National Writing Project

Writing As If Your Life Depended On It

By: Diane Waff
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 8, No. 1
Date: January-February 2003

Summary: In her talk at the NWP Annual Meeting, Diane Waff describes how she learned, through writing and inquiry, to open up her classroom to meaningful exchange...


The title of my talk is taken from a line in an Adrienne Rich poem that boldly asserts, " You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it." These words have special significance for me because the notion that reading and writing is fundamental to creating a life of liberation and self-determination is one that resonates with my view of literacy, particularly writing. I am driven to write from the "textbook" (Style, 1996) of my lived experiences as my observation of the world at large as a way to step outside of myself and listen for both inner and outer understandings. Writing has become a map, an inventory of the road I have traveled so far in life. Capturing my experiences on paper and sharing them with my students and writing project colleagues has helped me to shed light on a host of issues that concern and confront teachers who struggle to make a difference in the lives of poor students of color.

Bearing witness to what Michelle Fine (1992) describes as "institutionalized policies and practices that silence critical talk about the experiential conditions of students' daily lives" (p. 116) creates the possibility for real dialogue about the social inequities in public education. Interrogating standards driven reform efforts that ignore conditions for learning, high stakes testing programs that only punish the students, punitive school accountability indexes, and pedagogically bankrupt scripted programs has expanded my consciousness. It has also heightened my desire to have a hand in transforming the educational landscape so that where you live and who you are in terms of your race, class and ethnicity does not limit the opportunities you have to expand your knowledge and develop as a learner.

A reexamination of my life as a former public school student reveals that my classmates and I were never taught to question what we read, to critically analyze the status quo, or to struggle with questions relating to the inequities we experienced in our everyday lives. Education was presented as the "Great Escape" not as the way to transform the oppressive limitations imposed on us as women and minorities. Writing about my experiences working with girls in my first teacher inquiry piece, helped me to make some important changes in my conceptualization of teaching and learning. An excerpt from that research reads:

I began to realize the reason that the reason I was not successful with my students was largely due to my insulated middle-class life style. I was losing the opportunity to help them because I did not invite their realities, their experiences into my classroom. Every time my students attempted to introduce their private lives into the structure of the classroom, I managed to silence their voices quickly with words such as, "We have a lot to cover, let's get back to work" or "This sounds like something you should discuss with the counselor." My classroom was teacher-centered, and the students had little or no input into what was covered or discussed. Assertions like, "My mom's boyfriend is always... My dad is always... Those people in the shelter always..."made me uncomfortable.

By the end of my inquiry, I had readjusted my perspective on how to help my students become the kind of people who are able imagine and see themselves as capable of contributing to their community and the broader society. Writing up my observations alerted me to the painful fact that I was shutting down meaningful exchange in the classroom and that I was interpreting my students' lives by using my own as a yardstick. As I began to understand my own motivations through inquiry writing, I developed a greater capacity to listen and work with the life stories of my students as a resource in my teaching. Students began to look at their lives in new ways, valuing and sharing their stories within the classroom structure. The inclusion of student voices in the formulation of class curriculum and in actual classroom texts radically transformed my relationship with my students and their relationships with each other. As they wrote and read aloud personal journal entries about their school experiences, I was able to see how my students experienced the teaching and learning process. For the first time I saw my teaching through the eyes of my students. This inevitably began to affect my work with students in the classroom and deepened my commitment to listening to student voices, making myself accountable to my students, and using writing as a way to reflect and learn.

Fine, M. 1992. Disruptive Voices: The Possibilities of Feminist Research. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press.

Style, E. 1988. "Curriculum as Window and Mirror." In Listening for All Voices: Gender Balancing the School Curriculum. Proceedings of a conference held at Oak Knoll School, Summit, NJ 1988, pp. 6-12.

About the Author Diane Waff is the winner of the 2002 Fred Hechinger Award and is a teacher-consultant at the Philadelphia Writing Project.


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