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Chapter 9: Writing as Capital: The Emancipatory Act of Writing for Profit, Advocacy, and Charity

by Erin Fitzpatrick, Katie Schrodt, Brian Kissel & Suze Gilbert - 2021

Context: Writing is an agentive act. Despite drastic improvements over the past few decades in writing instruction and the push for sharing with authentic audiences, the majority of writing students do is still for the teacher. These practices are at odds with those who advocate for classrooms that are culturally relevant, culturally responsive, and culturally sustaining. When students write for the sole purpose of “doing school,” they are denied opportunities to use their writing voices to write about, for, and within their communities. Writing is used to empower—to pose problems and solve them. The distribution of that writing is equally important. Publication matters. It is in the distribution and response to writing that one can experience the power of written words to impact one’s world.

Purpose: In this chapter, we outline authentic purposes for writing centered on culturally relevant, responsive, agentive, and sustaining pedagogies. We describe the writer’s workshop, an instructional structure in which to embed these pedagogies. The writer’s workshop is the setting in which these students were situated to write purposefully. We take the reader into three classrooms using descriptive vignettes. The three classroom vignettes presented frame emancipatory writing for (a) personal profit to reinforce the value—monetary and social—of using one’s intellectual skills and written words for personal gain; (b) advocacy—through fostering critical consciousness that explores equitable and just familial structures and relationships and monetizing written words to directly impact a family through adoption; and (c) charity—through a service-learning project in which students used writing to influence others to financially support a charity that helps people who have been impacted by oppression in the forms of kidnapping, trafficking, and modern-day slavery.

Research Design: This is a narrative accounting of three teachers’ experience implementing this practice in their own classrooms.

Conclusions: In all three instances, children were agents who wrote for monetary motivation—seeking and acquiring capital for themselves, for others, or to effect desired social change. Moreover, the outcomes were achieved by students who used their skills and worked within their capacities to meaningfully effect change. Suggestions for implementation and generalization are offered.

Writing is an agentive act. But too often, school writing serves a singular audience (the teacher) and a contrived purpose (to get a grade). This narrowed purpose and audience may disengage young writers (Dyson, 2020). Until recently, many states administered writing assessments that asked students to draft a timed piece based on an arbitrary prompt—regardless of whether the child connected with the topic. And because what is tested is often what is taught, these prompting practices dominated classroom pedagogy—and still linger. In these cases, writing is often devoid of an authentic audience and serves no actual purpose.

These practices are at odds with those who advocate for classrooms that are culturally relevant (Ladson-Billings, 2009), culturally responsive (Gay, 2018), and culturally sustaining (Paris & Alim, 2017). In her foundational work, Gloria Ladson-Billings (2009) described three tenets to culturally relevant pedagogy: conceptions of the self and others, social relations, and conceptions of knowledge. When students write for the sole purpose of “doing school,” they are denied opportunities to use their writing voices to write about, for, and within their communities. In this way, the writing curriculum prevents children from writing about their whole selves, denying them connections to the communities they represent, denying them opportunities to develop deeper relationships with classmates, denying them access to knowledge, and denying them agency. This is problematic practice. Engagement is foundational to student success in learning (Galla et al., 2014). Without agency, a young writer is denied the capacity to act on their world, to create, impact, and transform themselves or the conditions of their lives (Basu et al., 2009).

Culturally responsive pedagogy, according to Geneva Gay (2018), is validating, comprehensive and inclusive, multidimensional, and empowering. Importance is placed on authenticity, and cultural differences are elevated as assets. In writing classrooms, an emphasis is placed on writers building their knowledge, attitudes, and dispositions in developing their writing identity. Writing is used to empower—to pose problems and solve them. But this work cannot happen when problems are not even allowed to enter the classroom space—when prompts eliminate any opportunity for writers to choose their topics.

In culturally sustaining classrooms, Paris and Alim (2017) advocate for teaching practices that usher in a welcoming, affirming environment for children—a place where children learn about each other and where deep relationships are formed and cultivated. In a culturally sustaining classroom, students lead and engage in their communities, examine power structures, and engage in social justice issues locally and around the world. These writing acts are impossible to perform if the writing topic is selected for the student, if the audience is the teacher, and if the writing never leaves the classroom.

We begin this chapter with an overview of what we believe to be authentic purposes for writing centered on culturally relevant, responsive, agentive, and sustaining pedagogies. Next, we describe the writer’s workshop, an instructional structure in which to embed these pedagogies. The writer’s workshop is what tethers three very different classrooms together. It is the setting in which these students were situated to write purposefully. Finally, we take the reader into classrooms through three mini-stories that serve “as an entree into the bigger story” (Gay, 2018, p. 5). We tell how these writing classrooms opened opportunities to more authentic, purposeful writing that had personal, local, and global impacts. Each account is a demonstration of a classroom environment that is culturally relevant, responsive, agentive, and sustaining. We also acknowledge the limitations that we, as White educators, have in doing this work. We are indeed works-in-progress, striving each year to do better than the last.

