How do we interrupt systemic racism in the curriculum?
How do we interrupt it in the schools and in the district?
Scholar-educator Linda Christensen believes that the battle for social justice and racial equity begins in the classroom.
Christensen is director of the Oregon Writing Project (OWP) at Lewis & Clark, a program that provides teachers in the region with the opportunity to collaborate on developing antiracist curriculum and that elevates K–12 student writing. She took on the role within the institution’s Graduate School of Education in 2006, after more than three decades as a high school teacher and curriculum leader with Portland Public Schools.
Christensen recalls, “For most of my teaching career, I witnessed a two-tiered system: there was a school for students of color and a school for white students, and particularly affluent white students.” Although educational equity has improved, issues persist: lack of curricular representation for writers of color and the overpolicing of nonwhite students, for example.
In her work today, Christensen asks educators: “How do we interrupt systemic racism in the curriculum? How do we interrupt it in the schools and in the district?”
The Written Life
The OWP is part of the National Writing Project, which was founded at the Univer- sity of California at Berkeley in 1974. For more than 30 years, it has helped Oregon teachers foster their students’ writing skills while providing an invaluable avenue for professional development. Classes take place year-round at Lewis &Clark and cover everything from writing poetry to teaching climate change; but the “foundation on which everything else stands,” Christensen says, is the OWP’s Invitational Summer Institute.
The institute brings together educators from across Portland, as well as more rural and suburban parts of the metropolitan area, to develop antiracist curriculum that encourages their students’ writing.
“We bring in history and literature to explore critical moments in history through the lens of writers of color. But we also embed writing into every unit. We elevate students’ writing about their own lives and help them see that writing about their experiences is creating literature,” Christensen explains.
Participants then integrate what they have learned into writing curriculum where the focus is not on correcting grammar or spelling, but on creating an environment “where students’ writing is read and appreciated and lifted up——where we look not at what’s wrong, but what’s right,” says Christensen.
Educators are also encouraged to incorporate poetry, narrative, and essay into all their classes. Too often, Christensen explains, essay is seen as the only valid form of writing for school-age students. But the work of any great contemporary essayist—— Roxanne Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Nikole Hannah-Jones, for example——“is filled with narratives and poetic language. We can’t get to great essay writing with rubrics and little boxes that kids are supposed to fill in.”
Christensen also advocates that educators think about “what matters in what they teach.” A recent cohort, for instance, created a class on youth and activism, which “does not depict people of color as constant victims of oppression, but instead highlights different kinds of resistance and the beauty in their lives.”
Teachers Supporting Teachers
One of the leaders of last year’s institute was Chris Kelly, codirector of the OWP and a former teacher in Portland’s David Douglas School District.
“The OWP injects a sense of self-worth and self-love into young writers,” Kelly says. “I am a Chicano, and growing up I rarely saw people who looked and talked like me in anything I ever studied in school. When students see themselves and their lives as worthy topics for study and writing, they can see themselves as agents of change in their communities and in the world.”
The OWP has also had an impact on Kelly’s own writing. Certain workshops, he says, “unlocked things within me that allowed me to approach stories and subjects from my life that I never had the courage to write (or even talk) about before.”
The program influenced Christensen’s path from teacher to social justice advocate, too. In 1980, as a teacher at Portland’s Jefferson High School, she attended the OWP at the University of Oregon.
“It had a profound effect on me,” Christensen recalls. As well as finding a like-minded community of teacher-writers, “when I came back to the classroom, I taught very differently.” Inspired by Mary K. Healy, a middle school teacher who cofounded the National Writing Project, Christensen wanted to become “a classroom scholar —a teacher who takes their classroom work seriously and writes about it and leads workshops for other teachers.” This experience, coupled with her role as editor of the social justice journal Rethinking Schools, prepared Christensen to lead the OWP at Lewis & Clark.
Another invaluable way the project supports educators is by offering workshops for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) teachers.
“Especially during times of turmoil, teachers of color need safe spaces to be able to have conversations without white people in the room,” Christensen says.
To that end, the OWP hosted a curriculum camp for BIPOC teachers last year, funded by the Meyer Memorial Trust. Participants came together to discuss the impacts of racism; the Black Lives Matter movement; and racial equity on their students and their careers.
Scholars in the Classroom
Kara Stroman, a kindergarten teacher at Irvington Elementary School in Portland, described the camp as “yet another safe place to land, particularly this year in our time of unrest. We got space to hold each other and lift each other up. We cultivated our spirits for the difficult task of distance learning.”
Like Kelly, Stroman has found support for her own writing through the OWP.
“I feel seen and heard and irreplaceable,” she says. “I feel like I have a team who will cheer me on. When I write with that kind of backing, my writing voice is stronger, and I take more risks in what I write.”
For Christensen, the OWP’s mission is also one of professional development, giving those who teach in the classroom every day the chance to share their knowledge and expertise with other educators. Participants have published papers in numerous journals on topics as wide-ranging as LGBTQ rights, climate justice, and voter disenfranchisement.
“We really want teachers to see that their voices matter and what they’re doing in the classroom matters—that they can have an impact on the way that language arts or history is taught,” says Christensen. “And the work reverberates. It goes outside of our classroom doors, and we make an impact on other teachers through our teaching.”
This has held true for Kelly, who says that he now approaches his vocation through a “distinctly OWP lens.”
“When creating curricula, I am determined to craft lessons that matter, will get the students emotionally invested in their writing and, most importantly, offer a sense of social justice action-taking,” explains Kelly.
While it can be hard to encourage nervous students (or teachers, for that matter) to share their writing in public forums, Kelly has seen great success in his own classroom. At the end of his first year teaching at David Douglas High School, he asked his students to read their final poems aloud.
“To my surprise, every single one of my students across my six classes shared their poem,” he recalls. “I had 160—I was blown away. I really don’t think I could have recreated that atmosphere without the things I learned from OWP.”
Stroman adds that “being recognized as part of a national community of writers is the most satisfying outcome—receiving emails from all over the world thanking me for sharing my voice or people wishing their kids had me for a teacher or asking to watch me teach. It’s very rewarding.”
Such resounding successes—whether in the classroom or in the scholarly world—are what keep Christensen fully invested in the OWP’s mission for educational justice.
“The writing project is a model of weaving together social justice and antiracist practices at a time that we really need them—and of validating teachers,” she says. “My vision would be that we can work with districts and teachers across Oregon and that teachers who have built curriculum can share the model with others throughout the region.”
—Daniel F. Le Ray is an award-winning freelance writer and editor based in eastern Washington state.
Linda Christensen Receives Prestigious Teaching Award
Linda Christensen’s accomplishments as an educator were recognized in 2020 when she received the Distinguished Teacher Award from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The award is presented annually to a teacher who exemplifies service to their profession, excellence in their field, and distinguished scholarly activity. Christensen was nominated for the award by Sheridan Blau, professor of practice in English education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Blau said: “I can’t think of any teacher in America who has had such a wide and positive influence on the teaching of English to underserved students in American secondary schools.”
In addition to her 30 years as a teacher and language arts specialist within Portland Public Schools, Christensen is editor of the journal Rethinking Schools and the author of the books Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word and Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom. She has given multiple keynote addresses around the world on topics such as social justice and literacy and has received awards from the National Writing Project, the Oregon Education Association, and multiple other organizations across the United States.
In his comments on last year’s nomination process, NCTE President Alfredo Celedón Luján praised Christensen’s decades-long support of her students “in using multiple literacies to confront issues of social justice and to guide and lead action toward more just schools and a more just society.”