Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mentoring Young Writers--and Yourself

I led a workshop last weekend at the Thurber House, a literary center located at the once-family home of James Thurber, who grew up in my hometown of Columbus, OH. Fifteen or so kids, ranging from 3rd-7th grade showed up to go “Nutty about Nonfiction.”

Participants included:
- two girls who go to each other’s houses after school to write together,
- a girl who writes chapters of fan fiction inspired by the Warriors cat series,
- a boy who said in the first five minutes that he didn’t read or like nonfiction, but he likes to write and so wanted to try different genres. (Good for him!)
- a few kids who were wondering why their parents signed them up for this.

By the end of the afternoon, then all had proven themselves to be true writers. Together, we faced down writer’s block, and each young writer found the story and voice for his or her piece. Their writing was colorful and informative and wonderful. Then during the sharing time, we had the prerequisite apologies for their work. What a bunch of writers! Simultaneously proud to have something, anything at all on the page and disappointed that the words don’t yet live up to their ideal.

We talked about not needing to apologize. They had done good, important work just by showing up and giving their best effort with paper and pencil in hand. That’s what makes today’s writing good. And if desired, a writer can always make good work even better by showing up and doing the same tomorrow.

Then came the parents and siblings and cookies and punch. A good time was had by all.

One interesting aspect of teaching is that we are more likely to be generous on behalf of others than we are on behalf of ourselves. And it's inspiring to see good advice used to good effect by young writers. It's a good reminder of core principles that relate to our own writing lives.

p.s. The boy didn’t like nonfiction said at the end that it was now “less boring.” I’ll take that as a compliment from a middle schooler.


  1. So happy to learn about this, Cheryl! Lucky you and lucky students!

    Funny thing about teaching that many who teach won't ever acknowledge, is that WE learn with our students. But so many professors, teachers, people in a position of power, let that power consume them. They brush off the students who aren't as fast as the others, who aren't as confident, who don't--in their "opinion" possess the goods to excel. When really the problem IS the teacher, NOT the student. Bell Hooks is a wonderful scholar to read about the power dynamic in the classroom ("Teaching to Transgress" is one of my faves--and really, anyone who is called to teach should read it).

    When a teacher refuses to learn, to grow along with her students, to examine herself (her own writing), and to acknowledge to herself and to the students that she isn't an omnipotent figure, privileged by tenure to act however she wishes, stomping on the student who she thinks has the least potential of the class, making an example of a student and confusing the student's work with the student as a person--the teacher fails. The class fails. Unlike writing, the act of teaching isn't solitary. And because a teacher holds power--read any and all discourse or step into a classroom and check out where a teacher's desk is compared to the students desks--she possesses the power to open the struggling student, to help the student see her strengths for herself. And what a wonderful moment after a long teaching day when a student who "didn't like nonfiction" approaches you later and is comfortable to admit that "it's less boring." THAT'S what teaching's all about.

    So, of course, when I cringe when I overhear conversations from newly minted grad. students who say: "IDK, maybe I'll teach or something. I can teach with this degree..." Sure, I say. Sure. But you've got to want it. Teaching ain't about you. You will learn from them, I say. You will. You will.

    A teacher is called to the profession just as the writer is to her work. When neither teaching or writing is done from an honest place--neither will work.

    Sounds like "Nutty for Nonfiction" came from the right place, Cheryl! And those students who weren't sure why their parents sent them there, left the class with something: hope, a community, and knowing a teacher who cares. :0)

  2. p.s. Okay, this comment totally didn't look THAT long in the comment box. Sheesh... :0/

  3. Melissa, you are as passionate about teaching as you are about writing!