Committing pencil to paper is laborious and should be driven by purpose and a personal desire to share one’s voice. The three classroom vignettes presented frame emancipatory writing for (a) personal profit to reinforce the value—monetary and social—of using one’s intellectual skills and written words for personal gain; (b) advocacy—through fostering critical consciousness that explores equitable and just familial structures and relationships and monetizing written words to directly impact a family through adoption; and (c) charity—through a service-learning project in which students used writing to influence others to financially support a charity that helps people who have been impacted by oppression in the forms of kidnapping, trafficking, and modern-day slavery. In all three instances, children wrote for monetary motivation—seeking and acquiring capital for themselves, for others, or to effect desired social change. Moreover, the time frame was not some promised land that would come “when you grow up,” but rather outcomes achieved in real time, with students leaving knowing they had used their skills and worked within their capacities to meaningfully effect change.


In 2013, the town of Seddon, New Zealand, was disrupted by successive destructive earthquakes. Just when recovery began to feel possible, the people of Seddon were hit again by another destructive earthquake. Depression and hopelessness set in among students and families within the town. When one of their friends eventually committed suicide, students knew they had to do something. They began dreaming of ways to help a hurting community (Ranford, 2018).

In an effort to heal the community, students dreamt of a community bike park—a gathering place for children to come together and build community. To fund this park, students wrote passionate speeches, using social media to organize and empower their friends and community. They also wrote proposals to community leaders to organize a large fundraising event. They came up with slogans and painted signs, emphasizing the strength that comes when a town works together. The parents in the town said the youth had taken ownership of the fundraising event, using their voices to raise money for their cause (Ranford, 2018).

The youth of Seddon used their voices to enact change—to bring hope and healing to their community. They shared their writing using public platforms with the mission of raising mental health awareness. The students found power and purpose in the written word.

Teachers can cultivate engagement in their classrooms by giving students access to high-quality, comprehensive educational opportunities that encourage students to read broadly, write consistently, debate thoughtfully, think critically, and share publicly. Within this curriculum, literacy broadly, and writing specifically, can be viewed beyond an isolated set of skills and more as ideological practices that serve as powerful platforms for students’ voices to be heard and stories to be shared (Street, 1984).

In an era of standardization and policy, it can be difficult for teachers to balance a healthy observance of standards while still creating space for a sociocultural view of writing (Brownell, 2017). By creating emancipatory literacy events, students situate themselves in positions of power, both deconstructing and reconstructing what it means to learn to write. Freire (1972) was one of the first to use literacy as a means of empowerment, especially for breaking the culture of silence of the poor and oppressed. He posited, “To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to its namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming” (Freire, 1972, p. 61). Naming a problem or bringing light to a subject is the first step in taking social action.

Another step toward social action is agency, but student agency can sometimes be undermined by the lack of choices they have as writers. According to Janks (2010), “From primary to tertiary education, students’ writing is still largely controlled by the teacher and the set topic essay is still the norm in both language and content subject classrooms, in a range of educational contexts” (p. 157). Students must feel compelled by a situation—personal or beyond—to write in ways that seek to change it. Without agency, students may lack the motivation to write.

When teachers frame instruction within a critical literacy model (Janks, 2010), they accept the challenge “to preserve children’s rights to be culturally and linguistically competent” as well as weave that competence into a “collaborative and consensus building approach” (Soto et al., 1999, p. 6). In this environment, students feel empowered to think critically and read the word and the world around them in an effort to deconstruct and reconstruct texts. Through this reform, children become more empathetic and compassionate toward those who are marginalized, and they begin to work toward equity and affirmation for all. This work toward action can be seen, for example, through the advocacy work done by the students of Parkland, Florida, who created the March for Our Lives movement and used speech writing, op-ed writing, and social media writing to enact changes in the law (Kissel et al., 2019). In literacy classrooms that encourage writing as emancipatory acts, students participate as learners via “engagement in meaningful opportunities for writing as a stancetaking toward educational justice” (Marciano & Warren, 2018, p. 485).

Despite drastic improvements over the past few decades in writing instruction and the push for sharing with authentic audiences, “the large majority of the writing students do is still to the teacher-as-examiner” (Applebee & Langer, 2011, p. 17). As of 2015, 46 of the 50 U.S. states assessed writing performance with on-demand writing tasks, divorced from student agency, choice, or interest (Behizadeh & Pang, 2016).

Efforts, such as the National Commission on Writing (2003) and the Common Core State Standards Initiative (2012), have brought writing instruction into greater prominence within classrooms, pushing teachers and researchers to think about motivating and engaging practices for writers. Authors write for multiple reasons, but the distribution of that writing is equally important. Authors write to inform, to entertain, to persuade, and to express. How can young writers inform or entertain or persuade if no one is reading? Publication matters. It is in the distribution and response to writing that one can experience the power of written words. And when students write for capital—for monetary purposes to serve self or others—the incentive to publish manifests in concrete, tactile ways: in dollars and cents.


