The final print issue of Teachers & Writers Magazine arrived a few weeks ago, with a wonderful cover image by Chicago photographer Paul Octavious, and a great lineup of articles offering innovative approaches for teaching creative writing. We are now hard at work designing the new, online incarnation of T&W Magazine, due to launch later this fall. While we are sad to say farewell to the print version, we are excited to take advantage of the possibilities a digital format will offer, including expanding our content, allowing full access to the magazine's archives, and reaching a much wider audience. We think you’ll like what we have planned, and hope you’ll continue to follow us online. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy the inspiring resources and reports from the field in the current issue, including T&W teaching artist Joanna Fuhrman's wonderfully creative abecedarian of writing exercises inspired by art.
Image to Word: An Abecedarian List of Games and Experiments
Last year, I was asked to be part of a pedagogy panel on teaching students to write poetry in response to visual art at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) writing conference. For years I have been asking students to respond to images, so it was useful for me to have an excuse to think about my own methodology. I came to realize that the use of images in my writing and teaching practice is part of a larger approach that employs “chance” as a way to spur creativity. My goal is to create the experience of surprise for my students, and for myself, so that we can be pushed into the parts of ourselves that are the most strange and irreducible. As Hans ( Jean) Arp wrote, “The law of chance, which embraces all other laws and is as unfathomable to us as the depths from which all life arises, can only be comprehended by complete surrender to the Unconscious.” In other words, the surprise of the unknown forces us to access part of our imagination that would otherwise remain dormant. To pick an image to write about “at random” forces one to be open to the possibilities of the world, to say “yes” not only to the image at hand, but also to all the conflicting voices stirring within.
So, in the spirit of Bernadette Mayer’s “List of Experiments” and as a response to the AWP invitation, I created my own list of favorite image-based writing activities. I have structured my piece as an abecedarian, a list from A to Z, because I wanted the form of my writing to mirror the idea of chance and random constraint. To read the full article, click here.
by Caron Levis
The classroom phone rang as Mrs.Pearson’s first-graders tumbled in, pulling off coats and scarves, shoving backpacks into the overstuffed closet along the wall. As Mrs. Pearson excused herself to answer the call, a small girl swimming in a large, red sweatshirt offered me a plastic flower that she’d made, “because you’re the author.” I watched her walk to her desk and join the other kids who were gripping crayons and coloring in their morning letters, yawning, fidgeting, daydreaming, chatting as students do. Mrs. Pearson hung up the phone with shake of her head. “That was Kayla’s mom, and so along with everything else I told you before, you should also know that Kayla’s favorite chicken died this morning.” She sighed. “She really loved that chicken.” Mrs. Pearson was doing everything she could to provide salve and a sense of safety to her classroom. Her first-grade students in Newtown, Connecticut, had experienced more death, loss, and sadness than any child should ever face because of the recent shootings at the nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School. Kayla, like many of the children, had been suffering from severe mood swings and exhibiting regressive, clinging, and at times despondent behaviors since December. She was one of eleven of the eighteen children in the class who, as Mrs. Pearson told me, “knew someone who had perished in the tragedy.”
Mrs. Pearson had contacted me last winter, thinking that the author workshop for my book, Stuck with the Blooz, might be helpful to her students’ healing process. Since the book’s release I had been visiting elementary schools to read the story and to explore the emotions it presents through writing, drawing, and acting activities. I was honored to be invited by Mrs. Pearson, but as I passed the Blue Colony Diner with its windows full of letters and signs of solidarity and support, I worried I might be bringing an umbrella to somebody caught in a hurricane. I had written Stuck with the Blooz in the hope of validating experiences and fostering explorations of sadness, but I had certainly not been considering events like the Newtown shootings, or Hurricane Sandy, or the Boston Marathon bombings when drafting it. I’d already visited students in a wide variety of places: in low-income public schools and top-tier private schools; in urban and suburban areas; in special education and gifted and talented programs. In all these places children had seemed to relish the opportunity to explore, as one child put it, “this sad blue way of feeling that everybody feels sometimes,” through reading, writing, and drama. But I had not visited a group with a shared tragedy so devastating and fresh. As Kayla trudged through the door, her head hanging like a snowdrop flower (the flowers that Shakespeare used to symbolize sorrow) I wondered if it was truly wise for me to ask these children to tell me what sadness would look like if it walked through the door...
