Writing the Word and the World

By Linda Christensen

I heard that Alice Walker said if we write long enough and hard enough we’ll heal ourselves. Maybe that’s true. But I’ve come to see that it’s not enough.

I’ve watched kids write through rapes, parental abuse, the humiliation of the SATs and tracking, the daily bombardment of “you are not pretty enough, strong enough, smart enough” messages from commercials, budget cuts that mean they won’t get any loanS’ or scholarships for college – but these same kids passed out of this room. every day and went back into the world that wounded them. I was patching them up and sending them out without tools to understand – or stop – the brawl they lived with.

For the past fifteen years I’ve worked towards empowering students to use their own voices to plumb their lives for stories, poems, essays, to engage them in a dialogue with their peers about their writing, about literature. And I’ve succeeded.

Students learned to sing their lives through writing. They used writing to take the power out of their pain. Listen as Arne begins to understand his parents’ divorce:

Mom carried his name around
like a phantom pain until she had him

to cut off what doesn’t exist
takes paperwork

Now I see things after the break
were burr
clinging to her flesh
Maybe she smelled his carpenter sweat
in the sheets and winced

Maybe the little memories were sand in her shoes
I see now
Every chance to dismantle a memory 
was taken —
a painting off the wall,
love poems slipped under things
maybe one side of a record
she doesn’t listen to anymore

There is a time
to cut off fingers when
holding hands is wind
on chapped lips

I tried to stay with Father
And never saw why she didn’t too
Now I see my mother as a lover
And the name she dropped
A phantom pain

Whitney, a “remedial” freshman, bopped in and out of class, in and out of school, chose cigarette breaks over English for the first semester, but discovered a community where she could talk/write about her life and people would listen. This is what Whitney wrote after reading·a·short story about a mother who verbally abused her daughter:

My mother’s not an alcoholic. Well, she likes to drink when she gets home from work at-night because she’s tired and the wine helps her relax… I don’t like it when she drinks too much and comes into my room late at· night and shakes me out of bed with her anger.

Rochelle, a junior in my Literature in American History class, wrote and shared stories from her family and her neighborhood. We grew to love her old Aunt Macy who handed down wisdom about sex, fried chicken, microwaves and tardies: “Chile, you jus’ don’t know how easy you got it…”

The Power or Writing

These kids can write. They are honest. They are truth tellers. They’ve discovered the power,of._ writing down their stories. Admittedly, Gayieen didn’t join in and neither did Marcus, but most students learned to love writing and sharing their lives.

When students read their pieces to the class, we gave them warm and sympa­thetic responses. We discussed where the writing -“worked,” we selected lines we particularly liked, we noted how Justine used active verbs, the strong squeeze in places where the writer needed to do more work, more thinking. And this was successful: students felt they were part of a community that cared about them. They learned something about style by hearing other student models and discussing the techniques in those pieces, and they began to understand how the published writers we read in class wrote their novels, short stories, poems.

In my classes today, we continue to look at our lives and we still respond on 11oth the technical and the human level to each other’s writing, but we also study those essays, stories and poems as a text to get at the social roots of our feelings of alienation and inadequacy, as well as our possibility for joy and resistance (see Shor, Freire, 1987).

What emerged from students• writing over the years is that often their problems are experienced individually. Any failure or shortcoming appears the result of a personal deficiency. Sometimes it is – but often it’s not. For example, in Literature in American History, a class I co-teach with Bill Bigelow, students came back devastated after taking the PSAT. As far as they were concerned there was -no need to go to college because this test confirmed their stupidity. Rochelle said, “The words on that test had letters arranged in ways I’d never seen before. There were math problems that Mr. Chappelle hadn’t taught us, formulas my pencil had never scratched out. I just wanted someone to give me a cool drink of water and let me go on my way.” Students blamed themselves for their poor performance or blamed their verb agreement instead of writing, I’d have a better score on the verbal section.”

Because so much feeling was generated around the test, we said, “Okay. Let’s look at what these tests are all about. Write about some test you’ve taken. It might have been the PSAT or a math or English test or the yearly Portland Achievement Levels Test. Choose either a good or bad testing experience. Think back to the experience and try to recreate it. What was the test on? How were you prepared for it? What did you feel like before you took the test? During the test? After the test? Tell it as a story or use the anecdote as your entrance into an essay on testing. Be sure to pay attention to the kinds of feelings you experienced around the testing situation.” We.wrote in silence for the rest of the period.

