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“What Writing Really Is”: Expanding Educational Access through Community Writing

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By: Sarah Hart Micke with Viv Lawless and Alex Rushinsky | University Writing Program

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Children sitting at desks in a classroom

When COVID hit, my writing classes lost our 7-year partnership with Charles Hay World School, a socio-economically diverse elementary school—with ~50% of students receiving free/reduced lunch. At Charles Hay, DU undergraduates deepened young writers’ literacy skills while applying rhetorical theories in community contexts. Together, all students experienced writing as a community-building endeavor.

However, COVID paused our partnership and limited our ability to reconnect: Charles Hay experienced a ~50% teacher/staff turnover rate and received a new state-mandated curriculum. DU staff changes and students’ shifting attitudes about in-person learning challenged my pedagogy. CCESL’s Community-engaged Teaching funds helped me design a new honors writing course—of which I taught 2 sections in Winter 2023—to rebuild our partnership.

My new DU classes mentored ~40 2nd-graders at Charles Hay one day per week: Small groups researched pollinators and plant reproduction, and described their findings in nonfiction genres. Emphasizing writing’s interpersonal dynamics, DU students offered 2nd-graders personalized support and excited them about college–a future few Charles Hay students see for themselves. At DU, undergraduates rhetorically analyzed educational theories and the 2nd-grade curriculum, wrote nonfiction children’s books, and designed newsletters informing Charles Hay families about our project. Sharing their texts with real audiences enriched all students’ writing.

Reflecting on how their writing repertoire expanded, two DU students—Viv Lawless and Alex Rushinsky—explain why this experience mattered:

Viv writes, “Children have the incredible ability to have fun with writing, something that is often destroyed by the taught writing process,” but DU-Charles Hay collaborations revitalize writing for everyone. She explains, “This experience has been truly enlightening. I haven’t realized how much it means to little kids to have [older] people . . . aid in their learning process . . . I will take away the pure joy that comes when writing from the heart . . . On our last day at Charles Hay, the students I worked with all quarter made goodbye letters and drawings that brought me to tears . . . I haven’t had nearly as rewarding an experience before.”

Alex emphasizes, “I loved working at Charles Hay . . . it taught me . . . how to adequately address a wide range of audiences. Much of education . . . has focused on writing . . . academic . . . papers to demonstrate breadth of knowledge, but that is not all writing is . . . writ[ing] for second-graders and their parents was an amazing chance to demonstrate . . . my understanding of what writing really is.”

Writing matters when it’s personal, relational. Such meaningful writing drives my commitment, as a professor, to community-engaged learning. As children’s author and teacher Mem Fox theorizes in Radical Reflections, “If we as teachers ache with caring . . . [we may] create . . . communities in which writing matters because it’s done for real reasons by real writers who ache with caring” (22).

Thank you, CCESL, for helping us write such caring communities into being.