Writing “Downtown”: Student Voice in Teaching Writing




My first year of teaching in Chicago was different for many reasons. I had worked for two years in the alternative school system in Philadelphia, where I had become accustomed to facial tattoos, talk of violence and drugs, and a highly transient population. At this school in Chicago, however, these were no longer common facets of the student population. The low-income, at-risk students who attended our school were seeking a future in technology or business (or perhaps simply seeking refuge from their characteristically dangerous neighborhood schools). Regardless, gone were the tattoos and gang paraphernalia. Until Charlie.

Charlie stood out among his peers for two very different reasons. For one, he was one of few students who was visibly inked, noticeable mostly when he would roll up his long sleeves while working. Also, he was a teen parent, which was far less common in this school than it was for students in the alternative schools in Philadelphia, and during our chats he would allude to both frequent drug use and gang activity. At the same time, as shown through his grades, work, and participation, Charlie was one of the most driven, diligent, and determined students in his class. Most notable, however, was the way he would carry himself. More than his peers, and more than most students I had worked with up to that point, he was professional, always speaking kindly and politely both to other students and the staff. I had begun to wonder if this was his demeanor both in and out of school.

As I got to know Charlie more, we chatted about his family and his background. I was surprised at both his detail and openness. The impact and influence of his family structure on his overall demeanor was apparent when I asked him to describe himself in the different settings, and he noted that he was “still the same Charlie—nice, sweet, polite—but at the same time, … kinda rough around the edges” outside of school. While we didn’t explicitly discuss differences in his language, it was apparent that Charlie knew how to both act and speak based on who was around and where he was because of his family.

Eventually, Charlie and I also discussed his goals. Interestingly, when I asked him what he felt he needed to work on in school, his first response was “grammar.” Charlie went on to elaborate, explaining that “everybody say my grammar is okay and everything, but there’s always room for improvement. My word choice ain’t the best.” It became increasingly clear while talking with Charlie that he wanted to master the skills and knowledge needed to do well in the traditional ideals of schooling and business, including the rules of Standard English. Yet, despite his professional demeanor, his language – both written and oral – was notably marked with characteristics of Black English (or as some refer to it, African American Vernacular English, or AAVE).

As a white male teaching predominately Black students, I had long been conflicted in regard to teaching grammar, particularly in writing, because it entailed focusing on Standard English. Was it harmful to my students’ identities if I promoted Standard English, written and oral, to give them the needed agency to succeed in the professional world of which they were expected to take part someday? Was I doing my students a disservice if I honored their vernacular English in order to build relationships and create a safe, open, and culturally sustaining classroom? What was the focus of my instruction and my classroom, particularly in regards to the teaching of writing?

Because Charlie had the skills and self-recognition to effectively code-switch his behavior and his intonation between his home and school settings, I saw an opportunity to work with him and explore the challenging give-and-take of tackling Standard English with a student whose home language is a type of non-Standard English. I began to wonder how I might utilize Charlie’s working knowledge of code-switching in school to inform my own writing instruction.

With this in mind, I knew I wanted to work independently with Charlie outside of the classroom on his writing, using our work together as a gateway to discuss his thoughts regarding his written language in and out of school, what he thought he should be learning, and how he responded to different instructional strategies. I wanted to take myself out of the decision-making position, and let Charlie figure out and express what he wanted for his writing and his language. After all, what is a conversation about student voice in the classroom without student voice itself?

Working with Charlie

Early in my career, I had used common and well-known techniques and methods to teach writing including hamburger paragraphs (a topic sentence, three supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence), five-paragraph essays (an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph), and direct grammar instruction (subject-verb agreement, prepositional phrases, as well as dependent and independent clauses). While these tools proved useful in certain ways, by and large they led to dry, formulaic output from the students that was neither engaging for the reader nor of high quality from the students.

In working with Charlie, the first piece I had him write was a traditional, five-paragraph essay in order to see how well he understood and could write in the common format. I gave Charlie the option to write either an informative or persuasive essay, and Charlie asked if he could combine the two options. I said he could.

