My co-teacher and I taught twelve bright minds for a semester through WriteOn, the New School’s partnership with George Jackson Academy to pair MFA candidates with middle schoolers to teach creative writing. For the middle school students, the creative writing class was a departure from the norm. Unlike some of their more regimented subjects, it granted them permission to take risks and make mistakes. It taught them storytelling, a skill I believe reaches beyond the creative writing classroom into their other subjects and into their lives outside of school. Here’s why:
When we entered the classroom on week one, the desks were in neat rows. The students looked up at us, expecting a lecture-style class discussion. The boys knew one another from their other classes, but there was no overwhelming sense of comradery. There were a few goofs, a serious student or two, and certainly a quiet one in the corner. It took some careful maneuvering to help the boys to discover that they had so much in common. We moved the desks in groups and circles, we did writing exercises, shared results, and soon started to see real progress. As writers often do, the boys drew from their personal experiences. I remember two of them connecting after discovering a shared interest in a video game. They connected over more serious subjects, too, like familial situations. No matter how silly these writing assignments started, they all ended in a vulnerable place which was as much a surprise to us teachers as it was to the students.
I confess that I didn’t anticipate the depth and eloquence of these young men and am humbled to have had the opportunity to hear their stories. They taught me as much (if not more) as I taught them. I saw storytelling break boundaries and bring a group of students together, and I truly believe that their writing altered their outlook. They became more sensitive and aware, which is what good writing does. Makes one slow down and pay attention. I remember a student in particular who hardly did his homework. Instead, he constantly doodled and interrupted class discussions to deliver his one-liners (which were quite funny, actually). While the other students were working on a prompt, I asked him about his drawings and shared that I was an artist too. I told him that his art, good as it was, would be so much more powerful if he could unlock his intention. Unlock the next level of your art, like a video game. Why does he draw? What purpose does it serve? When this student turned in a personal essay about drawing the next day, and I was so moved. This is a student who usually turns in a paragraph and here were two full single-spaced pages of honest self-inquiry. He became genuinely curious and his work flourished from then on.
Not all of these young men will go on to be writers, but I believe that their short time in a creative writing classroom has made an impact. And though the WriteOn program may not always focus on all-boys schools like George Jackson, I am thankful that my experience was able to impart a sense of compassion and empathy to young men. Too often society expects an unhealthy stoicism of boys, which can cultivate things like aggression and entitlement. If a simple thing like sharing a poem in a safe-space classroom full of trusted peers writing can have a positive effect on a young man’s worldview, I think it’s incredibly valuable. The boys I had the privilege to teach are smart, caring, and determined. I’m certain they will change the world.