Posts Tagged ‘education’

The Muse of Fire kids get a standing ovation.

As I’ve been saying this week, May is a beautiful month in the world of education. Oh, it’s stressful, but usually the stress comes because all the stuff you’ve been working for all year is finally completed, presented, and evaluated – the students hand in the big research paper, AP tests are taken, concerts are performed, end of the year picnics and receptions are attended, and so on.

Along with other end-of-the-year duties, I was busy getting the school literary journal off to the printer. Going back through the  poems, stories, essays, and comics the students have written over the past year reminded me of the real power of creativity to speak to universal truths and connect us to each other.

Then, as if I wasn’t riding high enough, I encountered two projects out in the city which are using creative writing to change kids’ lives in fundamental ways.

In mid-May, I attended the Muse of Fire First Class Plays performance at the Hamilton County Public Library.  Named for the lines in Shakespeare’s Henry V (Oh for a muse of fire that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention/A kingdom for a stage, princes to act/And monarchs to behold the swelling scene.), the Muse of Fire Project takes kids from local elementary schools through a 10-week play writing workshop. By the end, each child has a 10-minute play, which is then performed by professional actors (“real grown-ups!” as it says in the promotional literature.)  The project was started by Kate Forbes Dallimore and Stevie Ray Dallimore, both accomplished actors who relocated to Chattanooga from New York City last July as part of the phenomenal ArtsMove program. Good gracious, I love this city.

Kate invited me to come, so I went to the Saturday night performance, unsure exactly what to expect.  It was brilliant. The plays had titles like “Pac Man’s Life Game,” and they were about as imaginative as anything I’ve encountered at any level.  The one I remember best starred a trail marker who was friends with a mushroom and confided in said mushroom quite often. The trail marker was pretty sad because she was in love with the pine tree she was attached to, but he had an extremely wooden personality (ha!) and never noticed her.  Isn’t that brilliant? All the plays were like that. And, while watching the actors was fun, it was even more fun to watch the young playwrights react to the performances of their work (they were sitting off to the side of the stage) Like most writers, they started out timid and ended up thrilled.  These kids are from all types of public schools and all walks of life, and they have now shared the experience of drafting and worrying over work, seeing it interpreted and performed, and receiving all the applause and accolades it deserved.  Even if they never write another word (which I doubt will happen), there’s no way they’ll forget the triumph that comes from working hard, fussing over details, and letting their imaginations lead the way. Bravo! Fellow ‘Noogans, I implore you to check out the next round of performances, whenever those may be.  Or volunteer. Their facebook page can keep you connected.

Just a couple days after those performances, I read about Black & Bright!  – a literary journal run by 5th graders at Calvin Donaldson School.   The article I’ve linked to speaks to the power of that project.  Basically, two years ago, no child in that school, a school which is frequenly maligned as being dangerous and sub-par, would ever have identified themselves as a writer. Test scores were abysmal. Thanks largely to the efforts of volunteers and writing coach Kim Honeycutt, writing is now ingrained in the culture of the school. Test scores are up by 30 percentile points, and, more importantly, these children feel like they have a voice. That’s remarkable.

The arts are being sacrificed in schools across the country in the name of test scores and budgets, but Black & Bright!  proves that such moves are folly. Creative writing, creativity in general, teaches students in a way that nothing else can.

There are projects like these going on all around the country. In Montana, I did a little work with the Missoula Writing Collaborative. New York City abounds with creativity outreach projects – from the 52nd Street Project  to Girls Write Now.

I am so glad that I encountered about these efforts to reach out to students in Chattanooga. Next year, I plan to help. With any luck, I’ll get my own students in on the fun as well. May is a time when things wrap up, but new ideas start to form.


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In honor of my students who graduated on Sunday, I am posting the following poem by Richard Wilbur (b. 1921). It’s one of my favorites, and sure, it’s about a girl, not a boy, but, as I wrote yesterday – universality is the watchword here. Congrats, Class of 2011. I’ll miss you.  And, for the love of Pedro, keep writing.

The Writer
In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten.  I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

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One thing I really, really enjoy about being a teacher is the fact that there is a definitive beginning and ending to the year. It’s a profession that lends itself to renewal, yet each year also has its rituals and routines.

For this week’s PhotoWednesday, I have chosen pictures that represent each season of my 2010-11 school year.

For fall, I have a photo of freshmen rowers tossing their coxswain in the river after winning their first race in October. It’s a tradition for gold medal boats to send their coxswain for a swim, but I have to say, these guys did an especially good job with the launching.

Winter 2011 brought the greatest spate of snow days this Southern school has ever seen. Lacking sleds, the boys improvised with kayaks.

For spring, a photo that one of my students took with his cell phone. Since March, this little sparrow (I think it’s a sparrow) has been visiting the windowsill of my classroom. It’s always an event when he shows up – lots of clamoring to get pictures of him. We named him Pedro.  At this point in the year, Pedro reminds us of how close our freedom really is. Agonizingly close. Pedro, why must you taunt us??

Gold medal coxswain toss. Tennessee River. October 2010

Kayaking down three flights of stairs.

Ask not for whom the sparrow sings. Pedro sings for thee.

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I know you’re probably thinking, “What? No PhotoWednesday? Why am I even out of bed?”  I know, I’m sorry. But PhotoWednesday has been usurped by the exciting news that the good folks over at chapter 16.org just posted a review of the book.

I only just discovered Chapter 16 this year and I must say, if you love books and Tennessee, it’s a webpage you should become familiar with. It’s run by Humanities Tennessee, the organization which runs the Southern Festival of Books and the Tennessee Young Writers’ Workshop.

Chapter16.org is an excellent source for events, interviews (one with Nashville native Ann Patchett is currently up), and reviews. I sent them a copy of Confederate Streets in the hopes that they would come to believe it merited some attention….and they did.

So, please head on over there and read the review by Ralph Bowden.  If you’re so inclined, send the link to any potentially interested friends, colleagues, or news outlets. To be honest, I often have a hard time articulating what, precisely, Confederate Streets is about, but Mr. Bowden has done an excellent job with it.

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Like many, many writers, I spend most of my time reading work by aspiring writers.  Heck, often they’re not even aspiring writers so much as aspiring-to-get-the-hell-out-of-high school-ers.

Much has been made of the toil of grading papers and I have no intention to add to it.  Suffice to say, it’s  an activity that tests one’s stamina and sense of self-worth, but, like all such activities, grading papers is not without its rewards. And teaching , though fraught with toil, is incredibly rewarding.  This is the time of year where we teachers start to see some payoff in all the work we’ve been doing with our students, especially the seniors.

Tuesday night was Poetry Night at the all boys’ prep school where I teach.  My colleagues read some moving and interesting works.  Students from the Writing Fellows class I’ve been working with all year read their own stuff, and many guys in the boarding community came of their own accord and shared their work.  (We even had a young lady from the girls’ school deliver a rap about the Israli-Palestinian conflict).   The evening reminded me of the vitality of poetry.  The poems covered topics on everything from ancient Greece, to picking up girls, to death, to Duck Day, to walking goldfish (that was mine). The audience was engaged and receptive.  My friend, Sara Coffman read some pieces and gave a short, poignant lecture on the meaning and importance of poetry.

The best part of the evening, however, was watching the teenagers take the podium and read.  It’s easy for me to see students as vessels to be filled with knowledge, difficult to always remember the rich tapestry of their lives beyond the classroom. But poetry brings it all to light.  In fact, we had so much fun that Sara and I stayed behind with about a half dozen boys, eating cupcakes and talking about literature and movies. It was the type of night that really only comes toward the end of a school year, when much of the hard work is done, but the frenetic busy-ness of exams is not yet upon us.

And now, in honor of my students, who I really, really have enjoyed this year, some of my favorite pieces of student literary work from 2010-11.  I got permission from each boy to post his stuff, but I am leaving the last names off to protect their identity. I’m very proud of them, not just for what they’ve written, but for who they are.

Silly Me

I saw a bird

The other day

At least I think I did

I told my friend

About the bird

He called me an Idiot

“There are no birds

That live ’round here”

He said condescendingly

He told his friends

And his friends laughed

As they told me I was wrong

There was no bird

They convinced me;

Birds do not live around here

I thought I saw

A blue bird once,

But now I’m not so sure

– -Trace, 12th Grade



“An abnormal, persistent fear of being pursued by timber wolves around a kitchen table while wearing socks on a newly waxed floor” –Gary Larson

The wolves from which woods did come,

And entrench themselves within my home.

There nary is a way to flee from,

Their gnashing teeth and roaring foam.

Round and Round I start to run

And round my table they did chase.

My pace increases lest I’m done.

On and on in our deadly race,

How did these events transpire?

In only my socks I do tread.

My situation appears quite dire.

O the torment, terror, and dread.

On the wax my feet won’t grip,

My fear is great; I will slip.

–Avery, 12th Grade

2 A.M.

We ate a meal in a city diner.

I had coffee – black – and bitter.

You never finished your meals.

I lit a cigar once you left.

I wished to sear myself,

But that too would leave a scar.

–Banks, 12th Grade

I would never tell you,

but you are the shock of red flowers on green grass,

the warm grass on my skin,

and the green leaves waving in salute.

You are the coolness of a low stone wall,

the shadows playing on the ground,

and the low-laying scent of Asian cuisine.

Unfortunately, you soon become

the dull hum of car engines,

The smell of damp stone and the taste of aphids,

the sound of chattering people and the word toque.

Always, though, you will be

a blue bike at rest on Baker Lane formally Baxter Wynd,

the woman hopping to put back on her shoe,

the slight pressure of the wind on my face,

and a short red skirt on the move.

–David, 12th Grade

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This week is guaranteed to go by quickly as every day is filled with some sort of literary event, including my own reading on April 15 at Winder Binder/A Novel Idea on the North Shore in Chattanooga.

In honor of a week that’s certain to be as glorious as it is exhausting, I will be posting an excerpt or short work by each author I plan on seeing during the week.

I’m starting with Mr. Bill Brown.  Brown will be reading as part of a group of Southern poets at 2 p.m., Sunday April 17, at Winder Binder/A Novel Idea.

Mr. Brown was my creative writing and English teacher for two years at Hume-F0gg High School in Nashville. I have had many teachers and professors who have made it possible for me to be where I am today in my writing, but Mr. Brown was the first to show me what words can really do – not just his, but mine. As I’ve been reconnected with him professionally over the past few years, I’ve been struck by how much his poetry and ways of seeing influenced my own work.  Now, for your reading pleasure, two poems by Bill Brown.  If you like them, for pete’s sake, buy one of his books. You won’t be disappointed.

What the Night Told Me

The owl and whipporwill know this well

that while the world sleeps, earth

still swings around the sun

the sun in its slow death

swirls a broader arc

and light rushes toward

the red fringe of something

and the moon for which they sing

drags each sea with a whip

Weasel and snake know this well

that rock and limb do not reveal

their shadow in the night

the warm blood of a rat

can be sensed without

the distraction of light

a prey’s shriek is swallowed by darkness

only man clutches his mate

when the talons of owl surprise

the silent rabbit, its scream

does not keep the raccoon

from watching that great horned

drag its soft catch across the sky

Worms and maggots know this well

that rot feeds on darkness

the source of all light

is decay, the cool glow

of foxfire thrives on dead wood

polished bones glare at night

and only reflect

what they cannot keep.

from What the Night Told Me, Copyright 1993, Bucksnort Press

Okay, now one from his latest book The News Inside, which is currently available on amazon.com

The Melting

There should be hope in the leaves’ first turning –

summer green fringed gold and crimson, webbed

hands reaching out against the curtain’s blue.

Winter and what it takes from the heart

is almost worth it. Year by blessed year,

in the shortened days, something is stolen

that cannot be reclaimed – a swelling in the chest

when night comes soon. At a certain age

a man takes a season’s beginnings, the small

beauties – frozen rings on creek rocks,

the first skein of ice in the horse trough.

He holds it to the morning sun and it burns

his palm as it drips through his fingers.

Each year he grips it tighter

to see his face melt in the fire.

from The News Inside, Copyright 2010, Iris Press

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If cities full of people really did spontaneously break into showtunes, the writers and bibliophiles of Chattanooga would currently be dancing in front of the Tivoli, singing “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails.” Those of us who love writing and literature are getting ready to step out to breathe an atmosphere that simply reeks of literary class.  The excitement as we prepare to (metaphorically) suit up and geek out is palpable.

The main event that has us all tap dancing on Broad Street is the biennial Conference on Southern Literature, during which the South’s literary giants (Roy Blount, Jr., Dorothy Allison, Bobby Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, Lee Smith…the list goes on) will converge on the Scenic City for four days of panels, conversations, book clubs, readings, and gatherings.

But, as if that isn’t enough, the city will be celebrating more local writers (including yours truly) at the  Faux Bridges Art and Literature Festival.

In the middle of all this, David Sedaris is coming to town! (like Santa…or a Roman bell filled with chocolate).

As if these events weren’t enough, the all-boys’ prep school where I teach will be hosting a poetry night, featuring my wonderful, talented friend, Sara Coffman.

Here’s what the week will look like for me:

April 12 – Writing Center hosts Poetry Night with Sara Coffman (and many, many student and faculty readers) at McC.

April 13 – The Southern Literature Book Club will discuss In Country with Bobbie Ann Mason.  Oh, and who gets to drive Ms. Mason back from Winder Binder (where we meet) to the hotel? THIS gal! (so while I am only metaphorically brushing off my metaphorical tails, I need to literally clean out my car)

April 14 – Southern Lit. Conference officially begins. I will be catching my breath and probably trying to get my school’s literary journal to the printer. (oh yeah, that deadline is this week too)

April 15, 7 p.m. – Chattanooga Launch for Confederate Streets – the kick-off event for the Faux Bridges Art and Literature Festival on the North Shore. Reading is at Winder Binder/A Novel Idea.  Books will be available for purchase. Drinks and refreshments provided.

April 16, 11:30 – Southern Lit. Conference Keynote Luncheon. Roy Blount, Jr. will be speaking. Ernest Gaines will receive the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement.

Robert Morgan, a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, will be reading at Winder Binder/A Novel idea, at 6 p.m.

David Sedaris at the Tivoli, 8 p.m. (tickets still available, last I checked)

April 17, 2 p.m. – Faux Bridges continues with the launch of Southern Light – an anthology of 12 contemporary Southern poets. One of the readers for this event will be Bill Brown, who was my creative writing and English teacher in high school. His poems are absolutely incredible and I can’t wait to be there.

So, that’s about it. It’s a good thing that words feed the soul, because I’m not sure how much time there will be for actual eating or sleeping for all of us Chattanooga writers and readers.

In preparation for the big week, I will be posting work connected to each event over the coming days.  Keep checking back.  Also, look for more news in The Pulse and various other Chattanooga literary outlets.

And put on your top hat, if you have one.

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