Today I came across this recording of the spoken word piece by Bonafide Rojas called “In Front of the Class.” In it, he describes a group of youth who, at first glance, may seem hopeless. He says to the young people:
Let the page be a doctor.
Let the page be a therapist.
Let the page be a lover.
Let the page be your enemy, punch it in the face.
Let the page be your best friend
who will never stab you in the back.
Let the page be your Prozac.
Let the page be your hip hop.
Let the page be your rock and roll.
Let the page be that fancy ride you’re always talking about.
Let the page be that bling, bling on your wrist.
Let the page be the underground beat you’re about to rip.
Let the page be your autobiography.
This week I will be speaking with the NYU’s ELL (English Language Learners) Think Tank, a consortium of teachers from across New York City. One of the first things I am going to do is ask us to (re)think the typical definition of writing that we see at work in our schools, and particularly the limited ways we talk about writing when working with those who are learning English. What do we “let the page be”?
For the young men I got to know while researching how young men develop as writers, “the page” was all of the things Bonafide Rojas listed, and more. At some point during the two years that I traced their writing practices, each of the young men dealt with particular social tensions like for one young man, trying to make sense of having an abusive father, and for another young man, being considered by some to be “too White” and by others as being “too Latino.” To make sense of these social tensions, each of the young men independently turned these literal issues into figurative literary tropes through writing.
For the young man who felt torn between the ways people read his race and social class status, he created a concept called, “the in-between.” He explored “the in-between” across several pieces of writing, including pieces of writing unrelated to personal exploration assigned in school. He also let the theme of “the in-between” change the ways he wrote on the page. He began to create his own hybrid genres including performing with drums, and composing with images along with words. Through developing compositional practices, he and the other young men, negotiated their sense of self across the many contexts—school, home, church, neighborhood—that they crossed daily.
Each of these young men found resolution to social tensions with and through “the page.” Their writing was a form of rhetorical praxis, a form of transformation of self in relation to others. In Freire’s words, a “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” The young men’s responses to social tensions associated with their personal and literate identities—i.e. purposefully working with their literary tropes across contexts and shifting their writing practices in turn—provoked dynamic seasons of generative writing development.
The young men in my dissertation study revealed the investment they had in achieving the futures they envisioned for themselves as individuals and as writers. Each in their own way, the young men repeated the refrain Bonafide Rojas heard from the young man in his writing class: “I want to live. I want to love.” Like the young people Bonafide Rojas has worked with, the young people I have worked with over the years are not hopeless, but rather, are burgeoning with hope.
Having opportunities to conduct creative, critical literary and artistic work seems important in the longer developmental pathways of young people. Expanding what we “let the page be” in our learning contexts to include the many ways writing functions in our lives, and building the range of resources available to young people to compose in these ways within learning contexts should become a priority.
More on rhetorical praxis:
Ackerman, J. & Coogan, J. (Eds.). (2010). The public work of rhetoric: Citizen-scholars and civic engagement. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
Friere, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the oppressed (trans. Myra Bergman Ramos). New York: Continuum.
Yagelski, R. (2012). Writing as praxis. English Education, 44(2), 188-204.
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