- Writing Suburban Citizenship:Place-Conscious Education and the Conundrum of Suburbia
Robert E. Brooke and his college and high school colleagues demonstrate the innovative, place-conscious pedagogies being practiced out of the National Writing Project (NWP) sites in Nebraska in the latest edited collection, Writing Suburban Citizenship: Place-Conscious Education and the Conundrum of Suburbia. The introduction of the book, written by Brooke, makes an impassioned case that suburbs—often overlooked by academics in literacy and writing studies, as well as critiqued for encouraging a lifestyle that is segregationist, ahistorical, and unsustainable—are indeed the communities where an active citizenry desperately needs to be nurtured (13). As of the 2010 census, the opening claims, suburbs are where most American youth live and are educated, and, as the 2016 election showed us, where people vote (2). Urban dwellers, and I would include myself as a New Yorker in this distinction, often too easily dismiss suburbia through pronunciations like, "all the houses are 'made of ticky-tacky' and the roads are lined with strips of chain stores and chain restaurants." Brooke and the other contributors of the collection, however, are working against these stereotypes, making visible to readers (particularly other suburban educators) that suburban dwelling places have environmental, cultural, and historical concerns. These can and should be emphasized in the public-school curriculum in order to reveal to teachers and students meaningful connections between place, identity development, and political activity.
What is so impressive about this book, like its predecessor Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and The Teaching of Writing, is the way it fosters a critical dialogue between high school and college teachers. The chapters serve as case studies for approaches to place-based curriculums and are written in an accessible style; the book would be useful, for example, in a course preparing and credentialing future teachers. The book well mirrors the National Writing Project's motto of "Teachers Teaching Teachers." In today's public schools, maintaining this NWP stance is vital to authorize teachers as sound experts who can and should make decisions for the education of the nation's children instead of allowing these decisions to be made by [End Page 116] textbook producers, state legislators, or the Secretary of Education. The book also puts forward the idea that place-conscious curriculums cultivate in teachers and students a sense of "belonging" that allow them to see the "'heritage, values, and history' that have brought [their] community into being;" Brooke and his colleagues believe that this sense of belonging creates a commitment to place through "a vision for its future, for a healthy sense of what the community can become" (27).
In the introduction, Brooke describes how the book is structured into two parts, grouping together author contributions that speak to the ecological (part 1) and cultural (part 2) concerns around place. Drawing upon the work of writer, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry, Brooke frames for the reader how places are a "mutually interdependent system of relations" (29). These systems can further be defined as natural (watershed) and man-made (commonwealth): the watershed is "an ecological entity: a network of mutually interdependent natural systems that work together around a particular river system" and the commonwealth is "a cultural entity: a network of mutually interdependent cultural systems that work together within a particular political entity" (28). For the sake of the structure of the book, this sequencing works well. However, as many contemporary scholars in ecocomposition studies have pointed out, the environmental and the cultural are not easily separated as they are part of a complex ecology through which they always work together. In other words, there are no "natural" spaces without human influence. The book's separation of environment and culture perpetuates a binary, one that could have been unpacked more through the opening chapter of the book.
The first four contributors in Part One, ecological, bring to the forefront issues about water and its scarcity, climate control, and the development of community around local natural resources. Each contributor uniquely discusses the idea of making visible connections between communities and their environment.
Susan Martens in "Move the Writer...