This post is an excerpt from NCTE member Lauren Esposito’s article “Where to Begin? Using Place-Based Writing to Connect Students with Their Local Communities” (English Journal, March 2012). Esposito’s article describes an assignment in which students write about the places that matter in their lives, exploring personally relevant and real-world issues affecting their communities by creating print and multimodal texts.
Place plays an indelible role in the way we perceive and come to understand the world around us. Whether at home or at school, sitting in a quiet coffee shop, or on a busy street corner, our lives are shaped by the places we inhabit and the communities therein. Place influences our interactions by shaping the genres, texts, and languages we use as writers and readers. Therefore, writing that’s tied to place and community encourages students to seriously consider the effects of these interactions, their intended audiences, and underlying purposes. It also helps them think independently about their involvement in these communities.
It’s our job, then, as English teachers to help students identify those places and communities that are personally significant, and engage them in meaningful work that deals with real issues and real audiences.
One assignment that I found can help amplify students’ investment in community and writing is Derek Owens’s “place portrait,” which he outlines in Composition and Sustainability: Teaching for a Threatened Generation. The place portrait, Owens explains, calls attention to the particular environments and places in which students live and work with the understanding that place-related issues often go unaddressed or remain invisible in academic settings (70).
Oftentimes, we approach writing instruction with a predetermined list of topics that might be of interest to students but aren’t necessarily grounded in their personal experiences. Writing a place portrait invites students to explore these experiences by considering all aspects of a particular place (home, school, or work), including physical and emotional characteristics. They detail how this place makes them feel about themselves, their relationship to the place itself, and their relationship with the people who inhabit it.
Because this assignment emerges out of students’ interests, concerns, and local histories, it can easily be adapted for secondary classrooms, whether urban, suburban, or rural. It positions students as critical investigators of the places and communities they may typically take for granted. Based on these personal reflections, I directed students’ attention outward to a range of local audiences and communities being affected by the issues they raised in their writing.
I wanted students to identify a specific issue, choose a community, and then gather research that would help them create a public document, in this case a public service announcement (PSA). That way, students might transform their personal, reflective writing into a public text that addresses real-world concerns for local or national communities. These community audiences can include but are not limited to parents, teenagers, school board members, working professionals, government officials, industry leaders, religious leaders, and public safety volunteers.
The multimodal aspects of this project encouraged students to use recorded sounds, music, still images, text, and/or video to effectively persuade their target audiences to act or think in a certain way. For instance, students designed PSAs that addressed social and environmental issues such as teen pregnancy, family health, bullying, and the dangers of smoking. By doing this work, they were able to see themselves as valuable contributors to local issues and agents of social change.
Read Esposito’s full article, “Where to Begin? Using Place-Based Writing to Connect Students with Their Local Communities.”
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