Out of Flint: Out of Eden Walk to Authentic Writing

Dr. Arina Bokas is a faculty member in the department of English at Charles S. Mott Community College, Flint, Michigan. She adapted Out of Eden Learn activities and other Project Zero frameworks for her first-year composition class.

“Authentic writing occurs when students compose with a voice that is uniquely theirs; therefore, it does not follow a formulaic pattern but grows organically from the writer’s sense of purpose and intellectual honesty.” – Roy F. Smith

As human beings, we gravitate towards meaningful, purposeful experiences. We are also driven by them. There is a lot of complexity in a writing process. It requires time, thought, and desire – something that many students lack due to various competing demands as well as perceptions that writing has no real meaning to them. As teachers, we are often concerned with the lower-order issues (structures, mechanics, etc.), hoping that this will eventually take our students to higher-order writing practices.

In my experience, when it comes to writing, the hardest part for many students is to find their own voice; their unique vantage point. In part, this happens because they don’t have the time or disposition for in-depth thinking, and in part because of the overwhelming amount of information we process daily to the point that it becomes very difficult for students to decipher their own thoughts.

I have been using visible thinking routines, originating from Project Zero’s framework of Visible Thinking, for a number of years. I often introduce them to ignite student thinking about a topic or an experience and to provide a content generating foundation. While very helpful, the thinking routines can benefit students only if students are willing to put in time and effort into their own thinking. This doesn’t happen a lot outside a classroom.

There is, therefore, a need for organic experiences that would require students to slow down and access their thinking. In college writing, combining thinking routines with Out of Eden Walk ideas proved to be a very effective way to create such an organic experience and inspire students’ intrinsic motivation to find their own voice.

A Place in the World Project

While exploring the genre of a commentary, Freshman Composition students at Mott Community College, in Flint, Michigan, were asked to take a slow walk in their neighborhoods and surrounding areas, guided by the See Think Wonder routine and with the purpose to look and notice things around them.

The project was built with a series of preparatory writing/thinking assignments, placing as much value on the process as on the final paper. A part of students’ overall grade for the portfolio was assigned to documentation, including their walking notes (See Think Wonder), reflective notes (Connect Extend Challenge), organizing notes, artifacts, pictures and maps, as well as preliminary drafts and peer-editing work.

The walk was intended to serve as a starting point for an authentic, self-generated experience that would transform students into researchers, documentarians, journalists, writers, and thinkers, seeking to uncover and tell a story of an ordinary place – how it reflects on us and connects to us as human beings.

Getting Started

When I first introduced to students the idea of going on a self-guided walk at a place of their choice (following some discussions of Paul Salopek‘s Milestones videos), many questions surfaced: Where should we go? For what exactly are we looking? How can we connect this to bigger ideas? There was minimal direction and a lot of creative freedom.

We headed to a trial walk on campus, while simultaneously completing the See Think Wonder thinking routine. Students were writing down what each of them saw and wondered about their surroundings. We followed up with conversations, first within small groups and then as an entire class, about how our environment reflects our times, perceptions about the world, and our thoughts about ourselves. For example, numerous fire alarms, water sprinklers, and reinforced doors sparked a discussion of mortality and fragility of human life, with everything around us reflecting our desire to preserve it. As our discussion became more connected to big issues and values, students’ interest in the project also increased.

When it was the time for students to take charge of their own walk, to reflect, to make connections, and to think like writers, their previous concerns turned into anticipation and wonder. They were ready and open to thinking.

As I was walking through the forest I call mine, I started to realize that I was not the one who owned it. I saw more and more things that I thought to be new, as I had never noticed them before. Yet, the age of them told me that they had been there for at least a decade. I began to see what my paper would be about: unseen beauty and how we neglect to actually see what is right there in front of us. – Rachel Girling

Students’ Stories

In the midst of the water crisis and financial devastation sweeping over Flint (a last century’s thriving automotive hub) and other small towns around it, I wondered if my students would be able to see something important in the places that many people wanted to leave – something that would reflect pride, significance, and hope.

Christopher Webber, A Path Less Traveled

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Christopher Webber

When Chris took a less traveled path while walking along the Flint River – the River Walk trail – he found himself in a place he had never known existed. As he was noticing signs of Flint’s economy’s ebb and flow embedded in everything around him, he saw a new hope for this city’s future.

