Finding Their Place on the Web: Ed Reform by Undergrads

*This is a lightly edited version of a talk I gave at MLA 14 that is still seems relevant. *

In 2014 (or rather, in 2010 when I first created this project), doing a class blog is neither cutting edge, nor particularly revolutionary for many of us. For the students I teach, however, it was, in fact, an important and empowering act. I teach at Morehead State University, in rural eastern Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia. The majority of our students come from our “service region” which includes most of the poorest zip codes in the nation. The region itself isn’t well-served, either, by technology; affordable high-speed internet is unavailable, if students are even able to purchase computers at all. Many of my students come from failing schools where technology is used only to drill for improving test scores, and curriculum is completely taken over to achieve these goals. Many of their teachers, as well, are ill-equipped to integrate technology into the classroom. A blog, therefore, for many of my students, is a radical act.

I aim, also, to make writing relevant for my students. Authors such as David Sobel (Place-Based Education), Georgia Heard (Writing Toward Home), and Robert E. Brooke (Rural Voices) emphasize the importance of integrating place-based learning into the writing classroom. We also know that writing in a more public setting improves the writing, and gives the students increased ownership in their work. But one thing that I have also learned about my students and where they are from is that they are often spoken about and treated as a “problem” to be solved. The recent SOAR Summit on and about Eastern Kentucky reflected that attitude in many of the tweets that were generated, as well as the press surrounding it. Youth, to look at the list of participants, were invited, but it certainly didn’t feel like they were welcome to participate. They are the ones who are leaving or coming back from college with few job prospects, after all. They are also the ones who are dropping out of high school at an alarming rate.

I challenged myself to figure out how to empower my students through using digital tools in a place-based assignment that also integrated our required textbook, Reading the World: Ideas that Matter. In it, there is a section on “Education” that include readings from Paulo Freire, Seneca, Richard Feyman, John Henry Newman, and Kisautaq Leona Okakok. I began the unit by asking the students to free-write on the question: Why does high school suck? For many of my students, this was the most they had written all semester on their own. Ten minutes stretched into 15 minutes and many could have probably written for the entire class period. This opening activity grounded their thinking about education in their own experience, rural or urban, and prepared them to read seemingly unrelated readings (to their own experience) with a critical view of understanding the purpose and role of education in their lives.

We debated the role of education (creating citizens, getting a job, personal enrichment, economic driver, etc), but also discussed how we learn. Students were then challenged to research current issues in education that they were interested in exploring, sharing their results with the class. We created an informal annotated bibliography/shared resource that students could pull from for their eventual “essay” which I called an op-ed. They then moved on to specifically looking for op-eds about education and education reform, to study form and content. Finally, we moved on to the assignment which was to write their own op-ed/blog post that addressed the one issue of their choosing that they thought was the most important.

I created the blog, Ed Reform by Undergrads, which the students would contribute to.

Many of them were excited by the thought that their former teachers may in fact read their missives on their educational experiences. Students combined their own experiences with analysis of national trends to craft reforms that spoke to the specific challenges they faced or saw their friends and family face. We worked hard to balance the passion they all felt about their subject with being able to communicate effectively to their audience. We asked questions about the best resources to support their arguments and position. And my students worked together to help each other do their best work.

The blog also served another purpose; the English 200 class that produced the blog consisted of second-semester Freshmen or Sophomores, so more experienced writers. I reproduced the same assignment in my Developmental Writing class, where they used the blog posts as models, and while they weren’t expected to publish their op-eds on the blog, they were expected to comment on the blog posts. I wanted to create a sense of community between the different groups of writers, and introduce public writing to my developmental writers in a more gradual and somewhat “safer” way.

The blog itself continues to generate traffic, largely because of SEO-friendly titles that the students came up with themselves: Why Homework Sucks, Why NCLB Sucks, Why School Lunches Suck (I seemed to have opened the floodgates with my free-write question…). But it is empowering to know that middle-school and high-school students both in the region and beyond are visiting this blog as a resource to inform their own ideas and arguments about their education. This is a place where students can speak to other students, to educators, to parents, to politicians, in a way that they did not feel they could before.

The blog, as well, for me, stands as a counter-narrative to the idea of lowered expectations that my students face, that they can’t “do” this kind of work, that it’s too dangerous and damaging to them, that we need to focus on the basics in private. As my own department looks to reform the Freshman Writing sequence, this blog stands as a testament to what they can do when given the opportunity to do meaningful writing. We find ourselves in a self-defeating cycle of lowered expectations: give the students less and less creative and innovative writing, and they will do poorly, causing us to create even more simplistic and stifling writing assignments. Our students can and will read Seneca and Freire, can and will understand them, and can and will write eloquently about them if only we help them ground the work in their own realities.