In the classrooms described here, the teachers incorporated a writer’s workshop model to teach narrative, expository, and persuasive writing. This model is built on the work of Murray (1972), who articulated for teachers the processes that writers experience when they craft text. Graves (1983) and Calkins (1983) researched elementary classrooms and observed how writing unfolded with young children. Then, the work of Atwell (2004), Rief (1991), and Calkins (1994) began to make the structures concrete and specific in classrooms in the form of a writer’s workshop model that includes (a) focused mini-lessons, (b) sustained time for students to write while the teacher confers, (c) an author’s chair where students receive feedback from an audience (Graves & Hansen, 1983), and (d) a short burst of time for reflection (Kissel, 2017).

The students featured in these three vignettes experienced a daily writer’s workshop routine in which the teacher held choice as a foundational tenet. Students chose their topics, purposes, and audiences for their writing. And while students wrote to entertain and inform, they also used the power they had over their topics and their own personal desire to impact the world to write for monetary purposes: to earn profits for themselves, to sell their work for advocacy, and to raise money for charity.


Erin taught in a fourth-grade classroom situated in an urban area in a southeastern state. The student body was predominantly Black (> 95%), with fewer than 10 White students in the entire elementary school of approximately 400 children. All students received free or reduced lunch, and the school provided a variety of additional services to address the disproportionate impact of poverty on this community—counseling, extended instructional hours, limited class sizes, and so on. This school was located amid a neighborhood that was quickly gentrifying. These wealthier newcomers who chose to enroll their children in private schools generally considered the local public school to be a relic of what remained of the previous neighborhood, and they were quite vocal about waiting for the neighborhood to fully transition before their children would attend public school. These events were consistent with other findings that suggest that school composition and neighborhood composition are the most divergent in areas of greatest economic and demographic change, the definition of gentrification (Bischoff & Tach, 2018). This context is important because the students were living in a space that felt like it was becoming smaller and smaller, and their families’ inability to change this encroachment was felt throughout the community. The writing event demonstrated not only the power of the students’ thoughts, but also the reach of their voices.

Fully committed to the writer’s workshop model, Erin sought ways for students to publish for wide and varied audiences—to reach beyond geographic and political boundaries of the neighborhood. She wanted students to feel like real writers. Erin was a member of the local Writers Meetup, where she often attended her friends’ book signings. At one such event, she realized her students should be doing something similar: Fans should arrive, fawn over their accomplishment with an outpouring of accolades, provide financial incentives to demonstrate that labor of the intellect is valued in our culture, and leave in their wake a flood of motivation for the next writing task. Erin decided to host an author signing in her own classroom.

She began with a question she posed to students: “What do real, professional writers do when they write?” This question elicited three answers: (a) They write about something they want to share with the world, (b) they go through the hard work of the publication process, and (c) they share their words with a wide audience.

As Erin envisioned the event, she assured students that they would do all those things. The students would have free choice about their publication. They could choose either to engage with the entire writing process or to find a piece they worked on this semester that they wanted to carry through to publication. Erin got to work recruiting an audience for the students. She sent home fliers to invite students’ friends and family, put fliers in the school mailboxes for each teacher and administrator, and shared the information with her Facebook friends and, more broadly, with the local Writers Meetup group.

On each flier, she asked attendees to bring a roll of quarters or $10 to exchange for a roll of quarters on site. The student authors would receive pay for their work; these students would understand that intellectual work has value, a message they might not discern from the jobs of their family or community members. It was important to Erin that the students understand that their thoughts and voices were impactful and valued—so valued that family members, teachers, and other community members were willing to pay for them. As a child, Erin too had grown up in a community primarily surrounded by manual laborers and had found whispers of potential in written words. She hoped the author signing might carry a message as a seed planted in fourth grade that might impact how the students see opportunities throughout their lives.

Students chose a new idea to foster as they pored through their corpus of writing products to decide which pieces they would take to publication. They all engaged in the recursive writing process approach of drafting, sharing their drafts with peers for feedback, revising, illustrating, and editing. There were very few rules about how their final pieces should be published; students had agency over what they chose to share with the attendees. One student created a poem about football that was published on the lines of a scaled model of a football field. Another wrote a poem wherein each line of the poem was written on an ornament that decorated a three-dimensional Christmas tree, read from the highest ornament to the lowest ornament. But most writers chose traditional essay or book formats, detailing such topics as athletic victories, a recent trip to Mexico to visit extended family, and a brief book about accepting a new baby sister after some initial trepidation. One wrote a book on a science topic of interest and included informational text features such as a table of contents, vocabulary words, labeled illustrations, and a glossary of terms. Some chose to write by hand; others typed. Works included author pages and photos, as well as dedications to emulate the mentor texts enjoyed in class. Erin and the students shared some of the texts with published authors from the local Writers Meetup via email so they could read the text and offer a blurb hyping the student’s work, which was then glued to the back of the original books.

On the day of the event, students had their original published texts, most with hand-colored illustrations ready to read. Their enthusiasm was palpable. As the first few guests—each carrying a roll of quarters—walked through the door to the classroom, students called out to them to “Start here!” “Start at my table!” It was unanticipated, but the guests were charmed. Soon, however, the floodgates opened, and every child had an adoring fan.

