Writing Activity for African American Adults

I want to create a writing activity that is sensitive to the needs of urban, adult African-American students who read below the 6th-grade level and have intense writing anxiety. Any ideas? Please share anything that you think might be helpful. Some of you have talked about using comics, which sounds good for that purpose. I guess I could start a cartoon series that tweaked their emotions? Not sure. Thanks in advance! Christi



I wonder if you have considered asking your students to talk about what place writing has in their lives now. You could also ask them if they think writing would be useful to them in the years to come and, if so in, what ways. Give them some time to think about it. Perhaps ask them these two questions then as a homework assignment, one that they could discuss with friends, family members, and possibly co-workers before the next class. They may suggest some work-related writing (what kinds? To whom, for what purposes?), possibly text messaging (to whom, for what purposes) possibly writing to their children's teachers (for what specific purposes), and there may be other ways in which writing does play, or they think it could play, a role in their daily lives. Perhaps some possible writing activities will emerge from those discussions.

There is a fascinating how-to website called WikiHow.  Like other wikis, anyone can add an article. The articles tend to be about very practical things: recipes; how to fix broken appliances, cars, toilets; how to take care of yourself and your health; and also how to apply, keep, and advance in jobs and and careers. WikiHow provides a sensible, easy-to-use template for writing articles. Several years ago I heard a talk by the founder of WikiHow, and someone in the audience asked him about their most prolific writers. He said, interestingly, that the most prolific, and one of the best-respected, writers was an African American grandmother in Oakland California, who may not have graduated from high school and who, when she started at least, was not a polished writer. However she was wise, an expert in doing many things. Others in the WikiHow online community eagerly edited her articles for her.  I thought then, and now, that WikiHow might be a perfect environment for experienced adult learners to share what they know how to do with the world. You might introduce this first, not as a WikiHow writing project but as a writing project to explain to others in the class how to do something that they, individually, know how to do well. You could have a discussion about this first, before you mention writing about anything. Ask the students to talk about in small groups or one-on-one, or write privately to you on a piece of paper what they think they know how to do well. Then put all the writing topics on a chalkboard or newsprint for everyone to see. Once you have some students who have said they know how to do something, ask them to talk about how to do that for 1-5 minutes in class so others can learn -- and ask about -- how to do it. Then ask them to write about it (perhaps using the WikiHow template but without talking yet about WikiHow). If/when you have some potentially good pieces for WikiHow, work one-on-one or in small groups with students to get the spelling, punctuation, and grammar in good (not necessarily perfect) shape. Then tell the students who are ready that it may be time to share with the world -- and introduce WikiHow. Sometimes this really catches on, and students who were at first cautious may want to join  classmates who were more adventurous and are published. Usually students feel proud of what they have written and want to get the spelling, grammar and punctuation right. If you try this with your students, let us know what happens. This may be right for some students but not others.

Some students may have digital camera,  or a cell phone with a digital camera. You could ask them to take pictures of something they care about in their room, home or neighborhood, and then write about it: What is this a photograph of? Why is it important to them? You could put these writings and photographs together as a web-published class writing project. The student's writings could be signed using just their first name or their whole name, whatever they wish.

Of course, writing comics may be perfect for some students, but not others.

You might want to have four or five possible writing projects -- some that involve just a little writing, some a lot more writing; some with images, some without. Give your students a choice of what they like best and feel most comfortable starting with.

Let us know what happens.

What writing project ideas do others have for Christi?

David J. Rosen



Christi, thanks for asking! David, you listed a number of very, very promising activities that are likely to diminish writing anxiety. Christi, if you get as far as having students write in WikiHow, I, for one, am really interested in knowing how that works. In the meantime, I'll also drop into Wikihow and further my own education in that regard!

I don't work a lot with Afro American learners here in the Four Corners rural region. Maybe you and others can share some of the learning characteristics of that minority group. Where I live, we work a lot with Native American students who really resist writing, too, and who have low reading levels. For one, the thought process of our American dominant culture is very linear and direct, something that many NAs simply don't relate to. For that population, we encourage teachers to have students do a lot of reflection and talking prior to writing, which David included in his suggestions. We also encourage students to read a lot of passages about their own culture, which reflect them in the process. Oral tradition is highly valued among NA, so telling traditional stories and then writing about them can be effective. Having them illustrate their writing is also a bonus since so many are very artistically oriented.

I don't know what characteristics, if any, describe how your African American students in that community prefer to learn. If they fear writing, I would bet that reading models that represent them and from which they can draw ideas on how to write their way would help.

If you are an African American in this group who can provide further insights on how to address Christi's question, please, please drop in and share your views. It sounds like the students described come from poor urban backgrounds. Is there such a thing as a culture of poverty that could be addressed here? If so, how would you describe it? Leecy

Thanks to each of you for describing so many great ways to work with students like mine! You ideas are all very useful to me.

Regarding the description of my students, as Rachel said, students in my classes have different personalities, of course. Still, I have to say that I really have to back off the stage and very gently develop trust among them; otherwise, they don't connect to me since I'm a younger middle-class Anglo woman. I find that I must deal with anger and mistrust right off the bat. In fact, I try to find ways to have students develop trust in each other so that we can start working as a community. Most, if not all, come from very stressful home environments, where violence and abuse are common. Drugs also belong in the picture.

The language used by my students is very different from the language that they read or hear outside of their neighborhoods. It's different from the language that they are expected to write, in fact! So I don't know, Nicole, if in their case, "If you are able to say what you think, then you can write." They can write but they don't think is the same words and patterns that college people use in the US.

They have a good sense of humor much of the time, some of it not very healthy. They relate to music and art sometimes.

