Okay, let’s lay out the background in brief: we have a program at Penn called “Write On!”. As part of “Write On!”, Penn students volunteer their time to serve as creative writing tutors for children at Lea Elementary School, right here in West Philadelphia. The advertised mission statement of the program is “to reach out to elementary schools of the Philadelphia community to provide educational resources and coaching in writing/creative writing.”
This seems to me an admirable, meaningful, and interesting endeavor: creative writing, per se, certainly strikes me as a nuanced subject within academia, and volunteering one’s time to tutor West Philly grade school students in it is a noble use of one’s skills. These students are similar in the sense that they came forward with some background in the subject of creative writing, and were happy to devote their time and talents to this program.
Here’s where things get funky for me: before beginning the tutoring of the young elementary school students, before even getting any sort of crash course on creative writing for young students, tutoring skills and tips, or anything of the sort, the program requires that all of its tutors attend multiple days of “anti-oppression” training, which, per earlier reporting, included everything from “Power Flowers” to a “Privilege Circle”. All of this was mandatory for students who have simply volunteered a few hours of their time to teach young Philadelphia students basic creative writing skills.
In what way does holding multiple days of mandatory anti-oppression training improve the nature of the tutoring these Penn students will offer? What good does it do anyone to force a bunch of undergraduate volunteer writing tutors to congregate multiple times before they even begin any sort of creative writing curriculum or teaching to have them separate themselves by things like the color of their skin, their household income, and their religious beliefs?
The whole program, run by Sonny Singh, a trumpet player and self-proclaimed “educator/writer,” strikes me as quite unnecessary and uselessly divisive. For example, the “Privilege Circle” sessions involved volunteers standing outside in a circle with eyes closed. As the group leader led them through a series of statements, tutors-in-training had to follow along by stepping forward if they were “privileged” in regard to that statement. Examples include, “Take one step forward if you are white.” “Take a step back if you are a minority.” “Take a step back if you are LGBTQ+.” “Take a step forward if your income is this much or higher.” Everyone was required to open their eyes at the end to see where they stood. The goal of the exercise was to bring the “privileged” people forward, which in turn isolated them from the remainder of the group.
Separating writing coaches who are just looking to volunteer their time to the community by “privilege” does nothing but cause awkwardness between people who would have worked well together otherwise. The fact that these students all bring a creative-writing background to the table and all see the power and importance of using one’s God-given talents to help those in their community inherently brings this group together in a sense of unity and common purpose.
Why institute, and require, training—which has absolutely nothing to do with creative writing, regardless of who is attending or teaching the classes—that tears them apart just for the sake of tearing them apart? Why take a group of people who are similar in positive ways, not to mention ways that are relevant to the program (i.e., they all share passion for and skill in creative writing) and forcibly separate them by things like their skin color and socioeconomic status? What good does that do anyone?
The proposed purpose of this silly and unnecessary program was, in Singh’s words, to help the tutors “gain a shared understanding and shared language around oppression and social justice,” “reflect on [their] own identities, power, and privilege and how they might affect [their] work,” and understand “how various forms of oppression may play out in the Write On! program and develop concrete steps to more consistently practice social and racial justice on campus.”
Well, at least the whole point of this entire shebang can be neatly summarized in a bunch of buzz words that mean absolutely nothing.
This training is foolish and does nothing more than create awkwardness among to-be colleagues and rob both tutors and grade-school students alike of valuable experience and time together. Worse still, it does so without offering any useful information other than a steaming pile of buzz words and by giving absolutely zero advice on tutoring techniques, creative writing overview, or even a synopsis of the young students’ exposure to writing curriculum to date.
At least it’s going to continue to be mandatory for years to come.
(Photo by Albert Herring/Wikimedia)