Review: “The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop”

Hello friends! I’m excited to sit down to write a post for you all, I know it’s been a while 🙂

I’m on Spring Break, and I was lucky enough to be snowed in for a few days, leaving me lots of time to read. I was able to read the most amazing, incredible book, “The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom,” by Felicia Rose Chavez. It. Was. Incredible. And I thought it would be fun to share a few of my takeaways with you here. Don’t get me wrong, reading this post isn’t a substitute for reading it yourself, but hopefully you’ll be excited to grab your own copy and bring it to your own classroom.

If you’ve been following our journey over the last several years, you know that writing workshop is a huge part of our curricular approach, and so you probably can understand why this book got y attention. While her approach to workshop differs a little bit from mine, the practical applications of this book are everywhere.

The author, Felicia Rose Chavez, discusses “writing workshop” as a pretty common approach in college for those people pursuing degrees in writing. It consists of the following format, which was new information for me. First, writers who were up for “workshop” on a specific day would send their piece to the entire class ahead of time. Classmates would read the piece ahead of time and “mark up” the text, and form an opinion about the writing. Then, during class, the author of the piece would sit silently (unable to speak or respond) while the rest of the class discussed their piece at length. 

As you can imagine, this format is not at all conducive to writers from diverse experiences and backgrounds, and allows for whiteness and white supremacy to dominate the conversation. Without being able to speak for oneself, the class must try to construct their own understanding of the piece and how it measures up to the traditional (white) standard of what “good” writing is. And, as you can imagine, this exposes writers of color and those of other marginalized backgrounds to a lot of harm and trauma, with little recourse. When you add that to the fact that writers in these classes and programs are often studying the “canon” or the “masters” and trying to imitate those pieces, it produces an environment that is fundamentally unsafe and not conducive to writers of color writing (and being) their authentic selves.

Felicia Rose Chavez goes on to discuss how she has turned this entire process on its head and has been able to decolonize her writing classes to pave the way for all writers to be their authentic selves, and to help all students realize that a success or excellence rooted in the traditional sense is rooted in whiteness and white supremacy.

This book would be incredibly powerful for teachers of mixed classes, where teachers (especially at the university level) are teaching writing to both students of color and students who usually experience privilege (usually white, middle class, heterosexual, and male). However, even as a teacher of heritage Spanish classes, where all my students are Latinx (although admittedly from diverse backgrounds with different language practices, educational backgrounds, family structures, and cultures), there were so many gems for me to take from this book. 

This book affirmed these practices/beliefs for me, already in place

  • Writing is crucial for students to be able to come into their own, to realize that they are enough, that they deserve to take up space, that their words are worthy of being on the page.
  • Attendance and asking students to show up consistently to do the work is crucial.
  • Consistent, daily writing is essential.
  • Writing by hand (instead of online/typing) has so many amazing benefits.
  • We don’t have to rely on “classic” literature as the canon, as the “best” example of writing; we don’t have to spend time imitating whiteness to validate or improve our writing. I can use contemporary writing, especially by BIPOC, as mentor texts.
  • Student choice is an essential component of my classroom.
  • Individualized student conferences, directed by the students, are crucial in the feedback cycle.
  • A huge part of the workshop model that enables students to really be themselves authentically is to realize that writing is a process, that it’s never really perfect, and gives us permission to do multiple drafts with different purposes without the crushing pressure to get it right and/or perfect.
  • An emphasis on advocacy and efficacy is essential. Encouraging students, “Write in a way that makes sense for you,” centering student voice during conferencing (“what are you trying to do here? What kind of feedback do you want?”), giving students a choice to accept or reject suggestions (not making revisions I suggest required to improve grade), are all practices that help develop confident, independent, joyful writers.

Changes I’m inspired to make after reading this book

  • The writing community is crucial, and in my room it often feels like the writing community exists between me and each student, but not necessarily between the students. I want to work harder to develop and foster that community, including starting the following practices suggested by the author:
    • Sitting in a circle
    • Starting with a daily “check in” every day
    • Snacks every day, brought by a student
    • A daily opportunity for students to share their writing out loud (for me, this would be the closing section of workshop, which I often skip)
  • Consider adding a component to writing pieces where my students have the opportunity to frame their work (perhaps by writing accompanying author statements to ensure that the reader is not left to interpret it without that crucial information).
  • Overall, cultivating the ability of my students to ask for certain types of feedback (from me or other students) that would be especially helpful for them, empowering them to accept or reject that feedback when writing their final drafts, and to give appropriate feedback to fellow students that are in line with what those students are seeking (not just their personal opinions or what they feel like must be said).
  • Helping my students become empathetic readers (and thus, writers); thus, not just reading a piece and deciding if they like it or not, but to really consider the context, the position, the background, the author; to really humanize the author, to humanize people before just tearing apart writing as if it’s independent of a person.

Additional thoughts and things I’d like to continue exploring

  • I really appreciated the time the author took to work on dismantling the concept of competitiveness between her writers, because she felt that was a huge hurdle in giving each other feedback. In a classroom of all Latinx students, I wonder if that is any less important, and I wonder if my process in deconstructing that should be different.
  • I am still considering the overlap of creative writing (for me, my narrative writing units – personal narrative in 9th and 10th grade, realistic fiction in 11th grade) and other types of writing. How can the momentum I foster and develop during this first powerful unit continue and sustain us through the other two or three writing units of the year?
  • How can I invite more student voice and choice in the creation of my own classroom “canon,” my choice of mentor texts? 
  • Is there a place for a formal “workshop” as defined by the author, in a high school classroom, where a writer would formally present their work and ask for feedback before the final draft? Or, in my context, would this be tweaked to be a final presentation of a narrative piece?

This book is a must-read, friends. Very few other books have met me exactly where I am, professionally speaking, and still spurred me on to be better. I highly recommend this book!! I’d love to hear your thoughts! And if you’ll be attending our workshop this summer (filling up fast!), expect to hear more about this incredible book 🙂

Adrienne

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