Friday, August 24, 2012

The Power of the Prompt: Original Sin or Opportunity?

“Just never know when life—that river of prompts—will send you something to write about.” (Freele 220)
“It’s really hard when I don’t care.” (Richard[1])
An accomplished fiction writer, Stefanie Freele seems to suggest above that prompts are ubiquitous: in constant supply and readily available to the observant writer. However, adult School for New Learning students like Richard often struggle to find topics that interest them. Life may offer a prompt around every river bend; however, without reflection, pause, and a ready oar we might simply head for the rapids and let each opportunity for writing float by.
While faculty generally encourage students to develop their own ideas and write on their own topics (they will have to do so in any Independent Learning Pursuits that they write, in Research Seminar, and in Advanced Project), we still must extend the invitation to write. Otherwise, student will continue to collide with the impenetrable wall of writers block. This could lead to incompletes that turn to Fs, discouragement, and dropping out.
Adult educators might borrow from the work done with adult writing workshops in the community. One of SNL’s community partners, the Community Writing Project, leads community writing workshops for adults in Chicagoland based on popular educator Paolo Freire’s ideas. Freire believed that prompts should come from life and that primers designed for depositing knowledge were akin to original sin (8). Instead, he thought everyone should teach and everyone should learn in a classroom devoted to the problematizing of material. This is a crucial opportunity for SNL faculty: in order for students to mine their life experience for Prior Learning Assessment opportunities and ongoing coursework we need to first surface students’ narratives of expertise, and then problematize them. Even better, we can allow students to do this for one another.
                Educators like Elsa Roberts Auerbach, as well as CWP founder Hal Adams and current director Janise Hurtig have written extensively about ways that Freire’s pedagogy can be adapted for the American academic classroom, using his principles but modern educators’ tools. One way the CWP uses Freire’s pedagogy is in the way it allows for democratic development of writing topics.
The CWP believes that telling good stories promotes the writing and then telling of more good stories. I recently observed an Academic Writing class that used their process to develop a writing class. It went something like this:
Carlos began by telling the story of his “Charlie Brown Year,” in response to a previous week’s prompt. During the heartbreaking story written in a humorous tone, Carlos started laughing, and so did his classmates. He tells about losing his girlfriend, his car, his job, and his health, all in one year. After the students initially react to the humor of the narrative, they begin to relate to it: three students begin a side conversation about times that they have been towed. “I can relate to that,” one of them said. This same student was earlier involved in a discussion where he stated that “A lot of topics I’m not interested in. It’s really hard when I don’t care. If it really doesn’t interest me, what the hell do I care?” However, his fellow classmate’s Charlie Brown year allowed him to relate to an idea, and based on his next story, to “care.”
                After the animated discussion around Carlos’s story, students easily generated multiple prompts for the next writing session:
·         A time when you fought the law
·         A time when you either lost faith in or stood up to the system
·         A time when you had something taken away or got something back that had been taken away
·         A time when you got a leg up
                Richard, the student above who “didn’t care,” chose the second option. He proceeded to write about how he felt judged and oppressed by “the system” when he was young and it interfered with his daily activities. He goes on to say that as an adult he still does not believe in “the system,” but believes in himself and that’s why he became a Marine and is now in school so that he can enter the police academy.
                Richard’s story is significant not for the wisdom imparted by this writing, but for the possibility present in his story. In his somewhat vague narrative, he considers why he has made certain choices without coming to a resolution. He surfaces feelings about “the system” that have grown from simple to complex in his journey from youth to adulthood. The way he problematizes his own narrative not only demonstrates many future opportunities for writing, learning, and inquiring, but that he finally found something to care about.

More ideas for your classroom (or course site):
·         Invite students to give each other feedback throughout the entire process of writing a paper, not just on the final product.
·         Have students write down possible paper topics on the day that you give an assignment. During that class or the next, or a discussion board, give students the chance to dialogue about their topics. Often their first idea is not their best!
·         Have a targeted writing workshop: discuss a topic from your course until specific themes appear that relate to students’ lives. Don’t stop here! Generate a few themes and invite students to write for 10-30 minutes on these themes. Invite a few students to read theirs aloud, or collect the writings and respond as a reader – ask mostly questions; don’t correct grammar.
·         As above, but have students exchange their papers with one another. This can be done each week as an alternative (or supplement) to journaling.
·         For more on the Community Writing Project, see

Selected Bibliography

Auerbach, Elsa R. Making meaning, making change: participatory curriculum development for adult ESL literacy. Washington DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1992. Print.

Freele, Stefanie. “The Last Pages.” Glimmer Train 82 (2012): 220. Print.

Freire, Paolo. The Politics of Education: Culture, Power, and Liberation. South Hadley, Mass: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc, 1985. Print.

Hurtig, Janise, and Hal Adams. “Democracy Is in the Details: Small Writing groups Prefiguring a New Society.” New Directions For Adult and Continuing Education, 128, Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 2010. Print.

Hurtig, Janise. “Resisting Assimilation: Mexican Immigrant Mothers Writing Together.” In Marcia Farr (Ed.) Latino Language & Literacy in Ethnolinguistic Chicago. 246-275. Print.

[1] The students quoted here have given their permission to have their words and work cited. All student names have been changed.

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