Teaching the Writing Process Under the Most Difficult Circumstances

Hilary Stern, Executive Director, CASA Latina, Seattle, Washington

In order for students to really work on refining their writing, they have to practice the process of writing. That is to say, figuring out what to say, saying it, thinking about audience and effect on the audience and revising it, and finally editing it. If writing is to effectively communicate to an audience that doesn't know you, this is a process that takes some time and thought. Often, it is a process that requires several days time and cannot be compacted into one class session. In order to practice this process in class, one needs continuity of players. That is, you need to have the same students and the same teachers present to work on writing over a several day period. At CASA Latina, we don't have that.

Our program is designed to be accessible to adult laborers, most of whom are homeless and often living on the street, who need to be able to fit learning English into lives filled with uncertainty about what their next job will be, where they will sleep at night, where they will eat during the day, how they can most effectively look for work. Finding work is a top priority. Since our community can't speak, read, or write English well, that work most often is temporary day labor requiring lots of time to look for it and unpredictable schedules. Understandably, our community of day laborers doesn't enroll in community college classes with their attendance and homework requirements. They come to us instead. We don't require consistent attendance or homework. Of course, it helps to learn if you do come regularly and study outside of class, and our success stories do so. But they are definitely in the minority.

Our program focuses on teaching oral English, mostly using a type of survival skills curriculum with particular emphasis on English necessary for work. We have realized, however, that in order to fully participate in this society, immigrants need more than just survival English. They also need to become articulate writers. So lately we have begun to integrate writing more and more into our curriculum.

Once when I was teaching our advanced beginning level, I had students write about their work experience. I was excited because students were able to produce more writing than I had ever seen them write, so I typed up their stories to use the next day as a basis for some reading, writing, and grammar exercises. When I arrived in class the next day, I welcomed five students to class, the same number of students I had had the day before, but not a one of them had attended that previous day. I decided to use the student stories anyway, but after working through the first two, I felt the new students' boredom with the repetitiveness of the stories and exercises-- my student-centered activity designed to bring the written word alive because the authors were in our midst had become just another boring exercise working with simple texts about people they didn't know or care about.

Now this was an example of how I tried to carry a writing activity over from one lesson to another. However, I don't usually teach our classes. Volunteers do. These volunteers only teach one day a week, while our classes are held either four times or twice a week. So even if our students do attend regularly (often we do have a little more consistency than I described), our teachers are different every day. In addition, while some of our volunteers are skilled and trained professional teachers who understand the writing process, most are not, and many are just willing to do what they can without much preparation outside of class. So how do we work on spending time on developing writing with a constantly changing cast of characters?

While extreme in our program, the challenges of a fluid group of students and a large and diverse teaching staff are challenges shared by many adult education programs. In addition, we share other common challenges. Most of our students have very low literacy levels in their native language and have never used writing as an important form of communication. They have severe cases of writerâs block even when we tell them that they can write in Spanish if they can't write anything in English. How can we even teach the process of revision and editing when students have rarely practiced using writing for communication and have no sense of audience or a need to communicate with one through writing?

One time I was teaching our intermediate level class consisting of students who have learned to speak English fairly fluently. I wrote the following statement on the board: "Learning English is the key to success in this country." I asked students to react to this statement and the resulting discussion was quite lively. I then made two columns on the board with the headings Agree and Disagree. Under these columns the students listed and I recorded the points that they had made to either support or refute that statement. I then asked them to take a stand on the issue and to write an essay supporting their point of view. Their writing was stale and tepid, nothing at all like their passionate oral arguments. However, I decided that it was a good start and would use it as material to revise into a more effective written argument by having students read each other writing and ask each other questions about areas that they didnât understand or needed more information about. Most of the questions were trivial and the closest thing I got to revisions were a couple of sentences tacked on to the end of their writing answering the questions.

As I reflected later on why this activity had not worked I realized that writing in this context had no communicative value for my students. It had become a meaningless exercise for them. What I had intended as a warm-up--the discussion of the issue--turned into the fulfillment of the desire to communicate. They had already told me and the others what they wanted to say and saw no reason to write it down.

Now the next logical question might be, since it is so hard to develop articulate writers in our program working with Latino day laborers, why bother? We bother because we see writing as an important tool to give voice to a significant segment of our society which is invisible and marginalized. Language is power. Our students realize this and make great sacrifices to come to our program so that they can learn English, the language of power in the United States. Their voices will be limited, however, as long as those voices are only heard by the people around them. In order to reach out to a larger audience, one which can support their issues, they must be able to communicate through writing. But before they can effectively communicate through writing, they must see writing as a communicative act, not just as an exercise in school.

This year we have begun to experiment with several ways to turn writing into a communicative act. One of our most effective activities has been the use of the dialogue journal. We have given every student a little "blue book" (those little books of lined paper causing sweaty palms and a rapid heartbeat in every U.S. college graduate as they trigger memories of college final exams. Luckily, our students donât have that association.) In this journal students write to our ESL class coordinator who responds to them, also in writing, so that the little blue book becomes a record of a communicative conversation between a native speaker and a learner of English. Students have ten minutes at the beginning of class to write in these journals. Many of our students have already filled up several of these blue books and look forward to reading the class coordinatorâs latest entry every time they come to class.

One disadvantage of this activity is that it takes a lot of time on the coordinatorâs part to write thoughtful letters to each one of the students that come to class. In addition, since many of our students only come one time, or every once in awhile, the coordinator ends up writing to many people who will never read her writing. But for the students who do come to class regularly, their writing has become longer, more fluent and more complex as they are motivated to communicate through writing to someone who cares about what they say.

Some of our teachers have had success with inspiring students to write by doing warm-ups that, unlike the warm-up I had used, are related to the writing assignment but that communicate something different than that which they are asked to write about. For example, one teacher brought in several things for her students to smell-- pine sol, cardamon, cinnamon--everyone talked about the smells. Then she asked her students to write about a smell that evoked a memory for them. One student wrote the following:

When I read this writing, it broke my heart. This was written by a middle aged homeless Mexican day laborer who has been coming to our classes on and off for the past three years.

A couple of weeks after he wrote this, another teacher told this student that she really liked his writing and wanted to know if he would like to work on it so that we could publish it in our student newsletter. He said that he would. After rereading it he decided that he needed to make it clear to the readers who he was and why he was writing the memory about Pike Place Market. So he added the following paragraph:

The teacher then went through it with him and asked him some questions about sentences she didnât understand. As he explained what he had meant, she supplied the correct structure. In the case of changing "climate" to "environment" in the first paragraph, he chose that word as a better translation for what he meant, "ambiente" in Spanish.

This is just one example of how we have worked with a student to inspire him to write, to have him think about his audience and then revise, and then to edit his writing. In this case all the right ingredients were present: the student had something interesting to say and wanted to communicate it to an audience of readers. He was willing to invest the extra time it took to make it into the absolutely his best writing. Those right ingredients arenât always there, but for the few times that it does work, we will keep on giving our students the opportunity to tell us soemthing important through their writing.

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Purposes, Audiences and Formats for Adult Writing