Student Read-Arounds

The next day the students, Bill and I sat in a circle and read our papers. (Bill and I write each assignment and share our papers – good, bad and mediocre – along with the rest of th.¢ class. This is an important point. If we didn’t write and share we would hold ourselves above and beyond the community we are trying to establish.) As we read, we took notes on the common themes that emerged from our stories. We asked students to listen for how the tests made people feel about themselves, their peers, and those in authority – the test­ givers. It became obvious that Joseph’s problem was Claire’s problem and Mindy’s problem. Students who were stung privately with humiliation discontinued covered that they weren’t alone, although where or with whom they placed the blame differed sharply. After all papers were shared, we read over our notes and quickly wrote summaries on the similarities and differences _in our pieces.

This discussion circle, or ”read-around” as it’s become known, is the heart of our class. Here the crucible melts students’ lives and society together. Here the tools are forged to understand the brawl and what must be done to end it. Here the students’ experiences of joy and resistance became a collective text from which to discuss the possibilities of social change. In previous years, students would have shared their stories and learned that they weren’t the only ones who felt stupid after taking the tests, but since we left our sharing at that point, they might have gone home saying, “Boy, I’m sure in a class with a bunch of dummies”or “Well, I didn’t do so hot on my PSAT, but then neither did Bea and she’s supposed to be so smart.”

In the discussion circle kids understand they aren’t alone, but they also learn to ask why they had these similar experiences. After the testing paper, we began to question why they all came away from their test experience feeling threatened and stupid.

Trisa opened the discussion by reading her summary: “[Tests] caused us to feel nervous, made us feel stupid, conditioned us to testing and·to being told what to do without questioning, made us compete against each other, fostered an ‘I’m better than you attitude’, appeared fair, but made us internalize the fault.”

Students wrestled with their feelings and their stories. Matthew picked examples from his classmates’ papers to show how tests and schools foster competition, how grades are used as rewards or punishments instead of measuring how much was learned. Elan referred back to Christen and Amf’s papers to show how some of us had internalized the blame – if only we’d worked harder we’d have done a better job or received a higher score. Students continued to call on each other and to raise questions for the rest of time period.

Analyzing the Experts

As productive as this discussion was, it left students without a broader context in which to locate their feelings and new understandings. They needed to explore where these so-called aptitude and achievement tests originated and whose interests they served. These youngsters, still smarting from their private battle with ETS’s brainchild, were introduced to Carl Brigham and other testing gurus in David Owens’ chapter “The Cult of Mental Measurement” from his book None of the Above. In “dialogue journals” students read and fought with Brigham, who was hired by the College Board in 1925 to develop an intelligence test for college admissions (see Owens).

Students were shocked by what they discovered about Brigham: He published in the same journal as Adolph Hitler and was convinced that there should be stronger immigration laws to protect the “contamination of the American intellect” by “Catholics, Greeks, Hungarians, ‘Italians, Jews, Poles, Russians, Turks, and – especially- Negroes.” The selections printed below are taken from student dialogue journals. They first quote from Owens’ book and argue, agree, paraphrase or question it in the comments that follow. Christen, a thoughtful young Black woman, began to see connections between past and present.


In his book he [Brigham] argued pas­sionately for stricter immigration laws, and within American borders for an end to lhe “infiltration of white blood into the Negro.”


This stuck me because even though slavery has been over, they enslave us dif­ferently so that· we will still be seen as dumb.


Brigham reserved most of his considerable scorn for Blacks, whose arrival in America he described as the “most sinister development in the history of this continent.“


They could have kept us where we were in the first place. As far as I’m concerned we were better off.

Omar took offense at Brigham assuming he had the right or knowledge to control someone else’s life:


…the problem of eliminating “defective strains in the present population” remained. One solution, Brigham believed, was intelligence testing. By carefully sampling the mental power of the nation’s young people, it would be possible to identify and reward those citizens whose racial inheritance had granted them a superior intellectual endowment.


How does he know defective? Who appointed him population watchdog? Sounds like Hitler!

Omar also questioned the items ap ­ ing on Brigham’s early Army Mental Tests, which were used to assign recruits jobs during World War I:


Look at the Alpha Test 8!
The Pierce Arrow car is made in:
Buffalo Detroit Toledo Flint


This sounds like Trivial Pursuit! It’s also very racist, no real thinking required, just trivia.

