Born of a desire to enrich these bright young men’s educational experience, introduce them to literary role models, and help them develop and trust their own voices, WriteOn! NYC was piloted by Fiction Chair, Professor Helen Schulman and two selected MFA candidates in January 2016. The MFA students worked with Helen and George Jackson and developed a curriculum. They hosted a reading at The New School for the boys at the end of the semester, that was attended by their families (some of whom never set foot in a University before), their fellow students and our community. (Current research suggests that even a one time visit to a college or university setting increases the likelihood that a child will attend college in the future.) The result was an overwhelming success. The boys’ work was powerful, funny and strong. They were empowered by the reception they received, and our students said they had a life-changing experience working with them. We had to continue.
Our overall goals are twofold: first, give MFA candidates a chance to flex teaching muscles in an extremely rewarding and elastic classroom. The second, to teach middle school boys the art and love of writing by structuring lessons around four key concepts:
1. Reading. Not just any reading, but reading outside the Western (white) literary canon, breaking pieces down into the “what” (what is this piece about?) and the “how” (what techniques is the author using to drive the point home? Dialogue? Short sentences? Long sentences? Meter? Rhyme?). How can we apply the “how” to our own work?
2. Writing as a daily practice. Writing isn’t a sacred act that other people do. It’s an actionable thing that anyone can do, even with just a few minutes each day. Students respond to readings with their own creative work, sometimes made right there in class.
3. Compassionate critical feedback as part of a revision process. We teach students how to talk about their work and others’ work. It’s not about whether you liked it or not, but rather what the author was attempting to do. Was that successful? What things did you feel while reading the piece? What “how” tools did you spot and how are they working?
4. Sharing work as part of a community. We get students used to the idea of an audience when we have them read their work aloud, both in front of each other and as a performance at the end of the semester. We work on public speaking, but that might be the least important part of what the reading does. Students are able to experience others experiencing their creative piece, and that’s extremely powerful. Students who don’t see the point of writing creatively witness firsthand the effect of their piece on an audience. Because the reading is hosted at The New School, the students also get to see a university, some of them for the first time. MFA candidates who participate in the WriteOn Fellowship will learn the following three key tenets of teaching:
- Adaptive curriculum building.
- Lesson planning.
- Classroom management.