Bird's Eye View News

Words That Matter: Students Find Their Voices in New Senior Elective

How does the power of the written word affect social change and lead to social justice?

This fall, Upper School students had the opportunity to explore this essential question in a unique new symposium-style senior elective called Words That Matter: Reading and Writing for Social Change (WTM).

Brainchild of our Head of School, Crystal Land, the WTM course ideation is a direct response to the School’s Strategic Plan’s imperative to provide students “opportunities for real-world problem solving, creativity, and intellectual engagement.” Last spring, observant of the charged political and social landscape domestically and abroad over the past couple of years, Land was revisiting a lot of works by renowned authors like James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rebecca Solnit, as well as several lesser known columnists, all of whom were writing prolifically around the political and social issues of their time. As she weighed the impact of those authors’ words with her own responsibility as the Head of an educational institution committed to cultivating global citizens, it occurred to her that Head-Royce had never before offered electives centered around students developing their own personal writing about contemporary political and social issues. She wondered if there was a way for a whole course to be devoted to this objective. 

In addition to the new focus, the format was also a first for seniors—a  seminar-style, college-level practicum course where students are instructed by different specialists throughout the semester. Land believed it would be especially enriching for students if she could co-teach the course with colleagues hailing not only from different disciplines across the School, but also different backgrounds. Having developed and taught several of the current senior electives in the past (Lift Every Voice and Women’s Literature, which are both being taught now by other faculty members), she approached Head of Upper School, Carl Thiermann; US English teacher and Center for Community Engagement Director, Nancy Feidelman; as well as Heads Up Program Director Liz Solis, to join her as co-instructors of this innovative and relevant new course offering.

Meetings over the summer provided the four teachers opportunities to engage in careful and thoughtful discussion around setting the arc of the course—the types of assignments being presented, the kinds of writers being discussed, and how those considerations would be fulfilling the School’s mission and addressing issues of equity. The resulting syllabus presented students taking the course with a comprehensive range of texts speaking to social justice. The summer reading assignment challenged students to examine persuasive non-fiction and how the use of words and building of a cogent argument occurs in written work. Land, who covered the opening unit on persuasive nonfiction or opinion writing, believed it tantamount that students read texts with distinct, diverse voices. These texts included Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr., for a “more canonical example of powerful words,” as well as Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit—an author with whom most of the students were not yet familiar—for a more contemporary and provocative example.

Throughout the course, students maintain a reflective semester-long journal and write in a variety of modes that reflect the content of each thematic unit. In addition to the in-class journal, students have a culminating assignment for each of the first three units (opinion writing, literary analysis, and social commentary through poetry) and a final project on the fourth unit (art as activism). Thiermann covered the literature of protest, diving into classic texts like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and more contemporary works like Viet Thanh Nguyen's Refugees. Feidelman guided students through an exploration of poetry as resistance, with hip-hop poetry-writing following a viewing and discussion of the critically-acclaimed film, Blindspotting, set in modern-day Oakland. In her unit, Solis will ask students to explore the power of memoir in Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele’s book, When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, and then to produce their own creative autoethnographies. The approach of this group of instructors, Land explained, “is from a mindset of how can we help students think about the skills of writing and other persuasive mediums, and apply them to their life, the world, or something that they care deeply about?”  

The focus on persuasive writing is one of the many skills that students are refining as the course progresses. The wide-ranging opinion pieces that students wrote to begin the semester are perfect examples. Students wrote about political causes that they care about—mandatory voting, sexual harassment and the #metoo movement, and concussions in the NFL. What the co-instructors all learned reading through some of these earlier opinion pieces is that by the time HRS students become seniors, they are very skilled at providing unbiased, informational writing, but have had fewer opportunities to take a stance. They had not often been asked to dive into the kind of writing that comes from a more personal and urgent place: “I feel very passionately about this thing and it matters because…”

Solis’s final unit will foster a contemporary dialogue among students, looking at how social media plays a role in catalyzing public discourse and decentralizing power. She explained, “I am deeply interested in framing for students that what we care about is embedded in our identity and our histories, and a memoir by someone who is one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, recounting the details of her own life growing up in Los Angeles in the 80s and 90s, laying bare all the complexities that created this adult, who is still very much influenced by those experiences, is a prime example for students. I am interested in having the students explore how their own personal and family stories are embedded within a larger historical context.”

Students will write an autoethnography, which will require them to look at a particular social phenomenon and discuss how that social phenomenon has impacted their lives personally. The process will involve research around the origins of that phenomenon, as well as critical analysis of how that phenomenon impacts their daily lives and interactions.

Solis added, “Ultimately, we want students to walk away emboldened to continue to utilize their words to challenge political and social inequities at play in our society, but we also want them to look beyond words, to all art forms as activism.”