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Write From The Heart

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Now, Mossesso says, he's glad he did. He has discovered that he likes to write after all--at least the way the center lets him do it. "It's not like [writing] for an English teacher,'' he explains. "When we do our writing here, that's us that goes into it.''

Launched in 1989, the Community Literacy Center is the product of an unusual partnership between Community House, a 75-year-old settlement house run by a local Presbyterian church, and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's National Center for the Study of Writing. Teenagers from the neighborhood around Community House--typically 12 at a time--come to this red brick, six-story building to work on their writing and talk about it with college-student mentors. But it doesn't end there; the students are also encouraged to go public with their work.

Over the eight weeks the participating teenagers spend on a typical project, their work is transformed from simple words on the page to a potentially powerful tool for social change. The mentors encourage their charges to write about issues that affect them: gangs and violence, police harassment, stress, teenage pregnancy, school policies, and the like. Students gather information and seek out a variety of opinions on their chosen topic. Mossesso's group, for example, invited the police commissioner to come talk about his department's relations with teenagers.

At the end of all the information-gathering, writing, and talking, the teenagers showcase the results at community forums that attract local government officials and the news media.

"A lot of grass-roots community groups don't see education or literacy as where they're making their mark,'' says Linda Flower, a Carnegie Mellon professor of rhetoric who also serves as co-director of the university's writing center. "We're trying to show them that there are much more effective ways to convince people and that education--and not just social service--can help.'' One of the project's principal goals, she says, is "to make the argument that education research gives people thinking strategies they can use to solve problems.''

Flower's research undergirds the writing that goes on at the literacy center. More than a decade ago, she and a number of other researchers began studying how college students and professional writers write. She gave her students tape recorders and asked them to think aloud as they struggled with writing assignments. And she asked the pros to rank the strategies they used to get the job done.

Over the years, Flower identified a number of techniques that experienced writers use--techniques that aren't always obvious to novices. Many professionals, for example, rely on collaborative planning; that is, they discuss their work with someone else. Another strategy is what Flower calls "rival-hypothesis thinking''; someone plays the role of devil's advocate, forcing the writer to address contrary views and to predict the audiences' reaction to the work.

Flower spent four years teaching these techniques to Pennsylvania high school teachers through the Carnegie Mellon writing center, and she uses them with her own students at the university. But, she says, "my undergrads at CMU were going to make it in the world regardless of whether they used rival-hypothesis thinking. I was looking for a place where my research could make a real difference.''

It was about this time that she met Wayne Peck, the minister who directs Community House. Peck had enrolled in Carnegie Mellon's rhetorical-studies program, in part to find a new direction for the church's settlement house. "One day he said to me, 'We could really do something with writing at Community House,' '' Flower recalls. "He was so persuasive that writing could make a difference.''

What Peck, Flower, and, later, Community Literacy Center director Lorraine Higgins came to believe is that literacy is more than the ability to understand and produce conventional texts; it is also a tool for social change. What's more, they recognized that different communities develop their own literacies to suit their particular needs.

As a result, the center does not teach students that there is just one "right'' way to write. The mentors, for example, don't criticize students for grammatical errors if they use "black English.'' In fact, they don't judge the teenagers simply on what they write but on how what they write helps them achieve their ends.

This aspect of the center's approach is controversial. Many educators and school observers--such as scholars Lisa Delpit and E.D. Hirsch--contend that inner-city children need a solid grounding in standard English and the conventional writing forms used in mainstream culture.

But students aren't just expressing themselves on paper, say center staff members; they're writing for a reason. And their collaborative planning sessions force them to apply rigorous thinking to their writing, to think about their intended audiences and their goals, and to confront opposing viewpoints. This is what is important, they say.

"We're saying what we need is a new discourse,'' Higgins says.

Carnegie Mellon students who work as mentors at the literacy center get a grounding in the larger academic arguments before they arrive. They also learn collaborative-planning strategies to help direct the young writers' thinking. They are encouraged to ask such questions as: "What's your point here?'' or "What if someone interprets this sentence this way?''

Even with preparation, the initial sessions between mentor and writer are sometimes awkward. "I get nervous, and I can't find things to talk about,'' says Mandy Kinne, a mentor whose rural Vermont upbringing seems worlds away from the life these inner-city teenagers know. But eventually, Kinne says, she and her partner find a common ground in the writing project.

The rival-hypothesis sessions--what the students call "rivaling''--seem to be the most popular aspect of the center's approach. Teenagers like Mossesso say rivaling teaches them how to make good decisions, not just in their writing but in other aspects of their lives, as well. Beyond sharpening their rhetorical-thinking skills, rivaling, Flower says, pushes students beyond the "rhetoric of complaint and blame.''

The various projects the students turn out offer community leaders and policymakers a kind of real-world expertise that is often missing from the debate on local issues. The teens can argue in a well-reasoned way, for example, why joining a gang is a matter of survival for some of their peers. They can describe how they feel harassed by police officers. They can explain why it doesn't make any sense to suspend a troublemaking student from school. "It's a way to let poor people speak for themselves,'' Peck says.

And people are listening. A document the center produced on school-suspension policies has become required reading for the Pittsburgh school board. New police recruits will soon view a center-produced videotape on police-teenager relations. And an area high school principal plans to incorporate some of the group's writing techniques as a way to ease racial and socioeconomic conflicts in her building.

Still, it's not yet clear how well the strategies the teenagers learn at the literacy center serve them back in the school settings. Mossesso acknowledges that he now uses collaborative planning for school writing assignments. But Monique Wills, another student writer, hasn't found it so easy. "If I went to school and tried to write like I write here,'' she says, "I'm still not making the grades.''

Of course, there's no empirical way to know whether these writing sessions will make a long-term difference in the lives of these students. And the center's researchers don't claim that it does.

But Joyce Baskins, the youth coordinator who first brought Mossesso to the center, says she does see changes in the teenagers who come. "Just for a brief time,'' she says, "they come in and not only do they write and learn to do collaborative planning and learn how to rival, they also learn how to rival their lives.''

--Debra Viadero

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