Excerpt from Teachers & Writers Magazine, Winter 2013-2014
Read the complete article by Caron Levis here.
Caron Levis’s picture book, Stuck with the Blooz (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012), was listed as one of Bankstreet College’s Best Children’s Books of the Year. She teaches social/emotional, communication, and literacy skills through creative writing and drama to kids of all ages. She is a T&W teaching artist, and the advisor and adjunct faculty for the New School University’s Creative Writing for Children mfa program, where she earned her degree. You can find free activity sheets and more information at www.caronlevis.com.
Slideshow of the 2013-2014 Poetry Out Loud competition in New York State.
Featuring 2014 New York State Champion, Schuyler Press, reciting her 2nd round poem (“An Autumn Sunset” by Edith Wharton) at the State Championship on March 4, 2014.
Information about the 2014-2015 POL competition coming soon here!
By Laura Thompson
Newbie writers like me, are told to seek inspiration wherever we can find it. Respected and published authors recommend that we read the works of others we admire, especially those written in our chosen genre. These sage and seasoned mentors also counsel that we learn from the experiences of accomplished writers, research the internet for tips on technique, and join a writer’s group, all of which I have taken to heart as great advice. The last thing I expected however, when I began working in the writing lab at a local state college, was to strike a colossal mother lode of inspiration. Initially, I was surprised to discover this wellspring in such an unlikely place, but as the days passed I became increasingly grateful.
When I lost my job two years ago, I decided to use the opportunity to write full time. This decision was made in part because despite the untold number of résumés I released into cyberspace, the recession was in full swing, and I was unable to find work. Although I yearned to hunker down in a romantic garret somewhere and write uninterrupted, I still needed a steady income stream to pay my bills. Eventually, the kindly woman who was to become my supervisor actually read my résumé and cover letter, something I had begun to think was an urban hiring myth, and offered me a tutoring position in the writing lab. I knew right away the job was perfect for me and jumped at the chance. I love to write, and it seemed only natural that I would enjoy helping others with their writing.
A couple of months later, after I had frantically located the common grammatical terms and punctuation rules from the cobweb-festooned archives of my mind and remembered that coordination doesn’t only refer to the ability to put one foot in front of the other without falling down, I learned something completely extraordinary from my students.
Here is what I learned:
I learned to be approachable to the apprehensive student, since for every confident student that nonchalantly swaggers into the lab seeking assistance, there is another who is tentative and poised for flight lest any tutor seem even remotely unwelcoming or less than empathetic.
“What do you think about your writing style?”
“What concerns you about your writing?”
“Do you enjoy writing?”
“Why do you think you’re not good at it?” were all questions I learned to ask in order to peel back the layers of misgiving and insecurity regarding their work.
I learned to be compassionate when asking these questions as the lack of self-confidence exhibited was painful to watch.
I learned to listen even when no words were spoken.
I learned about fear and how it sometimes lurks behind a perfunctory attitude.
I learned that many students struggle to get the words out and how those same students think that staring at a piece of paper or computer screen for at least an hour in order to arrive at the first sentence is an excruciating but requisite part of composition.
I learned to be humble and respectful toward the human condition after reading dozens of personal essays so secretive, heart wrenching and soul-baring, I was often reduced to tears.
I learned to admire and look up to the student who speaks four other languages fluently even though she might wrestle with verb forms and compound sentences in English.
Monday through Thursday every week, I teach my students how to structure an outline, and why organization brings order and sanity to what otherwise is an insane and stressful procedure. I teach them how to write a thesis statement, the art of free writing, and how to avoid word repetition by using a thesaurus. I teach them how to create topic sentences, why words are fun, the value of adjectives and adverbs, how to paint a picture with words, why writing is mechanical as well as creative, and confidence in their ability.