As Erin walked around the room, she heard interactions between writers and their audience: authors reading their work, writers explaining their process, illustrators describing their drawings, dreamers naming their goals for future writing projects. The adults provided uninterrupted attention to these thoughtful readings, and the students were delighted. Quarters clanked into clear cups, and the students’ eyes widened as they began to pile up. Signed copies were collected as fans moved around the room. Along with the school’s teachers and administrators, professors from local universities, an art gallery owner, a data scientist, a parole hearing officer, a renowned local composer, and others—nearly 40 people in total—came to support the students and hear the reading of their work, the public offering of their intellectual property.

Later in the week, the class also received a letter from someone who had seen the flier online but was unable to attend:

Dear 4th grade writers,

I am sorry I will not be able to make it to your author signing event, but I would like to commission you all to gather your work into a classroom anthology. I have enclosed a check for your work, and look forward to reading and experiencing your stories.


Kristin O’Donnell Tubb

(author of The Story Collector, A Dog like Daisy, The 13th Sign)

The letter was written by a published author whose signed work had been read aloud and now rested on the bookshelves of this fourth-grade classroom. The students were thrilled by the unexpected response of a treasured author. And while they were disappointed she was unable to attend their presentation, the author reinforced a valuable lesson nonetheless; writing is intellectual property, and intellectual property holds monetary value.


Students previously resistant to engaging and reengaging with text happily read their texts with expressive prosody for each new listener. They defended their authorial choices in terms of plot, organization, and publication. One of the greatest benefits was students’ fervor to deeply invest in the workshop following the event and their ongoing enthusiasm throughout the next semester in preparation for the end-of-year author signing.

Following the signing, students sent thank-you letters to each visitor, another authentic writing task, and nearly half of the attendees wrote back to share how deeply they had been impacted. One attendee and her guest each wrote letters to the principal, superintendent, and every member of the school board to declare the general success and personal impact of the event. The students continued to talk about the guests by name for the remainder of the year, and Erin noticed some of the distance between the us and them of the gentrification conversation had been eliminated from the students’ language. They were seeing themselves as part of a larger community in which they had influence.

The following Monday, Erin asked students how they had spent their profits. There were the expected answers of buying candy and toys. A very disciplined child added it to his savings, and then there was one other story. Anisse (all names are pseudonyms), the youngest child of a family for whom the teachers had once collected grocery money, joyfully announced she was “able to help Momma pay the water bill.” Contributing financially to relieve stress in her home was likely her heart’s desire for her earnings, and the lesson that her writing, her story, her thoughts were the vehicle to achieve that aim was a powerful one.

This writing experience was an act of emancipatory writing. Students were codesigners of the curriculum (Paris & Alim, 2017), and they personally reaped the benefits of their efforts.


Katie was a kindergarten teacher at a small private school in the mid-southern United States. This school incorporated racial and economic reconciliation as a part of its mission by recruiting and funding children from a diverse range of contexts and experiences. Exactly half of the children received free or reduced lunch and scholarships to attend the school. This kindergarten classroom consisted of 14 students with an even split of boys and girls from diverse cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Four of the students were adopted internationally from Russia, China, and Guatemala.

Approximately 1.4 million school-age children hold the socially constructed status of “adopted-child” (Mattix & Crawford, 2011). Adopted children enter schools with rich layers of culture, language, and experiences and bring these rich cultural identities to their classrooms. Internationally adopted children may mourn the loss of their home country and grapple with the disruption of their cultural norms. They learn to negotiate multiple identities among their peers and families (Meese, 2010). As adopted children begin school for the first time, they start to interrogate multiple viewpoints about family structures. So, to affirm their identities and welcome their cultures into the context of their new settings (Paris & Alim, 2017), Katie used high-quality affirmative children’s literature. In this way, she brought stories and experiences into the classroom to serve as mirrors for the adoptive children and as windows for their peers (Bishop, 2009; Schrodt et al., 2015). The interactive read-alouds centered on the theme of adoption and served as an approach to address culturally responsive teaching in the classroom (Schrodt et al., 2015). Books allow for a kind of social rehearsal, a springboard for conversations that may otherwise be more difficult to have. Books allow for diverse voices to be heard and historically marginalized stories to be told. The goal of this framework was to use books as a springboard for empathy and understanding, leading young children to ask questions and process social justice issues, and create a structure for having a dialogue on issues of equity, access, and hardships as they relate to adoption.

The students spent a month journaling about, discussing, and reading literature focused on the theme of adoption. Katie selected four books to read aloud that disrupted common views of family and introduced additional views of family structures. The first book Katie chose was Borya and the Burps by Joan McNamara (2005), an adoption activist and parent of 11 adopted children. McNamara wrote this book in response to the dearth of Eastern European adoption stories within the children’s literature market and the need for adoptees to have representational texts that told their stories. Borya and the Burps depicts an Eastern European orphanage with many babies in one room. One of those babies is Borya, who finds comfort in his bottle and getting burped by his “Mamachka.” Borya is afraid when one of the babies disappears, but then a mysterious couple eventually whisks him away from the familiarity of his orphanage. When faced with an irritable judge in the courtroom, Borya’s new mother feeds him and comforts him. Borya ends up burping and lightening the mood of the whole room.

