Academic journal article English Journal

Close to Home: Creating Meaningful Contexts for Student Writing through Community-Based Problems

Academic journal article English Journal

Close to Home: Creating Meaningful Contexts for Student Writing through Community-Based Problems

Article excerpt

In his 2005 book Teacher Man, a memoir reflecting on his career as a high school English instructor, author Frank McCourt recalls an epiphany he had in class one day. While his students sat working independently, McCourt pulled from his desk a pile of excuse letters-that is, letters purportedly written by the parents of his students explaining why those students had been absent, late, or unsuccessful in completing particular assignments. An intelligent man, McCourt knew no parents had written the letters, that in fact the students themselves had drafted them; unable to prove this fact, however, McCourt regularly resigned himself to excusing the students' transgressions.

But reading one of the letters over that day, the young teacher was suddenly struck by something: the effectiveness of the letter's composition. It had some voice. It was relatively fluent. It made claims and supported them with relevant-albeit fictional-explanations and evidence. And, quite to the teacher's shame, it was drastically better than anything his students normally produced in response to the assignments McCourt himself designed. So what was the difference?

This article examines the influence of context on student writing and discusses how I used one methodology, problem-based learning, to foster more contextualized writing practice in my ninth-grade English classes. Both research and practical experience like McCourt's suggest that students can benefit from writing practice contextualized within specific, realistic rhetorical situations-practice that allows them to respond to real problems, address specific audiences, and accomplish meaningful purposes. Such practice can be highly motivating and empowering, providing students both a reason to develop writing skills and a frame in which those skills can be understood and rehearsed.

The Rhetorical Situation: Contexts for Composition

While definitions of rhetoric abound, Lloyd Bitzer's is one of the more compelling with regard to writing instruction: Rhetoric, Bitzer says, "is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action" (4). Whenever such discourse occurs, the context or set of circumstances surrounding it influences everything from the type of act warranted to the most appropriate style. Would, for example, an objective argumentative essay be best, or would a protest song be more effective? Should an author employ figurative language, or should he or she remain more literal? These questions are most successfully answered in response to the particular context in which the act takes place: what Bitzer calls the rhetorical situation.

Bitzer's rhetorical situation includes three major conditions, each informed by the one it follows: exigency, audience, and purpose. Leading this list is exigency, what Bitzer calls "an imperfection marked by urgency" (6). Specifically rhetorical exigencies are urgent problems that are "capable of positive modification . . . when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse" (7). Discourse can affect public policy, or convince someone to offer a person a job, or get a company to refund the cost of an unsatisfactory product; oftentimes, in fact, discourse is the only way to influence such problems.

Fostering such an ability to effect change through discourse is something Peter H. Johnston believes should be a primary goal of literacy education. Our purpose as educators, Johnston argues in his book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning, should be to develop students into individuals who recognize their own power to act in ways that effect change. Johnston calls this power agency, and developing that sense in our students should, he claims, be a primary focus of instruction. "As teachers," Johnston writes, "we try to maximize children's feelings of agency. There are really three parts to this: the belief that the environment can be affected, the belief that one has what it takes to affect it, and the understanding that this is what literacy is about" (39; italics added). …

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