Monday through Thursday every week, my students teach me how to be a more effective tutor. They teach me humility and to keep explaining even though I might feel drained and exhausted. They teach me to keep trying because clarity is usually just a heartbeat away. They inspire me, and they teach me to inspire. They teach me how to make them smile and allow me the privilege of living vicariously through their achievements. They teach me confidence in my own ability and why laughter is so crucial to teaching and learning. They teach me how to be a better me, and they teach me how to be a better writer. Most importantly, they teach me joy.
By Kineret Yardena
Concern and sadness spreads across the twenty-two faces in front of me. We are in Auckland, at an all girls’ high school. My Year 9 and Year 11 students are trying to make sense of the news reports and videos coming out of Nigeria. They hold with heaviness how much they have in common with the 276 girls who were kidnapped in April by those determined to uproot and destroy what the girls wearing uniforms of black watch tartan know they can take for granted: the promise of a Western education.
BACCARAT by Emily Wang (Year 9)
She is misguided and lost (because of them). It is my duty to save her.
We will destroy them and the Islam religion will be pure again.
A strange sort of burning anger stirs.
I will purify her.
She will join us.
To think that in some parts of the world girls and boys are not encouraged, inspired and challenged to think critically and compassionately, and not given permission to cultivate a personal voice, eludes my girls. “I don’t get it,” one girl says. “Why are they so afraid of girls going to school?” Another tags on, “Seriously, what is so dangerous about getting an education?”
So with maps and photographs and videos in hand, we spend an English lesson interrogating the value of an education—and, by extension, its danger. We reach no conclusions. Instead we build intricate anthills with our questions that burrow into new questions.
WHAT I WANT TO KNOW by Anna Peat (Year 9)
What is wrong with the world?
Why can humans be so vicious to each other?
What are we doing with our lives?
What went wrong?
What is wrong? What is right? What is good? What is bad? What are we meant to believe?
How am I meant to feel?
How am I meant to act?
By the end, the girls look at me with despairing eyes—like I’m their teacher, like I should make sense of this for them, like I should know. I notice my temptation to whip out answers, to smooth out their frowns and fears with aphorisms of hope.
I don’t want to stay with the questions either. I also grasp for anchors of certainty: unshakably moral good guys and devilish evil ones, neat timelines that explain the past and accurate maps that point the way forward. Staying with the questions feels hard—sometimes too hard—taking more compassion than I want to have, and more courage than I believe I ever could.
JUST A BUNCH OF LINES by Maria McCoy (Year 11)
I don’t know how many grains of rice are in the container in my cupboard
I don’t know when some are missing
Tiny, smooth and uniformed; they don’t have eyes
It’s ok that I don’t know how many grains of rice are in the container
But far out it’s not ok for me to not know how many people are kidnapped from their container and their home
Every girl that was taken from Nigeria has eyes
Fingers like my fingers
She will wince and murmur
It’s not ok that I didn’t know these girls had been missing for a long time
No one really seems to be talking about it lots
But far out people should be
They all belong to a container
Wonderfully, it does not prove hard to traverse the space between the imagined landscapes of our studied literature—be it Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran or a unit on deconstructing gender representations in the media— and real political and social terrain. Together, we look at the worlds we dream of and those we find around us. We talk about literature as a tabernacle of faith, a coded map that needs courage and a willingness not to know.
The girls ask a thousand questions and debate, discuss and collate a legal team’s worth of advice that they would personally like to deliver to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. Then we pause and offer a minute of silence: some offer hope to the girls, some peace to their families, some simply hold gratitude for all that they, in that moment, suddenly realize that they have.
A MOMENT OF SILENCE by Sophie Dixon (Year 9)
A Class of 30
Kidnapping, Fear and Despair
Freedom, Hope and Gratitude
A girls’ school in Nigeria
A girls’ school in New Zealand
They’re forbidden to know, not allowed to understand
We have to know, to be able to understand
They’re young, confused and alone
We’re young, confused and worried
They wonder: Will they ever be freed?
We wonder: Will this ever happen to us?
Together we thought we were safe
That western education was not and is not a sin
But now, we are not so sure
Land, sea and society keep us apart
They say we are different
Separated by religion and race
We are the same.
