Creative Writing Program: Writing in the Schools

"Writing in the schools" appears on a sheet of paper on a wood paneled desk near a fountain pen and a rose

Beginning in fall 2018, a partnership between the Creative Writing program and the Toledo School for the Arts (TSA) has developed. TSA is a public charter school that opened in 1999, and is sponsored by BGSU. Program Director Frank Daniel Rzicznek and several MFA students have visited middle and high school classes at TSA, working with younger students on reading and writing poetry. The goal is to expand the lessons to include fiction as well, and to introduce the Writing in the Schools program to additional schools.

Dan, along with MFA students Sherrel McLafferty and Evan Blake, shared their experiences with the Writing in the Schools partnership and the future of the relationship.

How did the relationship with TSA form?

Dan: When poet Rita Dove visited for the Creative Minds series in the Fall of '18, the TSA contacted us to bring current students and faculty to the reading. We also arranged a meeting with Creative Writing faculty on the afternoon of the Dove event in which TSA students met and conversed with our own Abby Cloud and Brad Felver. TSA teacher and chair of English, Justin Longacre, has since become a linchpin in our partnership. Months later I was sitting in an Arts Roundtable meeting when Doug Meade, director of the TSA,  mentioned to the larger group that the TSA was eager to have any and all faculty and students from BGSU engage with their classes. I jumped at the chance and contacted Justin and the rest has unfolded from there.

What are the goals of the partnership and the classroom sessions?

Dan: The main goals of the partnership are to share the expertise, knowledge, and passion of Creative Writing's graduate students and faculty with the greater Northwest Ohio community. We want to develop a wider audience for literary texts, and we want to share creative writing as an activity that is accessible to people of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels.

A secondary goal is to provide our graduate students with additional teaching experience, and to develop a more well-rounded sense of literary citizenship that they can carry forward into their post-graduate lives. Working with the TSA is hopefully the tip of the iceberg as we explore other schools and community organizations in the area to partner with.

Sherrel: I simply wanted a taste at what appreciation for poetry sounded like from younger minds. What’s exciting them? Essentially, what does the future look like for my field and am I doing a good job fitting in with that?

Evan: I was excited to provide any expertise or guidance I could to high school and middle school students who are writing poetry! Once I got into the classroom, though, I think the collaboration that happens when working with students of that age is even more important—we’re both learning what each other thinks about poetry, what possibilities there are in poetry.

How are classroom sessions structured?

Dan: For this current semester we have structured our lessons around published poems, mostly by contemporary poets. We are operating under the premise that good poems are their own best examples and models--that learning to write poetry is best accomplished by learning from proven and successful poems. Lessons and writing sessions have included poems by Dorianne Laux, Jennifer Tseng, Tishani Doshi, Natalie Shapiro, and others.

Graduate students play the role of visiting teachers. I went solo to the TSA over Winter Session to meet the students and try out a prompt. Since then, it has exclusively been graduate students in our MFA program choosing poems, developing lessons, and conducting classroom visits. I tag along when I can to offer support and mentorship, but the graduate students are really in charge of their own lessons and offerings.

Sherrel: We usually bring in a poem, read it aloud, and have students reflect on what stood out to them. We ask them to listen for repetition or whatever craft element that is the focus of our talk. Then, we have them emulate the poem in some way. [The students] are so eager to start writing. They are so eager to hear our praise.

Evan: In a middle school classroom, I shared a persona poem from the perspective of a piano being played (“The Piano Speaks” by Sandra Beasley). We talked about it for a bit, and then I asked the students to write persona poems from the perspective of everyday objects that they interact with.

When I got to teach in the middle school classroom at TSA, the students were in a happy, fun mood, which is a fantastic way to experience reading and writing poetry in school. It seemed like each student responded to the prompt in the way they wanted to—some wrote playful poems, some wrote quiet poems, some wrote contemplative poems. It was great to see that students felt OK about creating poetry in different attitudes and tones.

What are some of the rewards and challenges of teaching at the middle and high school level?

Sherrel: [One of the rewards is] having someone just hand their class over to us, to trust that we know what we are doing. I feel like a legitimate writer when I enter these spaces who has skill and experience to offer.

Evan: The most rewarding element has been seeing students enjoying and engaging in writing good poems! I’m glad that the activities we’ve brought have helped them write and have fun with language.

It’s been a while since I’ve been in middle school. The students were very patient with me as I tried to relate to them…sometimes unsuccessfully. I’ve been surprised by how much thought goes into a well-made writing prompt as well. You have to be able to abstract an element of poetry from a poem and then you have to express that element as a task or challenge for students.

What are some of the benefits of introducing students to these creative writing practices early on?

Dan: The students at the TSA are already quite familiar with the ideas and writers we bring to their classes. Justin Longacre is a publishing poet and avid reader of poetry. His students have read some of the same contemporary poets that I've taught to my graduate students. So we're not really introducing them to anything, but rather augmenting the already fantastic and innovative teaching happening at the TSA. They've had the fire going for some time—we're just offering a little extra fuel. The outreach initiative's next step will be to identify schools and community organizations where the ashes are cold and there's a need to spark fresh engagement!

Sherrel: This is an age when they are picking schools based on their interest. Being able to come to them from the MFA and say, there is a degree you can find or some life to be led based on writing and you can be a part of it. I’m proof that there are people who take your poetry seriously. I guess I get to add legitimacy to their artistry.

Evan: I think it’s a cool opportunity for students to be able to learn from and interact with “real poets.” I hope we can provide a perspective to writing poetry that’s realistic, exciting, and relatable.