Civically-Engaged Teaching Writing

Writing for Change

San Diego Area Writing Project


Writing for Change was a concept created by the San Diego Area Writing Project that started by bringing together teachers, students and technology together to create a writing experience based on the overarching belief that words create and inspire social justice. Originally published on January 15, 2011

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world.”

James Baldwin, American novelist, writer, and civil rights activist

One year to set the dream. Fifty-four days to staff and plan. Forty hours of instruction in a two-week summer academy. We changed lives. Through the use of digital media, students discovered their own style, voice, and potential. On the last day, one father—four months new to our country—came up and asked us how he could get a computer for his daughter. “She must have this tool; I can see that now.”

Writing for Change was a concept created by the San Diego Area Writing Project. Margit Boyesen and Janet Ilko, co-directors of Writing For Change, brought teachers, students and technology together to create a writing experience based on the overarching belief that words create and inspire social justice. Twenty-six students and five teachers spent two weeks of their summer writing about important issues in their lives in ways that were accessible and relevant to them. In so doing, we ended up and using a variety of technologies that were accessible to the students (podcasting, video, glogster, etc.) to explore digital storytelling and create other multimedia compositions.

“Teaching for joy and justice also begins with the non-negotiable belief that all students are capable of brilliance.”Linda Christensen, educator, author, and director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark

The work of Linda Christensen has greatly influenced our work with this project. We, too, have the non-negotiable belief that all students are capable of brilliance, and that has driven our work from the inception of the project. Springboarding from some lessons from Christensen’s work, we sought to provide students with a voice, a space, and the support they needed to express their views. Students came to the academy each day eager to express their views about their lives, and their hopes and ambitions for our world. Samples of student work and lesson reflections are found on other pages in this resource.

Rationale for Writing for Change Summer Camp at a School Site

The San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP) has hosted a very successful writing camp on the University of California San Diego campus for many years. In searching for ways to diversify the students who could attend, SDAWP attempted many recruitment strategies with limited success. The leadership team studied the issue, and decided that it was time to try something new. We decided to move the summer writing camp off campus and into a school.

This was SDAWP’s first effort to bring that summer writing experience from the college campus to a school site. We wanted to do more than just provide a satellite program; we wanted to create something new and enticing for kids in their own urban neighborhood. We knew that in attracting new students, we would need a new program. What better way to bring a summer writing academy to urban kids than to bring the academy to them? Why couldn’t we use what students know and love to teach them how to write to inspire others and change their world?

When we first came up with the concept of Writing for Change, our focus was on social justice and the empowerment of students to have a voice. We decided that in the camp we would use the technology available in the school itself. The value of using the technology available at the neighborhood school site allowed us to focus on using it in new and meaningful ways, rather than introducing new technology that students wouldn’t have access to in the fall. Our question at the end of this program was, “Would students and teachers continue to use these tools and strategies into the school year, and what form might that take?”

Our decision proved to be right on the mark. Students who attended the summer program reported back that they continue to write and use the technology tools and skills they learned this past summer. Teachers found creative ways to incorporate this work within the constraints of district-mandated pacing guides, assessments and core curriculum. Assessments now provide a variety of options that include the use of technology to demonstrate mastery or respond to a writing prompt. Students now tell their stories digitally, use technology to research facts and create visual maps of their thinking. Departments and teams are feeling the ripple effect of the work, intentionally and exponentially growing across the site.

At Cajon Valley Middle School there is now a “Writing for Change” after school club. There is now a place on campus where students feel a sense of ownership over their work. They truly are allowed to explore topics of interest. Some students are coming to write fiction together, others are teaming up to write about social issues of importance to them, such as animal rights and graffiti in the neighborhood. Students and teachers are working together to continue the creative work from the summer. Three teachers are volunteering their time and talents to come to the lab and work with students on their self-selected projects two to three days per week. The motivation is not remediation or extra credit, but simply the value of the work that students and teachers want to do. Our hope is to find funding to expand the program this coming summer throughout the entire school district, maintaining our ideal to empower students, one page at a time.

