Response to Hilary Stern and Heide Spruck Wrigley

I want to talk about assumptions, about needs, abilities and purposes for writing, about our roles in writing and learning processes, about cultural production and about power.

Let's start with assumptions. We assume that literacy is a good thing. We assume that the ability to read and write is a good thing. Hilary and her colleagues at Casa Latina address the fact that writing and reading can be part of an important process of gaining and using voice. Heide, too, looks at communication, and at project based learning which brings the element of collaborative action to processes of making, doing, and developing projects with specific ends. I assume that literacy is socially constructed, and that making meaning occurs socially. We may think of things and puzzle them out on our own, but often we come together to talk, one of us convinces the other that there are different ways of looking at a thing, and maybe we all shift our thinking in some ways as a result. This happens when we listen and speak, when we read, and as we write.

Adult learners already make meaning, they already have voice. They may not articulate their thoughts in English, and like many English speakers, may not always articulate their thoughts clearly. I see our charge as assisting learners (and ourselves) in bringing these thinking and knowing processes together into writing in English (and/or in native languages) as part of a movement that speaks against minimal competencies and towards the innate power of expression. With which you can not necessarily or easily find work. Through which you start to use language to your own ends.

Heide's suggestion that we find ways to help learners read and learn from the writing of others beyond the classroom - of bridging from words and stories we already know in our classes to those of others (learners, published authors, people at large) from whom we can learn, beyond our classes, - is part of that work. Hilary's enabling people to speak through Casa Latina's newsletter is another. Is this ability to express thought in writing part of a continuum that does in fact begin with the well-completed application form and moves through a series of first drafts, dialogue journal exchanges, and notes to friends, towards more expressive endeavors?

Certainly, audience and purpose dictate the kinds of writing people can and will want to produce. Is all this writing necessary, though? I'm troubled by the fact that we blithely assume that Writing Is Good, that writing produced by learners, especially, is good, without looking at ways that writing might be thought of by people who don't write. What is the value of writing to them? Does good writing move them towards a desire to be known through their own written words or do some people simply communicate in other ways? What happens when these same people's livelihoods become inextricably tied to an ability to write? How do we assist in meaningful ways, to help adults move from minimal writing tasks to larger forms of written expression, if that's what they want? Should it be what they want? Somewhere, too, we're talking about the power held by those for whom writing is a viable tool, and the power unavailable to those for whom it's not.

Listen to this:

Fall is like David Seales, Is give me a lot of questions,

Fall is like halloween like orange pumpkin's,

Fall is like getting ready for bed.


Romance is about be his date,

Women is doing Rollering Skateing,

and man is blazing her eyes, and they are together.

man wearing tuxedo women is wear light fur coat and women is happy.

Man looking women's dress, he think's beautiful,

and women is alway's holding man hand's,

for protection?

I think women is smile when man

Is try help her not fall and this

Is very happy picture and this will be

Love is about Rolling Skateing,

end of my story,

by Jennifer June Buckley

Listen to William Carlos Williams' poem about some plums, This is Just to Say, (one that Pat Rigg and Frances Kazemek mention in their book, Enriching our Lives: Poetry lessons for adult literacy teachers and tutors. [International Reading Association, 1995],

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the ice box

and which

you were probably

saving for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

(From William Carlos Williams: Collected Poems 1090-1939, Volume 1. Copyright 1938 by New Directions Publishing Corp.)

Why do these poems move me? They speak to my experience. In a very few words they tell me things I hadn't known, or had known, but not in the way the writers knew them. How do I reconcile this need of my own for meaning and reflection with other more or differently pressing needs - to earn a living, look after my family, feel safe in my surroundings?

The need to communicate is strong among us humans, as is the need to function effectively. If we see learning as part of a continuum and the production of writing as something which one is able to do to lesser or greater degrees, can we see our roles as assistants, facilitators, teachers, helpers of others (and ourselves) in this process of moving from some terrifically completed job application to a simple statement about what someone had for dinner to an analysis of social injustice? Do these things need to be written down to be communicated? Do things need to be written to be known or remembered? For Hilary's students the pre-writing discussion was the point of the session. They'd communicated what they had to say. For them, at that time, writing was beside the point.

We assume that writing is good. We assume that because a learner has written something that that writing is good. This is not always the case. Heide has described the possibilities inherent in learning about and through good, clear writing. Our challenge is to find ways to understand all the ways in which literacy - reading, writing, knowing, communicating - is perceived and accomplished by those with whom we work and to find other ways to support them in acquiring the abilities they need to say what they know, and to further use those abilities to come to know and say more.

Eventually writing needs a greater purpose than accomplishing minimalist tasks. Writing is a tool which assists some people in accomplishing what they need to do. In addition to all of this worry about writing, I'm also troubled by questions a colleague articulated several years ago, around who benefits from the cultural production - writing, publication - of our learners. Who promotes and uses the finished products and to what ends? With more time, this is an important question for us to consider.

Rigg and Kazemek speak to the why and how of developing writing amongst adult learners. Hal Adams, who works with writers groups in Chicago, talks about the power of writing as a vehicle towards social change. Adult writers in his groups, and in the group of developmentally disabled adults that Jennifer June Buckley participates in, come together to work on writing, not to study language or literacy. In both programs the focus is on communication, on expression. Sometimes this expression leads to action, as it did in Chicago where tenants of a housing project brought their words to action in resisting the destruction of their homes. Hal has written that

Similarly, it is difficult to imagine a society in which expression can grow when it is limited by a number two pencil and a small, if multiple, sense of choice. Our challenge is to meet learners at their points of readiness, to work with them in identifying and working towards meeting their goals and, too, to broaden their access to writing as a tool through which they can accomplish those things most important to them. To do this work in the face of ever restrictive funding, welfare reform initiatives, failing economies, and a myriad of other obstacles might require an act of faith. Or several. But it all begins with small small steps. One after another, that speak to building relationships and reciprocal learning. What's your name? Where are you from? What do you know? What can you tell me? What do you want to do?

Good. Let's write that down.

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