The next book selected was Bringing Asha Home (Krishnaswami, 2006). This book is told through the eyes of a young boy, Arun. The author tells of the excruciating waiting period that many families endure when adopting a child. Arun wishes he had a sister to help him celebrate the Indian holiday, Rakhi. As he waits for his sister to arrive, the family experiences an array of emotions. Arun folds paper airplanes throughout the book, and this airplane connection is crucial in creating a bond with his new sister when she finally comes home from India.

The third book, Over the Moon (Katz, 1997) was inspired by the international adoption of the author’s daughter, Lena. Karen Katz uses words and paint to express the “magic of adoption.” The combination of art and text creates a dreamlike feel to the book, as the parents express the anticipation of waiting and the joy of finally going to Guatemala to receive their daughter home.

The final book selection in the text set, The Red Thread (Lin, 2007), is based on the ancient Chinese belief that an invisible, unbreakable red thread connects all those who are destined to be together. This fairy tale is about a king and queen who are seeking fulfillment for their aching hearts. After becoming aware of the red thread, the king and queen endure a long journey and discover a baby at the end of their thread, answering their desire to build a family.

Each week, Katie introduced one of these children’s books in class. At the end of the month, the students chose their favorite book from the set to take home. Their families co-constructed responses and connections to the book in a family response journal. Over the course of the month, it became obvious that the books had served as both windows and mirrors for the children in the classroom (Bishop, 1990). A seminal essay by Rudine Sims Bishop brought forth the idea that books can help us understand each other better by helping change our attitudes toward difference:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. (Bishop, 1990, p. ix)

Like a mirror, the four adopted students began to see themselves in the curriculum and discussions in class. Like a window, the other students in the class began to see and understand the lived experiences of the four adopted students. Evidence of this came in the writing and connections these children made in their response journals.

Figure 1 was written by Jane (pseudonym), who was adopted from China. She wrote, “I was at China and my mom and popo went to China to get me. It was fun.” Jane rarely spoke of her adoption until the curriculum in the classroom began to mirror her story. After writing this story and sharing it with the class, Jane’s mother asked to celebrate her “gotcha day” with the whole class. Her mother came in with pictures from their first meeting in China, and the class celebrated Jane and her family. Jane used the adoption books as a mirror. Jane saw herself in the stories told in class, affirming her identity and her place in the world. This self-affirmation (Bishop, 1990) gave her strength and permission to share her story.

Figure 1. Jane Writes About Her Adoption Day


Inspired by Jane, Caden decided to write about his own “gotcha day.” In Figure 2, Caden wrote, “My mom screamed when she saw me in the picture. Her and dad came to Russia to get me.” Caden is growing in his agency as he begins to feel free to speak and act in a world that historically has remained silent on the stories of adoption (Jaffee & Fanshel, 1970).

Figure 2. Caden Writes About His Mom’s Reaction


When curriculum affirms the identity of those whose cultures help to codesign it, teachers can learn about, and from, the children who learn within their classrooms. And the children learn about, and from, one another. Classroom texts that provided mirrors begat student-generated texts that served as windows reflecting their own experiences. The other students in the classroom began to see their classmates anew. The children asked tough questions, thought critically, and examined the complicated nuances of adoption. In short, the children were gaining a critical consciousness, an in-depth understanding of the world—a seed of understanding that “my friend might have a different experience and story than me.” One child in Figure 3 wrote, “Why can’t birth moms take care of their kids?”

Figure 3. Student Asks a Question About Adoption


This question sparked discussion within the classroom, as these five-year-olds began to process adoption and what it means for the friends they love so dearly. One mom revealed that birth moms and adopted moms both love their children. One child’s writing reveals how she has both connected with her adopted classmates (by wishing she was like them) and is grappling with the understanding of why (Figure 4). She wrote, “I wish I was adopted, but I wasn’t because my mom had enough money to feed me and give me water.” Five-year-olds are not too young to critically examine, interrogate, or disrupt texts (Vasquez, 2014). In fact, these 5-year-olds are becoming more critically conscious of social justice issues surrounding adoption, including poverty and perceptions of birth mothers.

Figure 4. Child Makes a Connection With Adopted Classmates


One family, after reading The Red Thread by Lin, wrote, “I loved how this book brought babies and moms and dads together. The next pages show families together” (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Carly Writes About an Adoption in Her Family


Motivated by a personal connection, one student, Carly, was able to relate The Red Thread to the adoption of her cousin, Eli. Carly’s aunt and uncle were in the long process of adopting, which inspired the picture of her aunt and uncle connected by a red thread to Eli. Another student, Elise, saw her own family in the story as she made a personal connection to the adoption text. Carly’s response was layered as it simultaneously extended the meaning of the text through personal connection and global application. Her words emphasized a sense of belonging for both the adoptive parents and the child being adopted. Her writing also positioned her as an expert on the subject of adoption and encouraged window and mirror connections (Bishop, 1990) with her classmates—that is, they could see into her world but could also see similarities in their own experience. This response allowed for a direct discussion of what adoption looks like in one specific family, offering an expanded view of family structures.

