A writing and research class puts words to work in a local classroom
For years, Heather Martin and her advanced writing and research students have made weekly treks to the Charles Hay World School roughly 2 miles south of campus. There, the first-year undergraduates serve as writing mentors to fifth graders as part of Martin’s community-engaged writing course.
Martin, a professor in the University Writing Program, first partnered with Charles Hay in 2013, when her daughter began attending the Englewood school. Charles Hay has a diverse student population with a high rate of free and reduced-cost lunch, Martin says. It’s a “great little school” that could use some support. So she designed a course that would connect her students to the community.
“The University Writing Program values authentic audiences, so inviting DU students to write in real-world situations for real audiences, I think this course does that,” she says.
“It raises the stakes for students’ writing, and they really rise to the occasion. They get to see their writing and research at work in the world.”
Martin found support from DU’s Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning. “CCESL was really supportive and helped me think through how to cultivate a partnership based on my passion and commitment to this community.”
Martin collaborates with teachers at Charles Hay to develop a “parallel process” in which the elementary school students learn about writing and research at the same time as her DU students.
“My students are reading challenging theoretical texts and doing complex work on campus; then, they have a chance to translate and apply that learning in their mentoring sessions with the Charles Hay students,” she says.
The DU students design mini-lectures for the fifth-graders and use the classroom as field research for projects they’re working on in their college writing class.
“My class centers on progressive educational practices, so students write a research proposal, and conduct interviews and a field observations. The quarter culminates in a policy brief that they compose for an audience of their choosing,” she says.
The students conduct research all quarter that aligns with the community work they’re doing at Charles Hay. For example, one student wrote a policy brief on recess and the need for more free time in school. Others have written about student debt or high-stakes testing.
“They have a separate topic that they take up in my 10-week class, but their policy briefs are informed by being on the ground with these young learners and by seeing the realities of the public-school classroom,” Martin says.
Gracyn Hill, a junior, took Martin’s writing class her freshman year.
“What I enjoyed most about the class was the discussion it opened critiquing the education system,” Hill says. “I had never thought to question academia, and this class taught me not only the shortcomings of the system and how to better them, but to question all systems and not blindly accept them.”
DU students work in pairs and small groups at Charles Hay, spending about an hour with the young students each week. Teachers equip the volunteers to listen to the children and validate their ideas.
“The fifth graders are also working on research projects of their own, so they’re excited about their ideas,” says Martin. “Being able to help them—in a one-on-one mentoring capacity to develop their ideas, compose and refine their writing, and then to be an audience when they share—is really powerful.”
Hill says hands-on teaching at Charles Hay has taught her organization and leadership skills and, more important, how to relay information to a targeted audience.
“As a political science and international studies major, I hope to utilize this in ways that matter. The value of education cannot be understated, and to learn about its infinite limitations inspires me to fight for reform,” she says.
Since 2007, the DU Writing Program has offered numerous courses that connect students with communities and causes outside of the classroom. This aligns with the University’s vision to be a great private university dedicated to the public good.
“To me, the class leans into both the University’s public good vision, and the Writing Program’s vision to build a robust culture of writing,” Martin says.
“I want to acknowledge that community-engaged courses are more difficult,” she adds. “There’s a lot of organizing and logistical work that just doesn’t need to happen in the on-campus space. But to be able to watch my students apply what they’re learning in this environment with other young learners, it’s so inspiring.”