to “fake” our similarities, but on the other hand we also don’t want the elements of difference to create a gulf where the young women writers feel alienated from us or feel like they are talking to their teachers.  It’s a difficult tension and one that we might be able to explore more fully if we had more face-to-face time.


Blog #9: Reciprocal Education and “Foreign” Language Translation

Everything I’m reading right now seems to have some connection to my thesis work, and the articleRight on the Border: Mexican-American Students Write Themselves into The(ir) World” was no exception.

Zwerling’s contention that the material aspects of student’s experiences plays a huge role in how they engage with academia, started me thinking a lot about expectations and goals as a writing instructor.  He says that the student body at the University of Texas Pan-America “know that with the lowest tuition of UTs, lowest capital reinvestment, and lowest faculty salaries, their education…is a ticket not to ‘getting out’ of a culture of poverty but to ‘getting by’ (47).  This set of material implications has stuck with me as I think about both how the students at Turning Point have often been set up for simply ‘getting by’ through school, through their writing, and perhaps, at least for some, this potentially is because of the material conditions of their homes/school systems. I also think about how this extends to the work I’ve done, and want to do, in rural Zambia.  The material conditions of those I have worked with in this environment are scant and unstable.

However, the turn Zwerling takes toward a reciprocal educational relationship between privileged and unprivileged had me geared up.  His discussion of the brigidistas in Nicaragua and the movement of teens into the rural countryside in order to create a space for mutual literacy learning made me think about the power of channeling energy into the world as actors rather than spectators. (Another reason I love autoethnography—it gives writers/teachers both something to do that forwards mutual learning and cross-cultural engagement.  It provides a space for an alternative relationship in a teaching hierarchy.  It moves away from “the transmission of knowledge” to something else entirely (49).)

Anyway, this text immediately went into my thesis folder.  On the other hand, Barany’s “Writing is  Foreign Language, and  a Senior Writing Workshop is a Tower of Babel Whose Many Languages Need to be Translated” was less engaging for me, though I did appreciate the argument that writing should always be written for a particular audience. Of course a doctor with her specialized knowledge cannot necessarily write for a diverse audience using her specialized terms.  There are, of course, ways to incorporate specialized knowledge without completely alienating audience.  Her move, though, to thinking of these kinds of knowledge bases as “foreign language,” however, felt a little thin to me.   Yes, we are translating from one discourse to another, but this translation seems to be perhaps more easily navigated than from one discrete language into another. I could be persuaded otherwise, but for now, that’s my position.

On to the research project next time!

Don’t Standardize Me, Please

I started working at the CLC in May of 2010 and in the past seven months the experiences at Turning Point have both confirmed and defied my expectations. I came into the work believing that if I truly engage in the project, throw myself into the learning, and passionately commit to building relationships with the young women at TP, my enthusiasm for story-telling would catch.  And in some ways it has.  Still, I think I’m coming to appreciate the complicated nature of the therapeutic environment, of which we only play a small role.

The ProLiteracy website offers the following definition of literacy:  “Literacy is the ability to read, write, compute, and use technology at a level that enables an individual to reach his or her full potential as a parent, employee, and community member.”

I appreciate that Pro Literacy does seem to have an expanded definition of literacy in that it acknowledges the situatedness of literacy, yet even working with that definition I’m trying to think of how my work at Turning Point fits in.  I suppose at some level we work to help the TP residents reach their “full potential” (however that is defined) as community member through the expression of personal stories.  The practice of writing encourages critical thinking, and hopefully we facilitators push this critical thinking through the examination of published poetry and the prompts we choose.

How do we assess this?  There is no functional literacy test we can give the residents.  Our intent is not to make sure that vocabulary has increased by a certain percentage.  Rather, I think of our work in terms of the saying that “books are things to think with.”  In many ways, poetry is a way of thinking, and having the girls become aware of the rhetorical situation through their poetry fosters a great appreciation of audience, meaning-making, and argument. 

For now, I think the survey that Doug and Vince have created, which focuses on measuring the enjoyment of writing and increased writing productivity, seems to be the best way of assessing our work.  Still, I remain a bit unsure about how to make sure we get the girls to fill out the surveys since there is so much turn-around in the residents and we have minimal interaction with them.  One hour a week just doesn’t seem to be enough time.

The World of Slam and Multi-Modal Poetry

The weeks of the semester are coming to a close and I’ve been doing some ruminating on the collaborative project I’ve proposed for next semester’s work at Turning Point.   I’ve proposed a 4 to 6 week process where the girls, the volunteers, and I will work toward integrating what we’ve learned and talked about in our poetry workshop into a collaborative performance piece.  I’ve been reading what I can about multi-modal and Slam poetry projects and have been coming up with some great ideas–and many questions– about how we can create a cohesive project in only an hour a week at a community literacy center site.

This week I read an article titled “Poetry Fusion—Integrating Texts” by Jeffrey Schwartz in the Teaching the New Writing Anthology edited by Anne Herrington, Kevin Hodgson, and Charles Moran.  Schwarts, a 25 year veteran teacher of poetry at Greenwich Academy in Connecticut, has gone multi-modal with his high school poetry classes. While Schwartz does not focus specifically on Slam poetry, some of his ideas can be adapted for my purposes.