This entry sparked much discussion around the adoption of her new cousin, as Carly revealed that the family was trying to raise money to complete the adoption. The discussion about money for adoption was foundational to helping the children form a critical consciousness around the issue of the extremely high expense of adopting a child. This issue prevents many from adopting children in need of a home. This new knowledge inspired the children into action, which is the last step in Lewison and colleagues’ (2002) four dimensions of critical literacy. Immediately the children began to brainstorm how they could help. This journal entry inspired the children to move into social action and change—a “critical consciousness” (Ladson-Billings, 2009) through which they were being moved to fight for equity, social justice, and change. This critical consciousness is a more in-depth understanding of the world, including an ability to analyze oppressed or marginalized people within systems and move into action. This action-oriented thinking began to surface in the children’s writing. The children’s collective written responses were “situated within [their] lived experiences and frames of reference” (Gay, 2002, p. 106) making their knowledge and understanding more personally meaningful, of higher interest, and learned more effortlessly. Figure 6 is a journal entry by Bri, who wrote, “We can help orphans by praying for them, helping those that are adopting. We can sell toys we don’t play with and sponsor a child.”

Figure 6. Bri Writes About Taking Action


This piece of writing sparked a class writing project. When Bri talked about selling her old toys, the children began to discuss this idea with fervor and came up with an action project to help Carly’s family with their adoption expenses. Each child brought in one new or gently used item to sell at a garage sale. All the proceeds from the garage sale went toward the adoption of Carly’s cousin, Eli, from Africa. The children helped Carly’s grandparents hang clothes, stack books, and price items for the garage sale. They wrote letters and flyers to get customers to the sale. In the end more than $2,000 was raised to benefit the family. But they did not stop there.

The children continued to raise money after the garage sale by selling their writing to parents, staff, and the community. As a class, the students decided to compose and publish their best written work in the hope of selling it to raise money. They advertised their work for sale within the school community. Each child published multiple sets of a special piece of writing and sold it for $0.25 a copy. The classroom was filled with customers who were asked to buy copies of the writing by placing a quarter in a cup along with a compliment for their writing (see Figure 7). The students each had a compliment page on their desk where the customer signed their name and wrote their accolades. The students experienced the power of writing not only by raising money for an important cause, but also by receiving praise for their work, the voices in their writing not lost in the mix of the sale. By the end of the writing celebration, students raised more than $100 to go toward the adoption of their classmate’s new cousin.

Figure 7. Students Host Writing Event to Raise Money for Adoption


Katie interviewed two parents of adopted children in the classroom about their experiences. Grant’s mother stated,

It was the first time I really saw the wheels turning in his brain linking the book to what we experience in real life. It has also sparked more conversations about Grant’s adoption. I like being able to ask Grant hard questions—at first, he wouldn’t really give me much in the way of responses, but this past time he really had a lot to say! I love seeing him engaged and interested in reading. It gives me hope!

Caden’s mother said,

I feel like for every rejection Caden received in Russia, he is receiving 1,000 blessings and affirmations here in America. This project was definitely one of them. Caden has been asking hard questions at home and even having abandonment nightmares. This has helped Caden feel like he is not alone, and has opened up great conversations at home.

This adoption text set offered critical space for developing competence in responding to social justice issues. Through reading and learning about adopted children and becoming aware of adopted children within their classroom context and immediate families, the children took the derived meaning from the text and applied it outside the boundaries of the classroom. Bri used writing to elevate her social capital within the classroom. Katie’s students used writing to raise financial capital for their peer’s family and merge these understandings into action and personal responsibility. Children were empowered and moved into action. In their own way, they attempted to make a difference in the life of an adopted child and his new family.


The third setting is a middle school English language arts classroom within a private school. The school is located in a rural area in the southeastern United States. There, Suze taught 21 students (11 boys, 10 girls), all White and middle class.

Together, Suze and her students read I Have Lived a Thousand Years, a written account of Livia Bitton-Jackson’s life growing up during the Holocaust (Jackson, 1997). Through the reading, the class discovered how a young girl, the same age as the students, lost her family, her home, and herself through the horrors of a mass massacre of a race of people. As Livia’s entire life unraveled, Suze was disarmed by her students’ disconnection from the topic. She did not understand how they did not feel moved; Livia’s moment in history was divorced from their current experiences. There was cognitive—and cultural—dissonance. Suze wanted to help her students make connections between themselves and the text, so she asked a central question: “How can I create a bridge between events of the past with current events?” Bringing current events into the classroom is a central tenet of culturally sustaining practice and an important way to engage students in learning (Paris & Alim, 2017).

Service-learning has gained many advocates in recent years. According to the National Youth Leadership Council (2020), “service learning is an approach to teaching and learning in which students use academic and civic knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs.” However, support for service-learning can be documented as far back in the history of educational research as John Dewey (1916). Dewey believed that when service was integrated into the academic curriculum, students would feel more deeply connected to and engaged in the learning and, over time, develop into better citizens (Westat & Chapman, 1999). Central to this work is rich exploration and inquiry. The middle school students needed opportunities to explore citizenship, and specifically the responsibilities thereof.