I came across several paintings that flanked the left wall. They appeared to be painted on particleboard and hung at the mercy of the elements. This did not distract from the paintings themselves, which still appeared quite vivid. I had seen this artist’s work before at the Flint Art Auction. Were his intentions just to beautify a remote area of the River Walk or was it intended to be viewed from across the river?

As I walked, allowing the stillness of my surroundings open up to me, I was struck by the immediate rush of water pouring out of a dam. The dam was in a really bad shape. There were huge logs pilling up behind it and outside the mouth of the dam as well. But not unlike much of downtown, the dam was built with art deco in mind. I couldn’t imagine how much it would cost to restore it.

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Christopher Webber

This section of the River Walk is a metaphor for Flint’s current conditions: it reflects its timeless beauty in the midst of financial hardships. If one would allow a moment to admire some of the buildings downtown, he or she would see some stunning architecture. Even now, looking at the polluted river and the crumbling dam, I see a new starting point for the city. – Chris Webber

Zachary Somers, Out of Eden

During his walk through the loading docks near Dort Highway in Grand Blanc – a town neighboring Flint – Zack encountered something that made him realize that the rustbelt of America was much more than a reflection on our industry; it was also a reflection on us as a human society.

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Zachary Somers

Through a thick fog enveloping the area, I could barely make out the once pristine and now faded and rusted sidings of the railroad cars. Rust clung to every exposed orifice of the cars; the pain chipped and was peeling away. Gangs and artists expressed themselves on these cars as eloquently as a playwright. Singular words, indicative of the struggles facing the “artists,” covered entire railcars from end to end. In a sense, I felt that these artistic renditions were a way for people to express their frustration at being forgotten, abandoned, and left behind in a world that never stopped moving. 

I believe we should protect and preserve our history, such as this little railroad depot, because it is important. We have a responsibility to create a better society — a society that exists for people first, despite being the economic juggernaut that America has become. We owe it to our future generations to know what we were, so we know what we could be… before it all rusts away like the infrastructure in front of me. – Zack Somers

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Holly Heckman

Holly Heckman, We are Only a Footstep in History

Holly’s walk through downtown Fenton – a small town near Flint – inspired her to take a closer look at how its appearance has changed over time and to reflect on the connections between these changes and the attitudes of people who live there.

Fenton’s small history shines through all of us. It reminds us that no matter how small life starts, bigger and better things are on the horizon. We rebuild our foundations to create strength in our structure; we have windows to shine through the positive energy and doors to allow people inside our lives. When the storm rages on around us, we are strong enough to take the damage and become more resilient than before. – Holly Heckman

Olivia Menchaca, Reflection

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Olivia Menchaca

Powerful experiences can also impact a person’s sense of self, agency and purpose. While being alone with nature during her walk, Olivia made a significant discovery of her own place in the world.

The tree had been eaten by bugs. The thought sprung into my mind that to the tree, bugs eating it was damaging, but to the bugs, eating the tree was essential to survive. On a much larger scale, aren’t humans trying to create by destruction?

We are intentionally “breaking” the Earth with wars and pollutions because we believe this is vital to our survival. Like the bugs that eat the bark off a tree ultimately killing it, humans are killing the Earth.

As the sky’s light began to have a warm glow and the air got a couple degrees lower, I was thinking about my own purpose in life. With another day ending, what did I do today that was substantial?

We need to live kindly on the Earth, not to unnecessarily hurt it for our short instance of life on this planet, not to be the bugs on the trees. We can do whatever we want as long as the Earth doesn’t notice. – Olivia Menchaca

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Hannah Livingston

Hannah Livingston, Walk in the Park

Walking through a neighborhood park, Hannah captured her experience by drawing a walking map.

Walking to Authentic Writing

As we search for ways to inspire students towards their personal greatness, I believe we should encourage them to tell a story – their own story – where they have freedom and opportunities to express what’s important to them.

Having started with the same task and directions, walks took different turns, guided by the uniqueness of students’ thinking. Students captured how places around them reflected the complexity of human history, taught invaluable lessons, and helped them realize their own place in the world. Each place had a story, a purpose, and a lesson. It led students to finding their own voice.

2 comments

  1. Dr Bokas, this is so exciting! I wish that I were in your class!!

    Kay McDevitt Schmid Bath, Michigan

    Date: Wed, 30 Mar 2016 17:21:50 +0000 To: kayschmid@hotmail.com

  2. Blagica Taseski · · Reply

    This is such powerful writing! I love how invested the students are in their thinking and reflecting. Thank you for sharing!

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