Before going high-tech with his students, he begins building an appreciation for poetry by asking them to select poems they enjoy from an anthology called Poetry 180 edited by Billy Collins.  The students then podcast their own voices reading the poems and play them for the class.  This forces the students to respond to poetry both through visual reading and through listening, which highlights how different ways of experiencing poetry lends to different interpretations. Then, Schwartz asks his student to create a video for the poetry using MS Word, GarageBand, iweb, iphoto, and iMovie.  In groups the students collaboratively examine meaning-making of poetry through visual and aural representation (vocal readings, music, etc).  Collin says, “The concept of revision in conventional writing is incomprehensible to many, if not most, students.  In video making, however, students see and understand the need for focus, economy, clarity, and engaging an audience” (101). 

Though I would love to do such a process with the CLC, I recognize that constraints to accessing technology would seriously limit our ability to create films in this way.  Still, I think there is a low-tech way to approach process.  We’ve been working throughout last semester to build appreciation for poetry.  I do think we could do more to with oral/aural presentations and perhaps put some ownership on the girls for sharing poetry they like rather than just what we bring in.  Additionally, I wonder if we can focus on some of these elements through performance rather than video.  I will be thinking more on this throughout the break and talking to our awesome volunteers.

Stay tuned for more….

Writing as Community

One week ago today I worked with nine other graduate students in writing a fictional novel of graduate student lives.  We identified ourselves as “characters” in the novel and spent 24 hours working on a novella that would depict both our identities as individuals and as a collective.  We wrote from the POV of the collective “we” and when we moved to talk about our lives as individuals, we wrote from the third person.  The intense amount of interviewing we did through that 24 hour period, the writing, the collaborating, the revising, all contributed to a closer feeling of community and a sense of ‘us,’ even though we were attempting to stay true to our own individual experiences.

Here is the opening, which I wrote:

“We began. To single-parent families.  To large rowdy families.  To religious families.  To secular families. We were afraid of dogs.  We sucked our thumbs.  We pushed people off of swings.  We were jealous of siblings, and pushed our siblings off of swings.  We forced people to take our pictures in the middle of the grocery store aisle, tossing beautiful blonde curls and flashing our blue eyes and knowing that damn it, of course we were pretty.   We read early.  At three we hauled our tiny selves to the kitchen table and opened up the New York Times, drank a tall glass of milk, and wondered how an actor became President of the United States, or how Vishnu could create all things, or why mommy had moved into our bedroom forcing us to sleep with our older sister.”

Certainly, this is an extreme example of writing creating community or a “a personal and a collective of communal wholeness.”   Within our writing projects at Turning Point, I do see themes that continually emerge from the writing that contribute to an “us-ness”.  Poetry workshop seems to be a safe place where the young writers have the chance to “speak out” or speak back to some of the uncomfortable aspects of being in a therapeutic setting.  They are able to talk about what makes them a “we” and what makes them an “I”.  They find solace in each others’ stories as well.  Similarly, I find through their poetry, I am able to see connections to my own adolescence.  We are able to find spaces of community through our writing that might not be open to us in any other place since we are often separated by age, education, and addictions.

 To contribute to this collaborative community, the SpeakOut! Girls House will be taking on a collaborative performance poetry piece in the Spring by Zoë Anglesey, titled, Listen Up!: Spoken Word Poetry.

 Since I’m dealing with hybrid literacy projects in my thesis work, I’m familiar with the Anzaldua piece “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” yet every time I come back to it, I’m struck by the power of her language.  She writes, “How do you tame a wild tongue, train it to be quiet, how do bridle and saddle it?  How do you make it lie down?” (2947).

With regard to the work that I do at Turning Point Girls House, I think of how many times the girls are told not to say something—I cringe at the time when I have had to, by necessity for the therapeutic effect of the program, encourage the omission of work that contributes to their acting out.  We are told to encourage them to reflect on their experience rather than valorize it, especially when they are speaking about gang activity or graphic violence.  I wonder, though, how do we negotiate between honoring home discourse and censorship when it works toward defining authorship and identity?

 For instance, there is a young woman in the program who is a prolific writer.  Last week she handed me an entire notebook filled with poetry and prose about her life:  the trauma, the victimization, the survival guilt.  She spends a lot of time reflecting (privileged position) on her family, all of whom identify as part of the juggalo community, a community which has been labeled as excessively violent and a facet of gang culture.  Still, because of her inclusion as member of juggalo/juggalette discourse, she often transitions between the space of identifying as member and owning the benefits of membership (security, inclusion, support) and denying aspects of the culture that has led to her own trauma (sexual violence, domestic violence, drug culture).  So in some ways, it seems that through her writing she is writing an identity, perhaps a hybrid identity, that works through her pain and speaks back to crucial critical issues.

 How do I ethically tell her that she can’t write this?