Teaching History, for the Curious

From my earliest experiences teaching (I first taught reading to adults 18-60 at a Manpower program in Brooklyn, and then worked with special needs young adults), I understood that the work of teaching writing is sacred work.

I taught creative writing as a writer-in-residence in the public schools throughout the Twin Cities and the State of Minnesota with the COMPAS WRITERS-IN-THE-SCHOOLS PROGRAM, and throughout the New York City area with New York State Poets-in-Public-Service. I taught writing workshops at The Loft in Minneapolis in their early years, as well as with community centers in the Twin Cities, and one of my earliest fiction workshops was for the then new program of the University of Minnesota’s Summer Arts Study Center, where I returned in the summer of 2005 to what is now called the Split Rock Summer Arts Program to teach writing for social change. While in graduate school at New York University, where I studied with Michael Ondaatje and Galway Kinnell, among others, I also taught undergraduates, and got a sense that no matter where I was blessed to work with people on their writing, the extraordinary desire for expression, for good old truth and beauty, for the journey into what words hold and what is alive within us, would blossom forward and take precedence over grades and even over fears of being embarrassed and judged, of falling short, even over the fear of what might or would emerge from the self.

I taught creative writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, both with graduate and undergraduate students, and was inspired and stimulated by the dance between mediums and the different ways of entering the sensory realms, entering memory and imagination, that belonged to the visual and the verbal, the realm of paint and charcoal, and the realm of language.

I was blessed to work with actress/writer/educator Stephanie Berry (Finding Forrester) to co-conduct writing/theater workshops with inner city youth in New York. I wrote curriculum for “at-risk” students in Boston area high schools, Act It Out: From Page to Stage; and for “drop-out” youth in New York, including The Ancestors’ Project, in which writing about students’ ancestral history came forward from a combination of research, family and community interviews, and the imagination. Since many of my students were cut off from family in many ways, what could be known led to an imaginative knowing of a kind of truth held in the bones. I still remember, and keep this knowledge with me in all that I do to assist others to come forward in their writing, a young Haitian American woman at a reading of 25 students from the Young Adult Learning Academy, where I taught “drop-outs” for seven years. After her turn reading to a packed audience, she said, “No matter what else happens, I will always remember this; I will always be proud of this.” I understand this feeling to transcend her particular circumstance and personality; I have seen it again and again in many forms. I have felt this dual power, the impact of the power of expression and the power of being heard.

My experience at YALA was an extraordinary gift to me and to the development of my teaching. My students, so often considered expendable young people by the society we live in, showed me again and again how central their stories are to our understanding of the world and ourselves, of history and contemporary conditions, and showed me as well what I always suspected-those of us who are silenced and excluded often have not only a profound perspective on the larger world, but the ability to express this knowledge in remarkable ways. Like many of the teachers at YALA, I understand how much my students there taught me how to teach.

Now it is many college courses later: “modes of analysis” – “beginning and advanced communications” – “analytical and research writing” – Youth Issues in Multicultural and Global Literature. There was a wonderful stint at a Catholic high school where I taught, among the many English and American works in survey courses, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and found a growing understanding in students far away from the horrific experiences of slavery, as they wrote and wrote after discussion of how they might feel if each thing they valued were taken from them, even their own names. I taught writing courses with community health educators and spent a few years at a college for working adults in Boston; I conducted workshops on issues of diversity in writing programs for graduate faculty and students in St. Paul, Minnesota; I taught at a community college in Albuquerque and then in the honors program at the University of New Mexico, and in Taos for UNM’s summer conference.

I have conducted my independent workshops at such places as the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe; the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque; for the International Women’s Writing Guild in Santa Fe, at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Cottage in Hyde Park, NY, and at the Guild’s wonderful annual conference at Skidmore College; and at the Leaven Retreat Center in the Michigan countryside. (See Workshops and Retreats and the Calendar of Upcoming Events.)

Now, after all this, I offer my independent writing workshops and classes, which I have developed and taught for many years, along with my one-to-one work with writers, consulting on the development of their manuscripts, and working intensively with individuals to bring them past their fears into grounded knowledge of craft and the exhilarating flight of their writing powers.

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