While Charlie seemed comfortable with the five-paragraph format as he was writing, the rough draft had areas for improvement. Overall, the structure of the essay made good use of his brainstorm and outline. However, the ideas and content were a bit jumbled. He began his essay with his thesis statement, and his entire introduction highlighted the usefulness of Chicago’s public transit. Instead of fleshing out this persuasive idea, Charlie’s essay veered off into the troubles with the transit system and how it is unreliable. Charlie’s essay also lacked a formal conclusion paragraph, and instead he tacked on a conclusion sentence at the end of his final body paragraph.

Perhaps more noticeable in this piece, too, were Charlie’s Standard English convention errors. While he had run-on sentences, misspellings, and incorrect punctuation throughout his pre-assessment writing (I had him write a journal entry, a letter to a friend, and a report on his favorite musician prior to our work together to see how he wrote in different genres), these errors seemed more noticeable to me during our session together. This was most likely due to the portion of the session where I gave him direct feedback. The most interesting part of giving Charlie feedback came when I tried to explain passive voice and why it should be avoided in writing. While he followed along as I addressed these issues, in our final interview, Charlie admitted at first that he learned “nothing,” saying that “it was kinda tough … and you [the teacher] did all those corrections and everything, and that’s the part that made it tough.”

Shortly before working with Charlie, I had become familiar with various, more unconventional techniques from Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers (1998). I had dabbled with some of the methods in my classes, mostly the “freewriting” in which the writer writes without stopping for a short period of time (usually ten minutes), producing a stream of consciousness text (p. 3).

As I planned on working with Charlie, I decided to teach him using Elbow’s “Desperation Writing.” This activity required Charlie to begin by freewriting. Afterwards, he took index cards and began rereading what he had written. As he reread, Charlie was told to jot down “any thought, feeling, perception, or image” that came to mind, one per card (p. 62). From there, I instructed Charlie to sort through his index cards and look for patterns and relationships, ways to connect his thoughts and ideas. After doing so, the activity deviated slightly from Elbow’s original description because I had Charlie create a metaphor for one of the ideas or one of the relationships between the ideas that intrigued him. Then, using that metaphor as the first line, Charlie wrote for another ten minutes. Charlie wrote the following passages:

(Freewriting) Today is a god friday I am going to pick up my check which is always a plus no matter what. I’m going to go over my favorite cousin’s house which is good because we haven’t hung out in a long while. I am going to work tomorrow which lets me get out more to have some nice time outdoors, outside at my house is healthy to me. I feel as if you can have deep thoughts with no loud interuptions. You can go into a different world and a deep state of imagination. The possibilities are endless when you think alone by yourself. I also believe you can figure yourself out. You start to think of the past more and everything clicks right there you no longer need time to think because you can eaisly figure things out with a fully empty mind. I no that was a run on sentence but I went into another world when I was just writing. I ended it though once I thought about if I put a sentence. I seen…[unfinished sentence].

(“Desperation Writing”) Writing made my ideas flow from my mind onto the paper like a running ocean. This quote means when I write, I write down how I talk in my mind. When I write I say things in my head and just write them. I start to write and what ever happens … happens there is no direction in the writing it allows me to be free and get some time with a clear mind. I’m not crazy.


While Charlie didn’t entirely lose sight of professionalism during this session—making note on one of his note cards that he misspelled “know” for “no”, and also realizing in the freewrite he had written a run-on sentence—these passages primarily showcase Charlie’s enjoyment of exploring his voice and thinking critically. According to Charlie, the focus of his freewrite is about “deep thoughts … and a deep state of imagination.” This level of insight, which his essay lacked, speaks to the importance he places on critical thinking and self-discovery, far more thought provoking concepts than public transportation.

What became clear during our reflective interview was the impact of the feedback from this second session. Unlike the session with the more traditional five-paragraph approach in which I provided feedback for Charlie with what he did well and what he needed to fix, I utilized one of Elbow’s feedback methods in which I equated my responses as a reader to colors as a way to convey the effect Charlie’s piece had on me as his audience (p. 91). Charlie really enjoyed this part, responding: It was fun…because I had to use my mind. And I also had to listen…and I had to think about quotes and stuff you all said…I got to figure out something about myself, how when I write, I just put down what’s on my mind and get stuff off my chest.