Suze’s students were going to embark on a new path of critical thinking. These conversations would be difficult because the muscle for talking about experiences beyond the four corners of the school had not been exercised with consistency. Suze modeled a learning stance to reframe conversations. Instead of saying, “I can’t talk about hard social justice topics with my friends because I might say the wrong thing or make someone sad,” Suze encouraged students to say, “I can learn more about these topics and talk about them with effort and persistence, willing to make mistakes, learn, and do better next time.” The assignments to follow served as layers of learning, pushing Suze’s students to try out the muscle of critical consciousness by first learning and listening, and then taking action for change.

Suze and her students began by examining current-day oppression and slavery, both within the rural community and the larger global community. They examined modern-day slavery— a term that was unknown to her students. They considered the exploitation of other people by organizations, institutions, or individuals for personal or commercial gain. The class read articles about child trafficking and children of war, discussed the effects of these practices on human lives, and explored ways to make changes. In culturally responsive and sustaining classrooms, it is not enough to passively accept the realities of the moment; we must use our lives to also enact meaningful, worthwhile change (Gay, 2018; Paris & Alim, 2017). Suze saw the students as they realized that modern-day slavery was happening in their world, in their lifetime; as students began to stir, she sensed it was time to move.

Suze’s class decided to use their voices to raise awareness and support for victims of modern-day enslavement and trafficking. Suze presented the students with several organizations whose missions were to combat oppression in the forms of kidnapping, trafficking, and slavery and to support people impacted. During the discovery process, the class contacted a local nonprofit organization, Exile International, whose mission is to rehabilitate former child soldiers: Congolese and Ugandan children who had been enslaved by Kony’s army. The class researched the history of Kony and the destruction he brought to the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Students learned that Joseph Kony was a self-appointed “messiah” of the Lord’s Resistance Army and that he is responsible for Africa’s longest running armed conflict, kidnapping more than 30,000 children to fight in his army. The destruction he brought to the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda is difficult to process. They learned of the work Exile does to restore rescued children and the opportunities provided for these children to be agents for peace and healing in their country. Raising funds to support the work of Exile International became the class’s mission. Writing was the tool the students used to enact change.

After planning discussions, student-created teams wrote proposals outlining their plan for raising awareness and funds. As a class, students negotiated proposal ideas and determined a four-layered approach: (a) They designed, ordered, and sold rubber bracelets that read “Kindness”; (b) they recruited a beloved grandmother to make her famous thumbprint cookies to sell at school; (c) they orchestrated a “Change” drive competition between classes; and (d) they wrote letters to the community requesting donations. Once the plan was established, they sought permission from school administrators to proceed. The students also asked the student body and school community to support their efforts.

Writing thrived in the classroom as students realized this work could generate money to support the children served by Exile International. During writer’s workshop, students drafted several presentations—one seeking permission from school administrators, another seeking support from the school principal and two community leaders, and a third presented to the student body outlining the fundraising plan and requesting financial support for Exile International (see Figure 8). They used their writer’s workshop time to write letters to the community, sharing their research and seeking donations. Students took ownership of their writing and their writing processes to produce presentations and letters that would generate funding to support the children served by Exile International.

Figure 8. Students Present Their Writing and Research to Raise Money for Exile International


By the conclusion of the experience, the students published and presented their research and raised $1,500 to present to Exile International to support its work with former child soldiers. The students learned that writing has power; in this case, writers learned that their writing could inspire people to donate money. Through this emancipatory writing act, students learned that writing can be used to make a small impact toward the rectification of an insidious ongoing global problem.

The type of community service learning in which students were engaged was valuable and powerful because monetizing their work and their learning benefited the community as well as the individuals. Service-learning encourages students to use their learning to give of themselves, to use their time to impact someone else’s life, and to use their compassion for other people (Conrad & Hedin, 1991). Beyond monetization, though, students were able to realize their responsibilities to others as citizens and to practice their own agency in contributing to a global society.


Committing pencil to paper is laborious and should be driven by purpose and a personal desire to share one’s voice without narrowing the topic or audience of the writer (Dyson, 2020). Monetizing students’ work offers a motivational publication avenue for young writers and allows them to devote capital to personal gain, community efforts, or global causes. In all three instances, children used their writing voices to write about, for, and within their communities to acquire capital for themselves or others, or to effect desired social change. In that process, they realized the power of written words to impact one’s world; that is, they developed agency (Basu et al., 2009). They were met with authentic audiences beyond the classroom walls who heard, applauded, and financially supported their work, further reifying the value of their messages (Schrodt et al., 2018). Students realized the power of their impact on their environments through acts of emancipatory writing, putting culturally sustaining practices into the writer’s workshop and out into the world (Paris & Alim, 2017).


In the fourth-grade classroom, students defended their authorial choices in terms of plot, organization, and publication. One of the greatest benefits was the friendships that developed across previously well-established boundaries, bringing people across communities a little bit closer.