Six Word Memoirs

The Six Word Memoir project came from the work of Smith Magazine, an online publishing site. The idea is that everyone has a story to tell, and some of the best stories are told in only six words. Writing for Change students and teachers each wrote about their lives in only six words, and the words and images were put together in a digital movie format by the students. This work continued into the fall with the Writing for Change afterschool program. The entire school wrote six word memoirs, and the editorial team is in the process of selecting the best of the best and creating an iMovie to be shown both on the website and throughout the school. Again, the work of the summer spills into the school year promoting voice and respect for individuality.

About the Writing for Change Academy

The students had an opportunity to talk about what they enjoy about Writing For Change. We took video over a few days during the program to try to get feedback from a variety of kids.

Components of the Academy

Daily Schedule: 9-12noon

Quick Writes: Every day, students began and ended the academy with reflective writing. The opening writing was always student generated. At the end of the day, students were offered prompts to spark ideas for reflection.

Mini-lessons: There were mini-lessons both in writing and technology every day. For example, the writing lesson based on the “Raised By Poem” lent itself to a mini-lesson on image selection as part of iMovie.

Writing Response Groups: Students were broken into 6 groups (4 per teacher) to share their writing process and get feedback from their peers as they developed their project.

Project Collaboration: Although students each completed a project independently, there was constant collaboration among students and staff. Students worked to support each other in learning iMovie, downloading images, the writing, and just about everything.

Publishing: Students published a W4C DVD, and the work was stored on the Writing For Change website. On the last day of the academy, we hosted a Digital Authors’ Share, where parents, community members and district leaders were invited to view student work.


What students and parents said…

“The writing program last summer was very fun and I learned how to make a podcast. By taking the writing program my writing skills really improved…I use to not like writing but now after the program I really like writing. They made me learn to put all of my thoughts on paper and I am doing really well in my classes in middle school.” ~ Student

“Raised By was my favorite because in my poem I am honoring the women that raised me.” ~ Student

“Reflections were my favorite because I got to express myself” ~ Student

“I liked the ‘I Am poem’ because you could write about what you were passionate about.” ~ Student

“He really enjoyed the class and wished it was longer. He is excited about using technology in writing. I believe it was a good experience for him.” ~ Parent

“Dream BIG, Think BIG, Go BIG!” ~ Co-directors: Janet Ilko and Margit Boyesen

“Raised by…”

“Raised By Samoan Women” by Christiana, based on “Raised by Women” by Kelly Norman Ellis

Based on a poem called “Raised by Women,” in Teaching for Joy and Justice by Linda Christensen (p. 17), students were given the opportunity to write about the influences on their lives. Some students wrote about a particular role model or family member. Some students wrote about being raised by social trends like video games. This particular example highlights the concept “It takes a village to raise a child.” In this piece, Christiana is raised by many influential women. After she created this piece in the summer, she was inspired in the fall to perform a traditional Samoan Dance at her school talent show, honoring the women in the audience who came to see her and providing students at the middle school a glimpse into her culture. It was truly an amazing performance, inspired by this one project.

So What Are Implications For The Future?

Our next steps…

It feels like the real work, the type of writing instruction and learning that we value currently needs to occur after the “required and mandated” work is done. Yet, students and teachers seem to be willing to take that extra time and space because they recognize and value the importance of the “real work”—which if you stop by the lab on any afternoon doesn’t seem like work at all.

Writing For Change is flourishing at Cajon Valley School. Students are coming to create, to share and publish their work. We currently publish on the Cajon Valley School website, our school newspaper and various sites. This coming June, students will be creating a Digital Memoir highlighting their best work from the year, and we will be inviting staff and parents to celebrate our first year.

Looking toward the future, these questions will guide our next steps…

  • How can we as teacher leaders move our school systems to provide the autonomy to create these creative and socially responsible environments that allow both teachers and students to create freely on their own time?
  • How can we secure financial support for this work so all students can participate and materials and tech support can be provided for this type of work?

Isn’t that what we want for the future of education?