Writing America: Classroom Literacy and Public Engagement

reviewed by Rachel Ragland - 2005

coverTitle: Writing America: Classroom Literacy and Public Engagement
Author(s): Sarah Robbins and Mimi Dyer (Editors)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807745278, Pages: 179, Year: 2005
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As Paul Lauter states in his foreword, the essays in Writing America: Classroom Literacy and Public Engagement “offer not prescriptions but insights about how what is meant by education [italics in original] and what is meant by community [italics in original] come together with excitement and mutually sustaining power” (p. viii). This volume, edited by Sarah Robbins and Mimi Dyer, underscores the connections between teacher professional growth and classroom reform and tells a story of pedagogical adventures for students and teachers alike. Each chapter presents a narrative of innovation, documenting collaboration between classroom and community that gives immediate and obvious relevance to the learning process. The volume also documents an important model of professional development that has relevancy across disciplinary and grade level lines.

The volume documents the Keeping and Creating American Communities (KCAC) project, an initiative supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project (NWP) since 1994. The project encompassed three phases: thematic inquiry practices, curricular experiments, and dissemination efforts. The first year focused on teachers’ trying out inquiry-based research into community life themselves, the second year involved the teachers’ developing classroom teaching strategies based on those experiences, and the third year focused on dissemination, including the production of this volume. The KCAC project had two basic tenets: “Keeping” community invited students to participate in cultural stewardship. Students critically examined cultural forces operating in their communities and self-consciously joined in civic preservation—including community-based research such as gathering local stories, interpreting public history sites, and analyzing visual culture in their own environments. The “creating” component of the project encouraged students to see themselves as active composers of their communities’ identities, through which a clear sense of communal identity emerged.

The book is organized into two parts. Part I focuses on the “keeping” element by sharing stories of how the teachers made their local communities’ cultural work a topic for school study. Practical ideas are offered for curriculum development and reflective analysis of this approach to becoming a “public” kind of teacher who uses curriculum that becomes bigger than the classroom. Diversity becomes more than an abstract topic, as learners’ unique, individual cultures become subjects for shared interpretation. The stories in part II, the “creating” component, highlight applications of the model that engaged with communities beyond the classroom through collaboration and public dissemination. One thing all the essays in the volume have in common is an emphasis on reflection and on the storyteller’s role in reflection. The use of the “storyteller” or “teacher story” genre is purposeful. The authors feel this type of writing honors both the specific workings of the model in action and the knowledge that evolved from the collaboration.

When the volume is considered as a whole, three areas of focus emerge that may provide guidance for those interested in a range of topics: public literacy, professional development models, and a look at the field of American studies in action. The project saw literacy as a purposeful activity in a social context—a shift from viewing literacy simply as decoding print text to including, and even foregrounding, writing, and from a cognitive, individual conception of literacy to a genuinely social one. The participants viewed “public literacy projects [as a way to] promote civic culture, preparing students for active citizenship and lifelong learning” (p. 97). Writing was at the center of the curricular framework of the project. Using the social-process rhetorical inquiry model of Bruce McComiskey (2000), the writing process was extended into the world, moving students’ writing outward. Writing was “both a way of knowing and acting, a way of understanding the world and also changing it” (p. 19).

The second focus, on professional development models, involves multiple dimensions of professional development: the teachers’ own experiences studying community, their efforts to engage students in similar research, and the effects those instructional practices had on classroom life. Two key elements emerged from the narratives: the importance of the teacher as both authentic researcher and student of her subject matter and the importance of collaboration with colleagues. KCAC involved teachers in the design process, asked them to assume roles in management and assessment, and looked to them to lead major dissemination activities (p. 2). Teacher-leaders were responsible for important decisions that shaped the project effectively around their own questions and intellectual interests, to match the occupational lives and culture of the participants. The KCAC experience supports other research on professional development, demonstrating that for classroom teachers, who typically work in isolation from one another, the experience of intellectual fellowship and joint work is novel and powerful (p. 5). As Peggy Corbett writes in her essay, “new relationships and a sense of community develop out of a shared objective, out of discovery of shared experiences and emotions, and in the recognition of shared values” (p. 151).