The kindergarten students experienced the power of writing not only by raising money for an important cause, but also by receiving praise for their work, the voices in their writing not lost in the mix of the sale. By the end of the writing celebration, students raised more than $100 to go toward the adoption of their classmate’s new cousin. This adoption text set offered critical space for developing competence in responding to social justice issues. Children were empowered and moved into action. In their own way, they attempted to make a difference in the life of an adopted child and his new family.

Finally, in the middle school classroom, students’ antiquated views of slavery and their unwillingness to engage with oppression was challenged as students took ownership of their voices and used their writing to impact present-day problems in the world. By the conclusion of the experience, the students raised $1,500 to present to Exile International to continue its work with former child soldiers and make an impact in ending modern-day oppression and slavery.

Research supports the importance of young writers publishing work for authentic audiences that reaches beyond the traditional teacher–student relationship (Arneson, 2014; Ray & Laminack, 2001). When we allow students to publish beyond the four walls of the classroom, not only do we allow them to participate in the writing process in the same way professional writers do, but we also put into the world the powerful truth that this writing has been through a process—there were revisions and deadlines, it has been accepted for publication, and now it is ready for the public (Ray & Laminack, 2001). The students share their stories in public ways to “advertise, complain, request, acknowledge, announce, solicit, and plead their cases” (Ray & Laminack, 2001, p. 257) as they express themselves, tell their stories, and gain power and voice through writing (Kissel, 2017). That is, these students show up fully in the world and demand that their voices be reckoned with. In each of these classrooms, students were encouraged to use their personal interests and agency to monetize their intellectual property toward impacting an aim of their choice. See Appendix for teacher resources and tips for hosting a local author-signing event.

Much like the students in Seddon, New Zealand, who responded to the loss of a peer by offering their heartfelt words to acquire capital for a goal that would contribute to less isolation among their remaining peers, these students reached out into their own worlds, birthing their original intellectual property through the emancipatory act of writing for profit, advocacy, and charity. Their writing voices were met with authentic audiences from the community who validated and supported their powerful causes.


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Resources and Tips

Resources for Teachers

Podcast: This podcast gives the listener tools to help students follow their passions, including tools for book publishing, video production, and podcasting. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/passion-tech-tools/

Journal article featuring publication opportunities for young writers: “Our voices carry: Six fresh, authentic publishing opportunities for young writers.”

Website where teachers can publish a free classroom book: https://www.schoolmatepublishing.com/faq/

Website that “provides teachers and parents with the tools to create schools where students learn to read, write and change the world”: https://www.teachingforchange.org/

Blog about writing for justice in the classroom: https://www.rethinkingschools.org/articles/writing-for-justice-persuasion-from-the-inside-out

Tips on How to Host a Local Author-Signing Event


Scheduling. Set a date far in advance to allow students to bring a selected work to publication quality.


Marketing. Consider whom to invite (writing groups, school board members, parents, professors, etc.). Explain to guests the monetary expectations of the event.


Preparing the physical environment. Choose a master of ceremonies to welcome visitors. Have guests create name tags and write addresses on adhesive labels. Consider how money will be collected, with preference given to students being able to witness it.


Preparing texts for distribution. Consider cost-effective ways to make copies of student publications. Teachers may consider photographing each page of the original and scaling the photos onto one sheet of paper.


Rehearsing norms. Instruct students on what to expect the day of the event. Share examples of authors’ signatures in other books. Have students practice signing a text, including looking at name tags to spell the reader’s name correctly. Practice handshakes, eye contact, and reading aloud with enthusiasm.


Following the event. Instruct writing thank you letters. Each student may write multiple letters using the adhesive address labels the guests prepared.


Bask in the glow of success, and ride the wave of writing motivation!

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 13, 2021, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23743, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 5:29:25 AM

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About the Author
  • Erin Fitzpatrick
    University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    ERIN FITZPATRICK, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She serves on the International Literacy Association’s Writing Task Force, and her research interests include writing and professional development. She is passionate about translating research to practice, as evidenced by her most recent publication in Teaching Exceptional Children, titled “How to Use Audio Feedback to Improve Students’ Writing Quality.”
  • Katie Schrodt
    Middle Tennessee State University
    E-mail Author
    KATIE SCHRODT, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of literacy at Middle Tennessee State University. Her research interests include reading and writing motivation with young children. Katie is passionate about making research relevant and available for teachers, as demonstrated by her most recent publication in The Reading Teacher, titled “Becoming Brave Spellers.”
  • Brian Kissel
    Vanderbilt University
    E-mail Author
    BRIAN KISSEL, Ph.D., is a professor of literacy and the director of elementary education at Peabody College at Vanderbilt University. His research interests include PreK–5 writing development and pedagogy. He is the author of four books, including When Writers Drive the Workshop: Honoring Young Voices and Bold Choices.
  • Suze Gilbert
    Lipscomb University
    E-mail Author
    SUZE GILBERT, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Lipscomb University. She serves as the lead faculty for the reading specialty M.Ed. and teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses. Suze’s primary research interest is literacy, with a focus in teaching writing. Suze is codirector of the Middle Tennessee Writing Project, which trains teachers in all aspects of writing instruction using a teacher leader model.
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