“you have to think more about the topic”
“you have to sort out what is in your brain”
“you have to spell out the words”
“it is hard to put sentences together sometimes”
“you have to identify sounds, alphabets, and your blends”
“I don’t like to write, I don’t want to write”
These are student responses to the question I have asked: “Why is writing hard?”
There are eight of us seated around a blond wood table in a room called “Swiss Family Roombinson” at the Literacenter. The room’s walls are painted canary-yellow. Two of the students come to the board to write out their responses while two students copy what is being written on the board into their own notebooks. One student scowls the whole time, and another student tries to take a nap. Laura F. – who is co-facilitating the class with me – leans across the table to peer at a student’s attempt to spell the word “identify.”
“Why is writing hard?”
This is a class of Adult Learners. The oldest students are in their 60s and 70s. Some students struggle to match the letters of the alphabet with their designated sounds. Some students have learning disabilities and speech impediments. Some have retired from vocations such as tailoring, landscaping, carpentry, and housekeeping. Some have squeezed through the educational system and been accepted into college programs and find themselves languishing in remedial courses and student debt. Reading sentences aloud for some is like turning the ignition key in a car while peddling on the accelerator and praying for the engine’s robust start. Fits and starts.
On the first day of this particular class one of the intake questions I pose is “Do you think that writing is hard?” Often students’ literacy goals have to do with reading but they may not realize how reading and writing go together. Some find the prospect of having to write doubly overwhelming. I decide to modify the question in order to better understand what students’ needs are. Hence, “Why is writing hard?” I assure them that “think[ing] more about the topic,” “sort[ing] out what is in your brain,” and the difficulty of “put[ting] sentences together” are things I, too, continue to find challenging about writing.
All of these students will not earn a GED. They will not enter a workforce training program. Some are hungrier to learn than others. Time engaged in putting forth the effort to learn is empowering in nuanced ways. At Literacy Chicago many find a sense of belonging without shame in a learning community where classes are free of charge. Volunteers tutor and facilitate classes in math, reading, journaling, and digital literacy.
Because I have been a volunteer with the organization off and on since 2011, I had approached Literacy Chicago about facilitating a workshop that would allow me to include men from the Adult Learner community in my Black Men Reading Series. At the time they were in need of a volunteer instructor for the Winter term on Wednesday afternoons. I couldn’t get permission to conduct the workshop for black men only, so, in January of 2019, I started facilitating a class that I called “Exploring Memoir.”
For the spring semester the focus has been sharpened into a class called “Writing Your Memoir in Your Own Words,” and I have been joined by Laura F. for some team-teaching. I still intend to have the Adult Learner community represented in the Black Men Reading Series, and want to find an organic and respectful way of doing so. In the meantime, I want to share some of what happens in “Writing Your Memoir in Your Own Words” class.
Marcellina Akpojotor (b.1989) is a visual artist who uses Ankara fabric to create vibrant collage imagery. Many of her pieces illustrate the self-empowerment and liberatory value of education and reading. “Telling Stories” (2018) is from her Power Series, which I learned about from following Rele Gallery on instagram.
Jabari C. Jefferson is a mixed-media oil painter whose “Library Series” and “Mixed Media Series” reflect his upbringing with a father who was a jazz musician and librarian. In this video, he talks about developing his painting style.
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