udl writing in the classroom

Students “Write Their Truth” in Newly Published Book

Students “Write Their Truth” in Newly Published Book
By Professor Randy Laist, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English, Goodwin College

When Susan Johnson was ten years old, her mother sent her to live with her neglectful grandparents in rural Jamaica, where she was subjected to systematic humiliation and forced labor. Portia Matthews had to miss her daughter’s field day to attend a court appointment, and lost control when she discovered that she was being arrested and that nobody would be there to pick her daughter up from school at the end of the day. Shortly after the beginning of the 2019 spring semester, Ricardo Cortes learned that the best friend he’d grown up with in Puerto Rico was killed by the same gang lifestyle that Ricardo had narrowly managed to escape.

Susan, Portia, and Ricardo, along with six other student contributors, share their powerful stories in a new book that they have collaboratively written and published, Writing Our Truth: Stories of Struggle and Survival. The writers are all participants in an innovative program that Goodwin College has designed in cooperation with the Connecticut Department of Social Services to provide college courses leading to an associate degree in Human Services for individuals who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Aid Program (SNAP). The program employs a Universal Design for Learning-based model of pedagogy and a cohort-based learning environment, and it has been remarkably successful in facilitating these students’ academic achievement.

One of the requirements these students take on the way to their degree is an English class that focuses on personal, memoir-style writing.

When the first cohort of students began writing their stories, their past experiences began to flow out of them in a stream of powerful essays about their experiences with homelessness, teen pregnancy, mental and physical illness, child abuse, immigration, domestic violence, heartache, and death.

In turned out that, in addition to sharing a wealth of tragic experiences, these students also shared a love of writing and a gift for expressing themselves in riveting and dramatic language. As the collaborative nature of the cohort encouraged them to think about their writing as a shared enterprise and the UDL-based foundations of their classroom experience challenged them to think about representing their stories in new ways, their own personal sense of ambition and vision motivated them to think big.

Writing Our Truth: Stories of Struggle and Survival is the product of all of these influences. The writing and publication of the book is a remarkable achievement of which these writers are justifiably proud.

“Universal Design for Learning has been enthusiastically embraced at Goodwin,” said Dr. Danielle Wilken, the College’s provost. “The work that Dr. Laist and his students have accomplished with this book truly speaks to the UDL spirit of demonstrating learning and comprehension, leveraging a variety of options that allow students to develop their strengths.”

The student writers have observed that writing is not just a therapeutic strategy for working through their own painful memories, but that it can also be a way of helping other people who are coping with difficult experiences.  Through the publication of this remarkable book, they have discovered a powerful means through which to communicate their stirring message of perseverance and triumph.

The book contains writing by Susan Johnson, Nichole DeLawrence, Portia Matthews, Emily Gasque, Porsha Jackson, Ricardo Cortes, Mellanee R. Hardy, De’Asia Sinclair, and Rebecca Crāpo.


Dr. Laist is a lifelong resident of Connecticut. He loves talking with students about their ideas and their writing, and he relishes the opportunity that teaching offers him to learn new things about writing, about other people, and about the world around us. He is the author of a book about the American novelist Don DeLillo (Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo’s Novels), another about movies from the 1990s (Cinema of Simulation: Hyperreal Hollywood in the Long 1990s), and a forthcoming book about the World Trade Center (The Twin Towers in Film: A Cinematic History of the World Trade Center). He has edited a multi-contributor collection of critical essays on the television show Lost (Looking for Lost: Critical Essays), another on literary representations of vegetation (Plants and Literature: Essays in Critical Plant Studies), and another on cinematic representations of College (Cinema U: Representations of Higher Education in Popular Film). He has also written journal articles and book chapters on Herman Melville, Norman Mailer, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as on zombies, YouTube, and movies.  Education: B.A., English and Psychology, University of Connecticut M.A., English Education, University of Connecticut; M.A., English, University of Connecticut; Ph.D., English, University of Connecticut