And when we are done, they are desperate for something that they can do. It is not enough for them to know about what is happening in the world. They need some way to respond. They need some way to not feel helpless in the face of something so dauntingly amorphous.
BEFORE ALL THIS HAPPENED by Selina Wang (Year 9)
You would do anything to be where we are
How fortunate we are through your eyes
Freedom should never be taken for granted
Because it was all that we’ve ever wanted
We cannot do much, but we can speak up
and stand up for what’s true
We are praying, thinking of you
If the girls who have been taken have lost their voices for now, these girls in front of me want to ensure that the voices of girls everywhere—in Auckland, New Zealand no less than anywhere else— ignite the darkness of forced silence with the match of poetry, with the light of a young girl’s voice.
About the author: For the past ten years, Kineret Yardena has been travelling, teaching, writing and making theatre in the U.S., Israel/Palestine, New Zealand, Gambia, and Senegal. Originally from Los Angeles, Kineret currently lives in Auckland, New Zealand where she teaches literature and writing, and is working on her first manuscript, an auto-ethnographic exploration of teaching at the first bilingual school for Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem in 2007.
In this interview, fiction writer, essayist, and educator Lynne Tillman discusses her decision to start writing as an eight year old and her first novel, Haunted Houses, with Matthew Sharpe.
Read the full article here.
For more great interviews with educators and writers, search our Digital Resource Center!
Spreading the Word: The Art of Writing About Teaching by Mark Statman
In this article, Mark Statman examines a variety of teaching texts. He writes, “When I consider the art of writing about teaching, I have to acknowledge that the books that have influenced me most as a teacher have been those that have influenced me most as a writer. That is to say, the books are less about describing a series of imitable lessons and more about engaging the reader in creative and meaningful ways.” Books discussed include Kenneth Koch's Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, Herbert Kohl's 36 Children, The Art of the Personal Essay edited by Phillip Lopate, Sylvia Ashton-Warner's Teacher, and Third Mind edited by Tonya Foster and Kristin Prevallet.
Read the full article here.
For more great articles, letters, and interviews, search our Digital Resource Center!
By Julia R. Graff
I joyously anticipate the second semester of first grade. The children have matured by then, and many are good readers. Because they are capable of writing simple and sometimes even complex sentences, I introduce them to journal writing. I am propelled by the students’ excitement as they each receive a brightly colored spiral notebook. They eagerly date their entry each day. I give them topics or story starters to start them off---for instance, “I Get Scared When. . .”or “My Favorite Animal.” For many, creating an illustration with their entry is a favorite part of journal keeping and is particularly important to the child who is struggling with writing skills. Quite often, too, we have a “free” writing day when they initiate all their own ideas.
Although writing in a journal is primarily a personal endeavor, the children often ask to read their writing aloud to their classmates or to me. I am gratified as a teacher when they stand close to me and----quietly, but excitedly----read what they have just written. There is magic in their effort to phonetically write and then read words freely without correction or criticism. They smile and giggle as they read their own words. Describing everything from slightly exaggerated camping trips to painful feelings of hurt and sadness, I marvel that at such a young age they are able to express themselves with great depth and creativity. The interest the children show in each others’ journal entries is amazing, too.
They listen and laugh spontaneously as their classmates share funny experiences about learning to swim or ride a bike. They identify easily with getting embarrassed at a friend’s birthday party when they get cake frosting all over their mouth and nose.
It wasn’t, however, until one spring Open House that I truly saw the power of journal writing. The journals, like other projects, were laid out on the desks. Most parents opened the journal, turned a few pages and glanced at the words. But that day, I noticed one little boy who went to his desk and sat down. His mother knelt beside him and listened as he read. Then she put her arm around him and spoke softly. I heard her say, “I didn’t remember that! Really?” He nodded, and they both laughed.
Here was the value of writing and the importance of self-expression. The child, through his own words, was conveying who he was. He was grownup and powerful. For an instant, his writing allowed his mother to see inside him. She grasped the journal in her hands, pressed it to her chest and said, “I’ll treasure this.” The little boy looked into his mother’s eyes, quickly put his head down and grinned