In another excerpt, Margo bites back:


Brigham did not advocate the reestablishment of human bondage. He did believe that Blacks should be barred from mixing freely in White society.


What does this mean? What’s the difference? Is he but trying to be a nice bigot?


In ·recent years the College Board and ETS have described Brigham’s virulent racism as a sort of irrelevant eccentricity.


His racism is by no means irrelevant. He has a strong grasp on who goes to college and therefore a grasp on the future of the country. I would say that is fairly relevant.

The dialogue journal allowed students to critique and question Brigham and ETS. In some cases they related it to their own experiences. A number of their questions echoed Omar’s: “Who appointed him watchdog?”

Who indeed? It would be misleading for students to lay all blame for the inequities of testing at Brigham’s doorstep. Through role plays, film and source readings we explored the changes in mass education in the early 20th century and looked critically at those groups needing Brigham’s tests as a sorting mechanism to preserve the status quo (see Bowles and Gintis, Nasaw).

We followed up this historical study by analyzing correlations between today’s income levels and SAT scores: on average, the higher the parent’s income, the higher the score a student “earned” on the SAT. Then we looked at some of the sample vocabulary used· in typical analogy ques­tions:


(A) payment:currency
(B) belongings:receipt
(C) land:construction
(D) legacy:bill
(E) booty:plunder

After we pulled a few analogies apart and made some of our own from each other’s background and neighborhood experiences, it became clear to students that the SAT questions measured access to upper class experience, not ability to make appropriate analogies. The test vocabulary did not reflect the everyday experience of these inner city kids, and they said so. Through class discussion, it became evident that the test was biased towards the privileged and functioned to segregate students on the basis of social class.

After scrutinizing the test, the students concluded that Brigham’s grandchild didn’t measure their intelligence nor would it predict their success in college. When the test became demystified, when it was no longer a bogeyman, when the kids saw it as an obstacle, ETS no longer held the same kind of power over them.

Trisa and her classmates became skeptical of tests, of any measure or device used to include some and exclude others. Be­yond that, they sharpened their analysis of who would want devices which promoted and protected inequality.

When students see either their lives or history as inevitable, they are not encouraged to work for change. By studying problems in their lives and by rooting those problems historically, students are able to diagnose this society, uncover in­equality and explore the reasons why it exists.

Critiquing Ourselves

At our end-of-the-year class evaluation, Elan said, “Before I took this class, I hated school. I never tried. I’d never written a poem or story. I accepted what teachers told me, what I read. Now I question everything. And I write stories and poems for the fun of it.”

And Justine, who argued all year with us, said, “I thought god dammit I don’t want to be conscious. I just want to eat candy and ride the swings. But I learned how to think.”

Claire said, “I learned from everyone in the class… I learned how to think differently by listening to other people’s stories, by seeing their growth.”

Now all of this sounds great, but a problem remains. While kids learned to question, while they broke down their senses of isolation and alienation, while they pushed toward a greater knowledge of how this society functions, they were moved less often to hope and action and more often to awareness and despair than I felt comfortable with.

During the class evaluation, Amy, who plans on becoming a teacher so she can “help change the world,” sat quietly and didn’t volunteer her feelings about the class. After everyone else shared, I asked her what she’d thought of this course. She offered one of the strongest critiques. “You need to include some more positive aspects. We can’t live in a world where it’s all·negative. I became overwhelmed and angry. I felt like I couldn’t take it.”

When Bill and I talked with her after class,.she said she could see our optimism and hope, but she didn’t see where it originated. She wanted to know who else was working to make it a better world. She wanted to hear those people speak, to find out what vision they had for a different society. As she spoke, I began drafting changes for next year’s classes – ones that put kids in touch with real people who haven’t lost their hope, who still fight the brawl and who plan to win.

Sometimes I remind myself that I’m an English teacher and I question whether I’m straying too far afield. I know my pasture is broader than nouns- and verbs, stories, poems and essays. Where does the world begin that is-within my terrain? How can I teach House of the Spirits without teaching about Chile’s Socialist president- Salvador Allende and General Pinochet’s coup which ended that country’s democracy? My students now reach beyond the beauty, power and seduction of their descriptive writing; they are probing for the whys and asking, “Is this the way it has to be?” I’m no longer tranquilizing their pain through writing; I’m helping them develop the tools to understand. the causes of those wounds. Now I want to work towards hope and transformation. I haven’t lost optimism. Like Amy, I teach because I want to change the world.

Linda Christensen teaches at Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon.