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Spreading the Word

Story by
Nancy Joseph

“Have you found some interesting phrases? Are you writing them down?” As Jennifer Aumann roams a classroom at Seattle’s Eckstein Middle School, she pauses at each table to check on the students’ progress. The assignment: to create a poem using words and phrases culled from popular magazines. 

Jennifer Aumann (left) working with seventh graders at Eckstein Middle School through the Writers in the Schools Program.

Jennifer Aumann (left) working with seventh graders at Eckstein Middle School through the Writers in the Schools Program. Media credit: Mary Levin

Aumann, a graduate student in the UW Creative Writing Program, has been visiting Eckstein weekly throughout the school year, sharing her passion for the written word through the Writers in the Schools Program. She’s not alone; in the past few years, the Creative Writing Program has encouraged an increasing number of MFA students to reach out to K-12 students and classrooms.

Maya Sonenberg, director of the Creative Writing Program, credits Christine Goodheart of the UW’s Office of Educational Partnerships and Learning Technologies with jump-starting such outreach efforts. 

“About six years ago, Christine decided it would be useful to bring together on- and off-campus organizations involved in outreach with literacy and writing,” says Sonenberg. “The organizations included the Creative Writing Program and Puget Sound Writing Project—both housed in the UW English Department, the UW Pipeline Project, Richard Hugo House, Powerful Writers, and Seattle Arts & Lectures. We looked for areas of overlap. The goal was to work with our strengths.”

The group received a start-up grant from the Breneman Jaech Foundation; the support allowed Creative Writing to hire an intern to develop ongoing literacy internships with other groups, building on an existing internship. 

Validation Through Writing

The existing internship with Writers in the Schools—a program of Seattle Arts & Lectures—was once a quarter-long internship. Now several students intern for a full year. 

For Jennifer Aumann, who made weekly visits to Eckstein Middle School this year, the Writers in the Schools internship was a perfect fit. The MFA student is a former high school English teacher who welcomed the opportunity to return to the classroom. 

“I missed teaching last year, during my first year in graduate school,” says Aumann. “Teaching gets you out of your own head.” 

Her teaching experience came in handy, since the internship involved creating a syllabus and lesson plans for her weekly writing sessions in the classroom. And, of course, keeping hormonal pre-teens focused on poetry is not for the faint of heart.

Jennifer Aumann with Eckstein students.

Jennifer Aumann with Eckstein students.  Media credit: Mary Levin

“At first, some of the students would say, ‘Writing, I hate writing!,’” recalls Aumann. “But I would come up with activities that would get them into it.”

While some students were natural writers, others surprised themselves—and Aumann. “There were some who seemed like ‘angry kids,’” she recalls. “I wasn’t sure how they would do. As it turned out, they wrote some really strong stuff, with surprising amounts of improvement along the way. It sounds clichéd, but when their writing made it into the anthology— published by the class at the end of the term—they had a real sense of validation.”

Mentoring Motivated Teens

Megan Keefe’s experience was entirely different, working with youth already 
dedicated to writing. Through a new collaboration, Keefe coordinated the 
mentor program at Richard Hugo House, an independent literary arts center in 
Seattle. She paired writers from the community with teens seeking feedback 
on their writing, met regularly with the mentors, and organized readings of the teens’ work. She also served as a mentor herself.

“I didn’t have any writing mentors when I was young,” says Keefe. “I didn’t even show my stuff to my family. A program like this would have been great.”
The program requires mentor pairs to meet weekly for six months. The teens, says Keefe, “tend to be very laid back, but also surprisingly professional about their work.”

Keefe’s own mentee was a high school senior who was writing a series of short 
stories and a critical essay for his high school thesis. At first the teen was “pain-fully shy,” says Keefe, but over time he opened up. “He’s made huge strides, 
becoming much more comfortable questioning my edits and reading out loud.”

That’s a good thing, because Hugo House emphasizes sharing one’s writing. Keefe organized frequent open mike readings, with all mentor pairs reading their work and discussing how they work together.

“The pairs can tend to get isolated,” explains Keefe. “I think the young writers in particular like to hear what the other writers are doing. It’s not formal at all. It’s just fun.”

A Powerful Connection

Alice Marshall also had budding writers read their work—in their second grade classroom. Marshall interned with Powerful Writers, a program within the Powerful Schools organization. Powerful Writers volunteers serve as mentors and tutors in elementary school classrooms visited by a writer-in-residence, providing one-on-one attention to students as needed. 

This year, the UW Creative Writing Program began collaborating with Powerful Writers—with a twist. During autumn quarter, Marshall spent ten hours each week at Beacon Hill Elementary School as a mentor/tutor. The next quarter she began teaching an undergraduate seminar on introducing writing in the K-12 classroom. The seminar was offered through the UW’s Pipeline Project, which sends UW undergraduates into public schools as volunteers. Seminar participants served as mentors/ tutors in elementary school classrooms, as Marshall had done during autumn quarter.

The Powerful Writers approach involves setting aside time each day to write and providing the tools and vocabulary to learn to write, says Marshall. “My observation of kids who have been in a Powerful Writers classroom for any time at all is that they are astoundingly fluent for their age, and very facile with he tools of writing,” she says.

Marshall’s second-grade class project involved building poems around a key word, then “exploding” the word with related words to come up with a poem. “Some of them were lovely,” she says.

UW students in a Pipeline Project seminar led by Alice Marshall (second from left) share writing projects they have been developing for  K-12 classrooms.

UW students in a Pipeline Project seminar led by Alice Marshall (second from left) share writing projects they have been developing for  K-12 classrooms. Media credit: Karen Orders

Back on campus, Marshall had Pipeline participants step into the shoes of the young learners—figuratively, of course—by requiring them to write for ten minutes at the same time each day, as the grade school children were required to do. 

“I didn’t expect them to follow through on that—it’s an impossible assignment for an undergraduate—but reporting on what led to not doing it, or resisting it, was as important as accomplishing it,” says Marshall. “Their empathy for elementary school students and teachers went way up.”

The three-way collaboration of the Creative Writing Program, the Pipeline Project, and Powerful Writers has been a first for all involved—an experiment that Sonenberg hopes can be expanded in the future. “It’s tiny,” she says of the nascent project, “but it’s a promising model.”

And, adds Sonenberg, every opportunity to encourage creative writing is valuable. 

“The focus of K-12 education has become increasingly narrow, emphasizing what can be measured quantitatively,” says Sonenberg. “These collaborative programs can bring something else to those students —the excitement and joy of creating something with words.”