Linda Christensen: Social Justice, Teaching Writing, and Teaching Teachers
“We teach our students not only by what we say in the classroom but also by what we do in the world,” says Linda Christensen, director of the Oregon Writing Project.
You might say that the world and the classroom are so intertwined for Christensen that there is scarcely a line between them. That’s because social justice forms the heartbeat of Christensen’s pedagogy.
“Social justice is at the core of my work because it is a belief in people’s potential,” says Christensen. “It is this commitment to social equality that undergirds the idea of public education.”
Christensen’s career has been devoted to crossing boundaries in order to tap students’ literacies and foster human agency in the lives of both students and their teachers. Her practitioner wisdom and prolific publications—articles, books, book reviews, and critiques—reflect thirty years of exemplary experience as an English teacher in Portland Public Schools, where she taught at Jefferson and Grant High Schools.
She has also served as a principal and a language arts curriculum specialist and coordinator in the same school system. She is a member of the Rethinking Schools editorial board and a member of the Urban Sites Network Leadership Team for the National Writing Project. She’s excited to welcome writing project teachers to this year’s Urban Sites Network Conference in Portland, April 23-24.
Writing from a Personal Stance
Christensen’s philosophical grounding in literacy, social justice, and culturally responsive pedagogy takes shape in her classroom each day. For example, she advocates that students write from a personal stance, and models that expectation in her own writing, thereby empowering her students to take risks with and ownership of their writing and their lives.
She creates assignments such as “Where I’m from” poems, praise poems, forgiveness poems, age poems, and childhood narratives, that allow students to share significant moments of their lives.
“Students write more authentically and powerfully when they write pieces about what they care about,” she says.
Students’ lives are always at the center of Christensen’s curriculum. “In every class I teach I look for the intersection of literature, society, and students’ lives. A constant question in my classroom is, ‘How does this relate to your life?’ Students make the connection.”
Her focus on personal stance writing facilitates the emergence of an authentic community of learners and develops empathy within and among her students in the process. Using strategies such as “interior monologue” or imagining others’ thoughts affords her additional opportunities to promote empathy.
And her focus is always on potential. In class “read-arounds,” students share their work, and, as Christensen says, “We celebrate their brilliance, commenting on what’s working, instead of editing. We talk about writing, but we also talk about our lives.”
Honoring Home Languages
Writing from a personal stance includes a commitment to honoring learners’ “home languages” while instilling in them the relevance of learning and using society’s “cash language”—a term Christensen credits Jesse Jackson with coining to describe Standard English.
Informed by personal experiences and encounters with teachers who discredited her own home language, Christensen learned to teach her students to negotiate the conventions of Standard English within the context of their own writing. For example, she examines The Color Purple with students to discuss if it would be as powerful if it had been written in Standard English instead of African American vernacular English.
“I want students to see that ‘standard’ doesn’t mean best; it means the most widely accepted version of a language,” she says. “I also want them to understand how the loss of variations of languages leads to a loss of music and rhythm, and in many cases, the loss of indigenous knowledge.”
She has also employed the use of positive student role models by inviting former students back to her classroom to share their writing with current students. The students Christensen chose to invite demonstrated the desired technique of blending the use of home and cash languages within their work while allowing her students to see their reflections in the curriculum. “It was a way of both dissecting the role of ‘standard’ languages and learning how to operate within their confines,” she says.
Similarly, Christensen’s approach to professional development embraces the assumption that teachers learn more effectively from other teachers, especially when the intended outcome is that of fostering teacher-centered professional development.
“I believe the best professional development includes conversations with colleagues about our work,” says Christensen. “I believe these conversations should be constructed so that we focus on student learning—by examining student work, by observing as our colleagues teach lessons, or by constructing lessons collectively, trying them out, and bringing back the results.”
This spirit is visible in her responses to the work of other educators. Christensen not only provides a thoughtful critique of the teaching approach or strategy presented but also offers practical suggestions for making the approach/strategy more effective. Her suggestions tend to focus on prompting students to think and on making instructional content and concepts relevant to students’ lives.
Christensen is a respected author in the educational arena, and she and her work have also become popular subjects in the works of other published writers, including Allen Carey-Webb, Sonia Nieto, and Bill Biegelow, to name a few.
Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-imagining the Language Arts Classroom
Rethinking Schools, 2009, 300 pages.
NWP Book Review
Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-imagining the Language Arts Classroom
Download Sample Chapter
Chapter 5, Language and Power (PDF)
In his review of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up, Carey-Webb describes Christensen’s approach to teaching and learning as “humane, authentic, multicultural, and detracked” and predicts that it “will inspire new and veteran English teachers.”
He concludes that the issue of ability grouping or tracking “points to why we so urgently need Reading, Writing, and Rising Up to reinforce our belief in the potential of all our students, to show us how to make detracked teaching work, and to remind us that secondary English teachers have a key role to play in a democratic society.”
“Secondary language arts teachers can play a key role in fighting for equity in schools by rejecting programs that continue the tracking of students—that create a dual education system within a school or school district,” says Christensen. “Teachers can fight for access to the benefits of small classes, a rigorous curriculum, field trips, and college credit courses for all students, regardless of their background.”
Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-imagining the Language Arts Classroom is the long-awaited follow-up to Reading, Writing, and Rising Up (download a sample chapter below), and in it Christensen continues her legacy of writing and publishing must-read texts. In so doing, she continues to permit her readers to eavesdrop on her teaching practice, one that is grounded in social justice not merely as a philosophy of education but, more importantly, as a way of being in the world.
Teachers across the country—not all in urban classrooms—have found her work to be pivotal to developing a critical pedagogy that works. Below you will find a list of articles and books by and about Christensen.