I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a great writing teacher, how one inspires kids to write, and how you get the very best out of them. I believe all kids, all people, in fact, have the ability to write something true, evocative and powerful. But how do you reach that point in your writing? How do you help kids get there?
In the last several months, I’ve visited a lot of schools talking about writing and “Trafficked.” I’ve taught several writing workshops and I’ve met many writing/language arts teachers, and at every school, I’ve learned something from a great librarian or teacher. Today I want to talk to you about one very special experience I had recently, right before Hurricane Sandy, when I was brought in to teach at a teen writing retreat for Fox Lane High School in Bedford, New York.
The real star of the workshop was an amazing English teacher and poet named Diane Sarna who began the writing retreat for the kids several years ago and has organized it and taught at it every year since. She doesn’t get paid extra for this, but gets paid back in the love she receives from these students. The trust she’s built up with them is what brings forth the incredible results. These kids can really write.
From the first day she brought me in, I knew I’d come into something magical. In her high school classroom, innovative writing experiments line the walls. On a clothesline, t-shirts were pinned up with poetry written on them. It was one of the most creative classrooms I’d ever seen. She asked me to come back and meet with some students because she explained the students get to pick the writer they want to teach them at the retreat. I was awed: I had found a school and a teacher that trusted its students to make important decisions. Go here to check out Diane Sarna’s website.
So, I met with four kids who asked me smart, sensitive questions about teaching and writing. Then they all left and I assumed Diane would talk with them later and let me know what they’d decided. Instead, she offered me the job on the spot. I asked her how she knew and she said they’d planned a secret gesture. If the kids liked me, they would do this gesture as they were leaving. If it wasn’t unanimous, they’d talk, but I guess they’d all touched their noses and I was good to go.
The retreat goes from Friday to Sunday and the kids stay out a rustic cabin setting about twenty minutes from their school, which was originally the country home for the vaudeville star, Major Bowes. The location was inspirational in its own right.
Any kid at the high school can apply to go and it’s first come, first served. I believe it costs the kids around 30 each to pay for food and accommodation. The writer is paid for with a grant. They accept 30 kids and it fills up on the first day. Most of the kids don’t know each other and they’re all different ages, but Diane makes it work.
They leave after school on Friday and that night is all about getting to know one another, writing together, sitting around a fire and playing music. By the time I arrived on Saturday, the kids were comfortable with each other. Right from the first writing experiment I did with them, several kids were willing to share.
We went for a walk in the woods and around the grounds to find an object to write about. I brought in scents and we wrote about the memories they evoked. The students listened to clips from This American Life and we talked about voice and wrote some pieces in the voices of people we knew. We drank copious amounts of hot chocolate with marshmallows and had amazing food. We wrote and shared some more. Diane was a solid presence in the room, always laughing with them, and being firm when she needed to be. Two other teachers volunteered their time too, cooking the meals and staying with the kids at night to supervise them. They all willingly gave up their weekend to create this experience for these kids, an experience I’m sure will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
That night, after dinner, the teachers transformed the dining room into this magical space where the lights were turned off and candles were lined up around the room and on all the tables.
The kids then went around the circle, one by one, reading poetry or creative non-fiction and singing songs they wrote, while playing the guitar. I counted four guitars. Every time someone finished reading, everyone snapped their fingers in appreciation. I’ve never experienced snapping before in this setting. It was subtle and honoring.
Finally, I said goodnight and drove home, thinking about these kids and how this school and this teacher were making a huge difference. I’m sure the kids stayed up late, playing music and sharing their work. The next morning, they ate pancakes and headed home. I don’t know how you could leave that retreat without feeling inspired and having a greater sense of confidence about who you are as a writer and as a person. And, man, if we can do that for teens, it can make all the difference in the world.
I hope reading about this might inspire some other teachers or librarians at high schools to think about starting their own writing retreat. You give up a weekend, but you change everything about your dynamic with the students and you give these kids an opportunity to believe in their writing and believe in themselves.