While teaching my English methods course with seniors, I asked students to write one or two sentences describing a writer. Sadie wrote: A writer is curious. She takes creative risks for the sake of discovering meaning in herself or the world around her. Other students wrote similar statements about the importance of articulating life experiences with one another and documenting a variety of perspectives. As English majors, most of their faces lit up when they talked about writing. Many shared the poetry they were writing, the half written novels, or the pieces of personal essays they were working on. They are writers taking their own creative risks in a pocket notebook or on a laptop at night when they should be sleeping.
When we talked about writing in the classroom, however, the conversation shifted. Students used words like rubric, scores, and achievement. Because most writing in school is focused on a standardized exam, writing instruction tends to focus more on writing as a product, rather than a process. The goal is to write to pass a test, rather than write to explore our curiosities. Yes, some students leave learning to write a decent argument or literary analysis. I’m doubtful, though, that most students leave saying, “I am a writer.” In fact, a former student of mine engaged in a teacher research study that resulted in that exact finding. In one class, she used The Writing Blitz, a boot camp style of teaching that prepared students for the end of grade exam focused on writing. Students scored well on the test, but left the class saying that they did not like writing and did not identify as a writer. In another class, students learned about the writing process and wrote in multiple genres. Here, students scored the same on the test, but left the class saying they liked writing and identified as writers.
With that dilemma in mind, we created Gate City Writes (GCW) to connect research in writing education to classroom practice by engaging K-12 educators and students with university faculty in a collaborative writing community. One aspect of GCW is the Young Writers’ Camp, created five years ago, that is held every summer at UNCG. Here, young people write, meet other writers, and learn about writing as a career. Our hope is to foster creative entitlement in these young writers. By creative entitlement we draw from the author Elizabeth Gilbert and poet David Whyte to mean taking creative risks that push people “out of the suffocating insulation of personal safety, and into the frontiers of the beautiful and the unexpected.” To take such risks, campers must believe they “have a voice and vision of [their] own “for their writing and teaching. What better way to do that, than by writing in a supportive community with other writers?
Hanging out with writing coaches
Writing at The Weatherspoon
Showing off published work
Last year, we wondered what might happen if we invited teachers into this writing community. Our goal with the Gate City Writes Conference is to facilitate opportunities for teachers to write and teach writing alongside K-12 students in the form of professional development. We draw from the poet Mark Nepo who says that many writers get so hung up on preparing to “be” a writer that they forget to write. To elaborate, he says, “We [children] are being told to become a noun, and the vitality of life is in staying a verb.” Thus, teachers at the conference will focus on the action of writing, rather than on the preparation of those actions. Through an experiential learning approach, we will ask teachers to write and collectively discuss how to tap “the tools of the time” in order to improve learning and instruction for success in the classroom and beyond (Connected Learning Movement).
After pitching this idea to Dean Randy Penfield and Dr. Scott Young, and applying for an ITI Idea Development Award, we received strategic investment to expand the scope of GCW. We now have a logo, website and materials for our conference and camp in July. In May 2017, we held a book fair at Barnes & Noble to raise money to purchase materials for teachers who complete the GCW Conference. This event brought local writers and educators together to celebrate and support taking creative risks through some form of literacy (see pictures). As a learning community, GCW hopes to continue to foster opportunities for youth and teachers to, as my student Sadie described, discover meaning in ourselves and the world around us through writing. Come write with us this summer!