WITS Voices: Getting Around the Real

By Kelly Froh, WITS Writer-in-Residence

I had an idea to engage my middle-schoolers with a series of curated exercises that would magically entwine, crossover, and accelerate their understanding of the comics form, and that these students would turn out incredible comic pages for a final printed project.

It did not occur to me that some students didn’t constantly doodle like I did when I was their age, or that they didn’t naturally find joy or release in drawing. Hearing “I can’t draw” from a kid seemed like an oxymoron; how can this be?

Then, I remembered reading that a lot of kids stop drawing around age 9. I figured it was when video games and iPads entered their worlds, but with more research, I learned the many stages of drawing development: from scribbling, to symbols, to figures, to attempts at perspective. But after these stages, when kids develop a “visual awareness” in the world around them, they expect more from their drawings. They expect a level of “realness,” and the pressure to “get it right” rears its ugly head.

panel - Vincent.jpeg

As a comics teacher, I needed to counter “I can’t draw.” I saw this pressure to get it right in my students, and the relief when they rejected the white piece of paper in front of them. I couldn’t just say, “try,” or “use your imagination”: that white piece of paper was an ocean, a cliff, a freeway. Read more…

WITS Voices: Reflections from Nathan Hale High School

By Alex Gallo-Brown, WITS Writer-in-Residence

When I walked into Ms. Simmons-Rice’s class at Nathan Hale High School last month, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had taught writing at the community college level, but never to high school students, and certainly not to high school freshman, a time I remember with regret and a fair amount of shame, when I remember it at all. For the first day I intended to teach them a poem by the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called, “The Poet’s Obligation,” which begins, “To whoever is not listening to the sea / this Friday morning…I come, and without speaking or looking / I arrive and open the door of his prison.” The poet’s destiny, Neruda writes—the poet’s obligation—is to liberate “the shrouded heart.”

Perhaps because it was Monday, and not Friday, as in Neruda’s poem, or because they did not yet know me, or because an old-fashioned concept like “destiny” can land with a thud when not properly introduced, the kids were bored, they were repelled, a few of them even sneered. I left the class feeling that I had failed.

At home, I regrouped and licked my wounds. Freshman year of high school is often, as my mother, a long-time high school art teacher, reminded me, a painfully awkward time, a time when kids are transitioning from being the oldest at their schools to the youngest, when all of the confidence and experience accrued over three years of middle school is effaced by the realization that they are now the youngest, the least experienced, and the most vulnerable. I would have to be gentler, I decided, and less abstract. There would be less talk about freedom and the sea and the shrouded heart and more about the everyday experiences of contemporary life. Read more…

WITS Voices: Writing is Climate. Writing is Real. Writing is Change.

By Cody Pherigo, WITS Writer-in-Residence 

I’ve become semi-obsessed with checking the weather channel website several times a week for the last 3 months. It’s like Facebook without friends. I want it to tell me spring is here to stay, the sun exists, and temperatures will rise steadily to a glowing, saturated peak. But do I? We live in a world “stranger than fiction.” April 22nd was Earth Day. How does this relate to teaching? At their deepest root, writing and climate change are stripped down and unapologetic. They show and they tell.

The tentacles of everything are tied to my writing, and thus my teaching. That is the practice anyhow, the gesture. That is what I see in writers like Ross Gay, Alice Notley, and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. For instance, it’s my default to make jokes, talk about cats in class, and accidentally trip over a lamp cord during the final reading.

Read more…

“A Poem in the Voice of the Wind,” by WITS Student Stella Anderson

A Poem in the Voice of the Wind

Like you, I can make the warmest of weather
into a sick, shivering mess.
Like you, I am angry, and whip at people’s hair
and clothes, though you only do it in your imagination.
Like you, I love to stir up the sand with my
fingertips, but when I do it, I am rash and
violent, like a small child.
Like you, I sleep during the summer.
I believe in the gulls.
Like you, I love the snow, to spiral the flakes
into tornadoes and tsunamis in the leaves
of an evergreen.

This wonderful poem for your weekend was written by Stella Anderson, a 7th grader at Blue Heron School, with Language Arts teacher Brett Navin and WITS Writer Laura Gamache.

WITS Voices: Editorial Essays in a Time of Trauma

By Anastacia-Renee Tolbert, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Lately, I’ve been reading a host of fiction and nonfiction from writers who have come before me, thinking about my mortality and the current state of the world as a woman of color writing, teaching and mothering. So recently, I asked high school students to write editorial essays. To begin with, some cringed at the word “essay” and looked at me as though their poetry teacher had creatively betrayed them. “Essay,” I said, “is not a dirty word.”

After giving them a quick tutorial about cross-genre writing, and about the need for personal opinion to be balanced by facts, I could see some students instantly go into think tank mode—but one student said to me: “I don’t think my opinion is important enough to write a whole essay about it. I mean, I don’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter.”

My heart sank, and I remember yelling inside my head, “YOU DO MATTER; IT MATTERS.” After a short but intense brainstorming exchange with another student, her paper was riddled with ideas and question marks, but when I eagerly asked her what ideas she had been brewing, she quickly retorted, “None of your business.” My heart sank (again), because although she had written enough brainstorm material for two students, something inside of her felt like it didn’t matter enough to share it, not even her topic. Read more…

“Falling Angel,” by WITS Student Aaliyah Sayre

Falling Angel 

My father stands by my side listing
rule after rule after rule. I roll my
eyes and shun his words of caution
as he straps on my wings.
The wings are big and white. I secretly
threaded a raven feather for luck.
I look toward the blazing sun
and spread my wings and part
of my stomach fills with butterflies
swarming. I feel the fear start
to smother the curiosity and I soon
forget to flap my wings, too scared
to move I plummet down to the
rock-hard earth. I hit the ground and
fall asleep never to wake up again.

Aaliyah Sayre wrote this poem while a 6th grader at Hamilton International Middle School, with WITS Writer Laura Gamache. She will be reading “Falling Angel” to open tonight’s evening with British-Nigerian author Helen Oyeyemi, who will be delivering the last lecture in our 2016-17 Literary Arts Series, entitled “Shine or Go Crazy”: an exploration of Korean TV drama and narrative disruptions. 

Tickets will still be available at the SAL Box Office at Benaroya Hall beginning at 6:00 pm.

WITS Voices: On the Road Again

by Ann Teplick, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Oh, the hours I’ve spent behind the wheel of a Volkswagen bus, a Subaru, a Datsun, a Honda, from Seattle to Banff to San Francisco to Glacier National Park to D.C. to Montreal to Yellowstone to Austin to Philly.

Oh, the hours with the windows rolled down, with hair on the vertical, with music that blasts the asphalt of freeways and backroads, with Willie Nelson singing “On the Road Again.” Oh, the bags of M&M’s, and coffee cups from 7-Eleven stacked like crows that caw their reminders to stick to the speed limit and not blow out the tires.

Oh, there is nothing like rounding the bend to find mountains that glitter their best selves into the blue-gray, plum, and buttercup sky of early morning.

Enter the students at Seattle Children’s Hospital. They arrive in the classroom by 10:00 a.m. It’s Wednesday, our poetry day, and this day, mostly middle schoolers take a seat around the table. After introducing ourselves, and sharing one thing we love about the world, I steer the conversation to road trips. Where have we been? To the Olympic Peninsula; Cannon Beach, Oregon; Taos, New Mexico; Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Where would we like to go? To SeaWorld; the Grand Canyon; the biggest candy store in the universe (wherever that may be); the tulip fields in Skagit County; Legoland, in Florida. Someone says they want to go to the land where there is no pain. We take a moment to reflect upon this, and nod in solidarity.

Enter the cars that will take us there. Okay, we decide to dream big. Maybe bigger than big. We are in the mood for exotic. As in Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, and Cobra. And with their true-to-life exterior colors. I look them up on my cell phone. Rosso Corsa (Ferrari); Arancio Argos (Lamborghini); Grigio Metallo (Maserati); and Guardsman Blue (Cobra). Fresh off the assembly line, of course. Shiny and bright. No need for fleece blankets, or pillows, or books, or tablets to make everything cozy inside. No need to play games, like Road Trip Bingo, or I Spy, or Twenty Questions. We take our seat behind the wheel. We rev up the engine, and away we go. We are on the road and in charge of ourselves. Read more…

WITS Voices: Eating Poetry

By Kathleen Flenniken, WITS Writer-in-Residence

A friend of a friend was looking for a poem her fifth-grade son could memorize for a class project. The question came to me and I made a couple of suggestions. The boy chose “Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand. His mother sent a photo of him studying the poem with his dog.  That got me thinking: Strand’s classic poem is perfect for fifth graders—fun, a little weird, unpredictable, wild.  And perfect for imitation.

Eating Poetry, by Mark Strand

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

When my fifth grade classes talked (and laughed) about this poem, they immediately understood how it might be imitated, and how they could eat any number of things. I sometimes like to offer lists of possibilities to elementary students, so we went through some possible subjects they could “eat.” Then we discussed the form:

  • First, find a subject. Your title:  Eating ________.
  • What are you chewing on/what runs from the corners of your mouth/ what can you taste? REMEMBER: This is not literal. You don’t eat a dog and taste blood and bones (unless they’re Milk Bones?)  If you’re eating snow, you don’t have water in your mouth. Maybe you taste rooftops and curlicues of smoke coming out of a smokestack?
  • Who is watching you eat? How do they respond?  Make it unexpected. Trust yourself and try to be a little off-the wall.
  • What happens next? Again, it doesn’t need to make sense. None of this is possible so anything is possible.
  • Make images.
  • Use your senses.
  • Use metaphors and similes.

I was delighted by the level of imagination and word choice in these poems—they have lots of energy and precision. Perhaps the best part: their slightly wicked glee. . .

Read more…

WITS Voices: Imagination in a Post-Election Classroom

By Corinne Manning, WITS Writer-in-Residence

The day after the election, I carried a tote-bag full of ferns, poetry by June Jordan, and a memoir in comics by Lynda Barry into the high school. To my students, I tried to introduce the idea of imagination, of finding ways to tap into their sensory experiences, even when the notion of finding the body feels impossible—or even when the government continues to legislate as if you don’t exist, or reinforces that you aren’t possible. My students tickled the ferns against their skin, rubbed them between their hands, and pressed the leaves to their faces. That day, I heard about students all over the country being told to not protest or walk out of school. I overheard adults say, “What’s the point?” That the most vulnerable communities “won’t get it so bad here in Seattle.”

The best part of that day was that the room smelled like earth, thanks to all those ferns.

Since the election, I’ve been thinking a lot about the imagination: how to have my own, how to help students access their own during a time when what’s happening both actively and potentially is overwhelming, even for those who have been activists for decades. I’m not sure how someone sits in a school all day, not talking about the only thing there is to talk about—especially those students whose lives have been directly threatened even by previous administrations, who’ve been shown that they don’t matter, that they are impossible, their own existence in question.  Read more…