Skip to content

Composition Forum 15, Spring 2006

Winter, Dave and Sarah Robbins, eds. Writing Our Communities: Local Learning and Public Culture. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2005. 110 pp.

Bookmark and Share

Annie Knepler

Those of us who teach place-based composition courses often face difficulties when we try to translate our individual syllabi and lesson plans into something that can be used by other teachers in other places. How do we transform lessons that, by definition, deal with local culture and field-based research into assignments that teachers in other places can use? Place-based teaching is, perhaps, anti-textbook by definition, since teachers who want students to apply writing and research skills to their immediate environments (generally within the context of larger issues) often use a variety of constantly transforming sources that cannot be easily captured in a reader or textbook. For example, in the research-writing course I am currently teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago—“Streetlife: Everyday Culture in the City”—I design my own course packet that includes theoretical and historical texts (e.g. excerpts from Delores Hayden's The Power of Place, Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and Jane Addams's Twenty Years at Hull House ) along with articles specifically about Chicago and pieces by authors in a local, community-based writing groups. Using the website as a model, my students conduct mini-ethnographies of places that have under-recognized social significance in their communities (record stores, cafes, family-owned candy stores), and use the readings in the course packet to help them further analyze the power of that place. For their research papers, students use archival sources, interviews, and observations alongside their secondary sources from the library. I choose not to use a textbook, but I am often looking for effective guidelines and interesting activities that I could adapt and use in my own classes.

Writing Our Communities: Local Learning and Public Culture is a collection of classroom activities from teacher-researchers who are members of the Keeping and Creating American Communities (KCAC) project, a collaborative of elementary, secondary, and university teachers from a variety of disciplines. The book contains a number of innovative, interdisciplinary, and flexible ideas that call for students to investigate and analyze aspects of their local communities. The KCAC concept of engagement is both active and reciprocal: “We believe that students need to engage the multiple communities that surround them and also that communities benefit from the energy and enthusiasm that students can bring to active citizenship, where citizenship means recovering, critiquing, and actively engaging the world around them” (xi). Students discover, explore, and research local spaces, examining their communities in order to better understand both the history of the places and the catalysts behind both physical and social changes. In Mimi Dyer's 12 th grade composition classroom, students used photographs that showed contrasting and diverse elements of the students' community as prompts for writing, and in Gerri Hajduk's 11 th grade U.S. History class, students took their own photographs of sites that “depict change, tension, historic significance, or community icons” (22) and wrote explanations for each photograph. In a more extensive project conducted in Dave Winter's 11th grade American Literature class, students complied archives of photographs, interviews, and articles to research the history of the Atlanta Zoo,

Though the activities focus on projects that teachers did in their Atlanta area classrooms, the ideas are easily adapted to other contexts. As the editors point out, “this collection has been conceived and arranged to show that anyone who believes in the power of interdisciplinary research and writing can develop engaging approaches to studying community life along with students” (xvi). The descriptions of the lessons emphasize objectives and concepts as much as they do the specific, localized activities, and each description ends with a section titled “Community Crossing” that includes suggestions for adapting the activity to different grade-levels and disciplines as well as further reflection on the goals of the activity. Though most of the activities were conducted in high school classrooms, the “Community Crossing” sections include several suggestions for altering the lessons to fit a university composition courses, including adding the use of more primary sources or conducting more extensive research and analysis.

The twelve lessons are divided into four sections: introductory activities, single-class period activities, units/major assignments, and extended research projects. Teachers present the materials they used, describe the specific activities their students carried out, and reflect on the process itself. The book is only a sample of the lessons compiled by the KCAC collective, and several more are provided on their well-organized website ( Many of the projects focus on change (often touching on issues of gentrification and migration/immigration, encouraging a deeper understanding of how and why change happens, and placing students' own neighborhoods in the context of broader historical patterns of development. The projects also encourage student collaboration; students often work in groups or as a class on a whole project, and all the activities involve exchanging ideas and getting feedback from other students.

Many of the teachers have included examples of student work that provide a sense of how the students carried out the task and, at the appropriate grade level, could serve as models for other students. The teacher reflections are useful and honest. Most point out the successes of the project, though many also identify aspects on which they could improve. Bonnie G. Webb, for example, writes of her disappointment with her students' peer responses for her project on preservation in Marietta, Georgia and the need to include more collaborative activities from the start of the project. Authors are also honest about the amount of time and commitment these sorts of place-based projects require, both from the teacher and the students, and the challenges of trying to do this kind of engaged work against the grain of a political climate that values standardized tests over more authentic and experiential learning.

Ultimately, Writing Our Communities demonstrates that place-based teaching is not limited in its scope and offers a valuable and rigorous learning experience for students. As a college composition instructor, I found the general concepts in the book to be more helpful than the specific lessons and the student models, since most are geared towards lower grade levels (the website is more extensive). Hopefully, Writing Our Communities will inspire others not only to use place-based activities in their classrooms, but also to develop more books and websites with ideas and examples from a variety of communities.

Bookmark and Share

Return to Composition Forum 15 table of contents.