Learning What I Already Know

Last week I participated in a workshop for Writers in the Schools. This is my second year with WITS and Colorado Humanities. As a writer, the opportunity to share my craft with young people is both edifying and inspiring. In developing a lesson for young students, I examine the mechanics of my writing and identify the specific component of my own process that I want to teach. In the classroom, students ineluctably generate surprising responses to the writing exercises and inspire me to think of my own writing in new ways.

Jack Collom literally wrote the book on teaching poetry in the classroom: Poetry Everywhere. He opened the WITs workshop by leading a writing exercise with seventeen of us. As we gathered around a landscaped pond outside the Colorado Humanities offices in Denver, he asked us to write and share a poem that expressed the “pondness of the pond”, an exercise similar to the activities John Daido Loori Roshi prescribed during a Zen intensive weekend.

I had Jack as a professor at Naropa University and have watched him teach elementary school children. In both situations, he is able to inspire everyone to write–on the spot, anyone in his workshops writes and writes well. His teaching style is also the same in both situations. For adult writers, he is able to activate the playfulness of language. For young writers, he brings out the discipline and rigor necessary for creative writing.

When I teach mathematics, students often ask, When am I ever going to use this? ? The doubt is palpable in their voices. I answer the question with a metaphor that most students are able to understand (even if they don’t readily believe). Doing mathematics is like weight training. Football players do not lift metal bars during a game, but during practice they do. Athletes train with weights because they want to isolate and develop specific muscle groups. Students train with various mathematics to develop specific cognitive abilities: fluid reasoning, short term and working memory, long term memory retrieval, etc.

When I lead a workshop on poetry, students never ask when they will need this. Language is ubiquitous, and the way I teach, creative writing draws attention to the overlooked aspects of the language we know and use. Even young writers are fully equipped to write poetry. I don’t have to teach an eight year old the concept of rhythm or simile or imagery (although I might introduce or reinforce the vocabulary); my intention as a writer in the school is to help the young poet notice and use what she already knows.

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