They sometimes act out, in my view, to cover up the fact that they are not academically proficient. I find that if I can gain the trust of one or two, a few others follow, and we can get things "done," they cooperate.

I hope that helps describe my students a little more. You have all helped me a lot! Christi

Christi, one of the most powerful tools I've ever found for breaking down barriers in writing begins with my argument that, "If you are able to say what you think, then you can write." I discovered this while teaching secondary English, working to identify why writing was so difficult for many of my students, freshmen in particular. I was astounded at the success, and thrilled when time and again students would report that this simple process changed everything for them when it came to writing - that they didn't understand beforehand that they were "allowed" to come up with the ideas.

The process I use, often in a one-on-one setting, is to ask the student to put the pencil/pen/computer aside and talk through the prompt with me, asking guiding questions as necessary to help the student make connections. This seems to activate thinking about the topic and ideas surrounding it in a safer, familiar "place." Students can generate ideas, I've found, when the pressure of writing is (temporarily) removed.

As ideas are generated, depending on the student's needs, I will write down (briefly) major concepts (claims) that the student makes, or I'll ask him or her to. As we generate each one, I prompt the student to explain why he or she thinks that - what led to the conclusion (evidence to support the claim), jotting down this information, too. Then we review the ideas. While this "pre-writing" comes naturally to many of us, for those who believe they can't write, this demonstration helps to quickly change that perception. Too often, I believe, students think they're supposed to generate something that the teacher wants to see, that they're supposed to intuit what's supposed to be written, pulling the information from some place outside of themselves. Helping them to understand that our writing comes from within us, that it's our thinking and reasoning through evidence/support for our ideas that is what is called for helps to build their confidence as writers.

As students get more comfortable with this, I think the same process could be used in small groups with students leading. That likely would only work, though, in classes that have consistent attendance and an established rapport.

A second thought is that selecting a topic that is highly relevant to students' lives (as you've indicated you wish to do) is imperative. From there, making it an argumentative (aka "persuasive") writing assignment is even more helpful. Going through current events and allowing students to self-select is helpful and aligned with adult learning theory. By doing argumentative writing about topics students feel passionate about, emotional buy-in is activated, which goes even further in engaging the student in the thinking/writing activity. Helping them to tell specifically why they believe the way they do about a subject is critical and a wonderful exercise in generating evidence to support claims.

Good luck!



My classes over the years have been very diverse, with a wide range of ages, ethnicities, and home environments, so I have not tailored my classes specifically for any one group. I do try, however, to adapt to the individuals in my class at a given time. Keep in mind that even within a group (ex: urban African-Americans), there is still guaranteed to be a wide range of personalities, learning preferences, and personal/family histories. My best advice is to pay close attention to what your students say with their words, enthusiasm levels, and nonverbal communication (including attendance data). Try a variety of things and see what works best for which students. And don't be afraid to ask the students what they think! But if you give options, be sure that you can follow through on any changes you agree to. One thing that I try to be extra careful about is to be true to my word. Many people have been burned by "the system" too many times to forgive much more. I don't over-promise, and I warn students if there's something I'm not sure I can deliver. (This is also helpful for the growing number of people with anxiety- or stress-related mental health issues--predictability is important, and warnings about upcoming changes allow students to prepare themselves.)

If your students are preparing for a high school equivalency test or college, it's important that you are absolutely explicit about what is required in academic writing. Many people in families with a lot of college-educated members develop a "feeling" for academic writing via osmosis without ever putting it into words. This is a looong process (basically k-16), and it won't happen if academic writing is not common in a person's environment. This means that you have to sit down and think about what exactly you want your students to be able to do. Don't just say "add more details." Instead, discuss different types of details: reasons, examples, descriptions, etc. Then, have students think about when each type would be appropriate and practice writing detail sentences of various types. Identify different types of details in the things they are reading and discuss the author's choices. Then, next time they write a paragraph or essay, ask them to decide what types of details are appropriate before they write. When you check their writing, you only check whether they used details appropriately: no surprises. If there are repeated grammar errors, then deal with those another time.

On the topic of grammar: realize that "right" and "wrong" have to do with formal academic language, and be clear with students that it's ok to talk normal on the street but to be taken seriously in academic circles, a higher register of language is advantageous. I like showing students how they do this already. For example, when they call to set up a doctor's appointment, how do they talk? How about when they call a friend? What happens if they switch the language? ("Yo doc, hook me up for next Monday, k?") Grammar is often taught in a pretty judgy way--I prefer to help students understand the wide range of options they have and attempt to widen that range even further. Once students realize they can play with language, writing becomes a lot more fun.


Hello Rachel,

I appreciate all of the points you have suggested. Here are my teaching take-aways:

1) Learn about and adapt to the needs of individual students, even when they are all part of the same cultural group; there is always diversity, and a range of individual values, interests, goals and needs within a group.

2) Consistently deliver on what you promise.

3) Try a variety of strategies to see what works best for each student.

4) Explictly teach the rules and mores of academic language for those who want to pass an HSE and/or go on to post-secondary education.

5) Teach about the differences in register (informal with friends and neighbors vs. academic), and why choosing the right register matters when you are trying to communicate effectively.


David J. Rosen



Another suggestion is to have students make a list of their “writing territories”, an idea from one of the rock stars of writing instruction – Lucy Calkins I think.  Writing territories consist of people, events, places, etc. that are important to students. So a list of territories might include “my grandma, the time I made the right (or wrong) choice, the best concert I ever saw…”.  Then they can use this list anytime they need a topic to write about. I would also suggest that you make your own list and write with your students, sharing what you wrote with them.  Writing about what they know and what matters to them is as good way to get students more comfortable with writing.