National Writing Project

Linda Christensen: Social Justice, Teaching Writing, and Teaching Teachers

By: Pamela Morgan
Date: February 17, 2010

Summary: Linda Christensen, site director, educator, and author, explores what it means to teach writing across the margins of life—and teach teachers—through the lens of social justice.

 

NWP In Person: Linda Christensen

"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.

A constant question in my classroom is, ‘How does this relate to your life?’

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.

Teaching Teachers

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.

Disseminating Knowledge

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.

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, 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.

Works Cited

  • Au, Wayne, Bill Bigelow, and Stan Karp. 2007. Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 1 – Rev. ed. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
  • Bigelow, Bill, and Linda Christensen. 2001. "Promoting Social Imagination Through Interior Monologues." The Quarterly of the National Writing Project 23 (1). Retrieved September 16, 2009, from http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/346?x-print_friendly=1 .
  • Carey-Webb, Allen. 2001, November. "Writing to Inspire Change" [Review of the book Reading, Writing, and Rising Up]. English Journal 91 (2): 107–109.
  • Christensen, Linda. 1995. "Whose Standard? Teaching Standard English in Our Schools." In Rethinking Schools: An Agenda for Change, edited by David Levine, Robert Lowe, Robert Peterson, and Rita Tenorio, 128–135. New York: The New Press.
  • Christensen, Linda. 2000. Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
  • Christensen, Linda. 2005/2006, winter. "Teacher Quality: Teachers Teaching Teachers." Rethinking Schools Online 20 (2).
  • Christensen, Linda M. 2009. Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-imagining the Language Arts Classroom. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
  • Meyer, S. 2009, spring. "Linda Christensen: Finding Her Voice." The Lewis & Clark Chronicle. Portland, OR: Lewis & Clark College. Retrieved September 29, 2009, from http://legacy.lclark.edu/dept/chron/lindacsp09.html .

Bibliography of Recommended Readings

  • Au, Wayne, Bill Bigelow, and Stan Karp. 2007. Rethinking Our Classrooms, Vol. 1 – Rev. ed. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
  • Christensen, Linda M. 1989, February. "Writing the Word and the World. The English Journal 78 (2): 14–18.
  • Christensen, Linda M. 1990, February. "Teaching Standard English: Whose Standard?" The English Journal 79 (2): 36–40.
  • Christensen, Linda M. 1991, April. "Poetry: Reinventing the Past, Rehearsing the Future." The English Journal 80 (4): 27–33.
  • Christensen, Linda. 1995. "Whose Standard? Teaching Standard English in Our Schools." In Rethinking Schools: An Agenda for Change, edited by David Levine, Robert Lowe, Robert Peterson, and Rita Tenorio, 128–135. New York: The New Press.
  • Christensen, Linda M. 1996. Writing with Attitude: Strategies for Teaching Reading and Writing: Teaching Guide for the 1995-96 Rites of Passage. Washington, DC: Network of Educators on the Americas.
  • Christensen, Linda. 2000. Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
  • Christensen, Linda M. 2003. The Politics of Correction: How We Can Nurture Students in Their Writing. The Quarterly of the National Writing Project 25 (4). Retrieved September 16, 2009, from http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/951?x-print_friendly=1 .
  • Christensen, Linda. 2005/2006, winter. "Teacher Quality: Teachers Teaching Teachers." Rethinking Schools Online 20 (2).
  • Christensen, Linda M. 2006, May. "Keeping a Social Justice Vision in the Land of Scripted Literacy. Language Arts 83 (5): 393–394.
  • Christensen, Linda M. 2007. The Power of Words: Top-Down Mandates Masquerade as Social Justice Reforms. Language Arts 85 (2), 144–147.
  • Christensen, Linda M. 2008, September. "Welcoming All Languages." Educational Leadership 66 (1): 59–62.
  • Christensen, Linda M. 2009. Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-imagining the Language Arts Classroom. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
  • Christensen, Linda, and Philip E. Devol. 1993. The Complete Guide to Elementary Student Assistance Programs: Strategy, Policy, and Procedure. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing & Educational Services.
  • Christensen, Linda, Nancy S. Haugen, and John M. Kean, eds. 1982. A Guide to Stimulating Student Writing. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Writing Project.
  • Christensen, Linda, and Stan Karp. 2003. "Why Is School Reform So Hard?" Education Week 23 (6): 29.
  • Christensen, Linda, and Stan Karp, eds. 2003. Rethinking School Reform: Views from the Classroom. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.
  • Golden, J. 2008. "A Conversation with Linda Christensen on Social Justice Education. English Journal 97 (6): 59–64.
  • Meyer, S. 2009, spring. "Linda Christensen: Finding Her Voice." The Lewis & Clark Chronicle. Portland, OR: Lewis & Clark College. Retrieved September 29, 2009, from http://legacy.lclark.edu/dept/chron/lindacsp09.html .
  • Randall, Mary Ella, Sandra Stotsky, Linda M. Christensen, and Bill Lyons. 1993, March. "Antidote to Controversy? Responses to Carolyn Henly." The English Journal 82 (3): 20–23.
  • Ulmer, Gregory L., Henry Kiernan, Linda Christensen, Kenneth E. Resch, and Marilyn J. Hollman. 1992, March. "A Modern Day Albatross: Responses to Edward Lasky." The English Journal 81 (3): 47–49.

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