Set Them Up and Get Out of the Way

What I learned from two intensive weeks with young activist writers.

Buttons Designed by Rise Up & Write Campers

Setting the Scene

This July, I had the privilege of co-facilitating a two week activist writing camp through the Greater Madison Writing Project called Rise Up & Write: Youth Voices for Human Rights and the Environment. In my normal teaching life, I teach at High Marq Environmental Charter School in Montello, Wisconsin, a small, rural, school with a focus on sustainability and place based experiences. (For a brief snapshot of what we do, check this piece I wrote for BRIGHT Magazine a few years ago.) Walking into the Rise Up & Write room on the first day, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. What I found was a group of eight highly motivated teenagers, excited to make positive changes in the world, and quite willing to put in the work it takes to do so.

I am so grateful that I said “yes” to this opportunity, because those two weeks provided inspiration and ideas that I will be turning over in my head for a long time to come. The most important lesson: Not only are the kids going to be alright, they’re going to do a better job than us. As educators, we simply need to support them when they need it, and get out of the way otherwise.

Root Causes Analyses of Human Rights and Environmental Issues

What the Teachers Did

As facilitators, much of our work occurred long before the students arrived. The basic framework for the camp was set by last year’s team, but Gwyn and I put our own spin on each day’s plans. We invited outside speakers who use writing and engage in various types of activism to inspire the students, and developed examples for how they might advocate for their causes (e.g., Ecological Model, Root Cause Analysis). Throughout, we encouraged students to stay positive and solutions focused, and to go big with their ideas. We also provided facilitated peer feedback protocols, gave editing help when asked, and maintained consistently high expectations. In short, we provided tools, encouragement, and support.

Campers (and the Author) Hard at Work

What the Campers Did

The students took care of pretty much everything else. They came to camp with topics of interest, such as composting, individualism v. collectivism, invasive species, and rape culture. They identified peer, community, and changemaker audiences for their writing. They wrote, revised, trimmed, and submitted those pieces. They asked for help when they needed it, and many of them worked on their pieces outside of “class” time. They chatted, connected, shared, bonded, learned, and put their authentic selves out into the world. They published letters in local newspapers, sent letters to lawmakers, and received responses from school district leaders. Through the two weeks and beyond, they gave Gwyn and I amazing ideas and feedback that helped make the experience better for everyone, and will help guide our planning for next year, as well. All in all, the campers did the vast majority of the work.

Rise Up & Celebrate!: A Public Showcase for Campers’ Writing

Why it Matters

So what? I’ve already identified our campers as highly motivated learners who voluntarily chose to spend two weeks of their summer in a writing camp. How could our work together possibly transfer to the classroom, where students’ motivation is as variable as x and y and their choice to be there is constrained, at best? Admittedly, the specifics may differ, but the essential truths remain the same: the more often you can simply get out of the way of your students the better. Whoever is doing the talking / writing / working / exploring is doing the learning, and wouldn’t you much rather that be your students? (It also helped that the writers had an authentic audience and relevant topics, which are feasible in any classroom.)

Taking a step back and letting the students struggle through an authentic experience is not only the right thing to do for them… as I wrote in my journal after the first day of camp, It’s inspiring as hell.

Everybody jump!