As part of the professional development model, each of the teacher-writers became involved as an authentic researcher and student of her subject matter. Each teacher tried out strategies for researching local culture herself before inviting her students to do so. Each engaged in a process of inquiry in which she became a student again, through a process of analyzing such things as memoirs, government documents, historical fiction, public history sites, and photographs of Georgia farming scenes. She then invited her students to become primary researchers and report as she had done. This process provides another example of what has also proven to be a successful process in the field of professional development for history teachers. Research tells us that the mental models teachers use when they construct teaching experiences for their students change as an outcome of the collaboration with historians in professional development institutes. Professional development in this area attempts to transfer to teachers an understanding of the research and analytical practices that historians regularly employ and to work with teachers to structure appropriate abbreviated ways for students to study and make sense of history. There is an inextricable link between what teachers know and what their students are able to understand. Research has shown that if students are to learn the steps of historical analysis, teachers must first know them (Medina, Pollard, Schneider, & Leonhardt, 2000).

One specific example of this process can be found in the essay by Sylvia Martinez entitled “Discovering the Power of My Place: Personal Journeys to a Community Focus.” The My Place project in Martinez’s classroom involved students’ taking pictures of specific places where they had experienced meaningful moments. Through photography and writing, the students explored the power and significance of “their places.” As the author states with a reflective sense of discovery, “the results were far from what I expected, but they turned out to be exactly what I wanted” (p. 32). The results were a product of the process of teacher as student that is at the heart of this professional development model. “I knew that in order to share with my students this powerful concept of community and place being intertwined, I must first explore and experience it myself” (p. 29), according to Martinez. “I orally modeled the thinking process that occurred when I embarked on my picture-taking journey to discover my places in San Antonio, which helped to give my students focus” (p. 33). The other important aspect of this professional development model, collaboration, was also reinforced through her reflections on the process experienced by her students. Students, she writes, “must first collaborate with one another to create their own community in the classroom before even venturing outside the walls” (p. 37).

These individual “teacher stories” demonstrate again the importance of anecdote and “teacher talk” in teacher research to enrich our practice. The work of Patricia Lambert Stock (1993) is referenced with its implications for classroom teachers. Stock suggests that “moments of great change occur once teachers begin to interpret the actions and reactions in their classrooms. Anecdotal sharing constitutes this interpretation: as teachers share stories, they recognize elements of the stories as similar to ones they have experienced” (p. 179).

A final focus of the project presented is the grounding of the process as a narrative of American studies scholarship at work. Contextualizing these projects and the entire KCAC project within history and goals of American studies scholarship provides a methodological and intellectual framework within which to understand the accomplishment of these teacher-scholars. KCAC used American studies to provide teachers with tools and concepts that gave the daily work in their classrooms a distinctly public resonance—a significance that helped make learning relevant and productive for students. As American studies scholars, the KCAC project teachers embraced an activist agenda: a social reconstructionist perspective on curriculum development.

In conclusion, the volume emphasizes the role writing can play in creating communities; the power of authentic professional experiences and professional collaboration; the potential inherent in cross-level, interdisciplinary study of community life; and the need to view research as open-ended inquiry using a wide range of methods to study diverse cultural artifacts. The core assumption of the KCAC project was that teachers would work with, extend, and adapt rich disciplinary frames, new resources, and powerful conceptual tools to their own purposes as educators. As Elyse Eidman-Aadahl states in her prologue, “the essays in this volume demonstrate the engagement, the spirit of inquiry, and the delicious ambition that results from taking the role of the teacher as public intellectual very seriously” (p. 7). The authors hope to encourage other educators—in diverse subject areas, at diverse instructional levels, and in diverse settings—to become community researchers themselves, teachers of community studies, and supporters of students’ civic engagement. Any professional interested in these areas will benefit from the stories shared in this volume.


McComiskey, B. (2000). Teaching composition as a social process. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Medina, K., Pollard, J., Schneider, D., & Leonhardt, C. (2000). How do students understand the discipline of history as an outcome of teachers’ professional development? Results of a three-year study: “Every Teacher An Historian.” A Professional Development Research and Documentation Program. Oakland: Regents of the University of California, Oakland.

 Stock, P. L. (1993). The function of anecdote in teacher research. English Education, 25, 173–187.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2446-2450
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11802, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 6:23:17 PM

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