Charlie added, “And I got to get a bunch of compliments. I seen what a good writer I was.” I felt this was crucial because in our first meeting, Charlie told me how writing had been a “big, big issue in…the 7th grade,” and how he “never felt [he] was good [at writing] until [he] got to high school.”

Interestingly, during the final interview, Charlie said he liked the essay better because he “thought it out” and “made a little web so [he] could get [his] thoughts together. And it looked and sounded professional. … it was like something someone downtown would write.” For Charlie, it appears the epitome of professionalism is “downtown,” the business-centered section of the city where men and women go to work in offices in suits, or successful professionals. As such, he wants his writing to mimic the way he sees and imagines these professionals writing—Standard English.

Although he indicated he liked his essay more, Charlie also said he preferred the instructional style of the second session because, as he explained, “you didn’t tell me exactly what to write about, but you gave me a range and I worked in that range.” For Charlie, the first instructional style yielded a better piece because it was more professional and aligned to Standard English, yet he enjoyed the second instructional style more because it lent itself to his voice and gave him a sense of agency the prior style did not.

Learning from Charlie

Working with Charlie individually, I realized more than ever how complicated writing instruction truly is. Charlie concluded that he preferred professional pieces structured around conventions and formats of Standard English. However, he preferred writing instruction that catered to his individual voice and style, allowing for non-Standard English in less traditional pieces. I recognize this case study as a snapshot of this particular student, and in no way do I intend to generalize or universalize his experience. I believe my time with Charlie explored one student’s thoughts and ideas about his language in an educational setting, leading to my own implications for teaching writing to other students, no matter their home languages or backgrounds. Still, with this seemingly contradictory response to the different methods of writing instruction, I was admittedly a bit baffled about what—if anything—I had discovered. How could I honor Charlie’s profound and insightful thoughts yielded from the non-traditional approaches while supplying him with the skills in Standard English he explicitly sought after?

I have been left to consider three key issues moving forward:

  1. How do I balance the less common instructional techniques like freewriting and Desperation Writing that Charlie responded so well to with the more traditional methods that more directly support, strengthen, and align to Standard English?
  2. How do I provide feedback for students’ writing that is both encouraging and open to their languages and identities, yet helpful in having them master the grammar and conventions of Standard English?
  3. As I work with my students, respecting their varieties of language while sharpening their Standard English skills, in what ways can I support my colleagues, administration and others in remaining more open to the power that the students carry in their own languages?


Although I am still grappling with my writing instruction in these ways, I believe I must focus on my ability to make students’ audiences transparent to them as they write. Through both writing sessions and the pre-assessment writing Charlie completed, every piece he wrote demonstrated further the significance of knowing one’s audience and attending to that audience. It is through that awareness of who is reading the piece—or, rather, for whom the student is writing—that one can then garner the ability to decide to write in Standard English, non-Standard English, or any combination of languages and styles. Working with Charlie, I recognize more than ever the important role that awareness of one’s audience plays in writing as a way to give the student agency, choice, and voice. I believe that no matter the piece a student is writing, if the student is fully cognizant of his audience, only then can he begin to write with agency and power—to write with the voice he intends.

Although my time with Charlie as a student has ended, it has given me a new direction to begin to take with my current students and my writing instruction, for students with and without backgrounds in Standard English.

Amongst his peers, Charlie displayed a higher confidence in every aspect of his language except for writing in English class. Yet, he said in his interview that participating in the case study made him feel like a better writer and gave him more confidence, particularly the second session framed around a non-traditional approach. It would seem as if my students who are less confident than Charlie in their speaking and writing of Standard English, a more non-traditional approach as explored and implemented in this case study would benefit them, as it did Charlie. And knowing my other students—their dreams and desires to succeed in, out of, and beyond high school—I know many of them see writing “downtown” as a key to achievement as well. Therefore, I must continue to explore alternative approaches to build their Standard English skills in their writing.

Like my students must do in their writing, I must attend to my audience. Using what I have learned while working with Charlie, I hope to help build writer identities in my students as strong as Chicago’s skyscrapers are tall.


Elbow, P. (1998). Writing without teachers. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.


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