Each semester, my Forensics club and our Creative Writing class put on a Writers’ Cafe on our campus. It’s the closest thing to a hip, cool coffee house that my small town of Tulare has.
We book the faculty lounge and transform it into a artists’ haven complete with twinkle lights, indie music, Starbucks coffee, homemade oreo pops, cheesecake bars, and brownies.
The students sign up to perform. Last night we had 22 kids...the list always grows as the night progresses with brave teens being drawn to the scuffed oak lectern. The pieces range from poems about sisters without makeup to family road trips in a big red van to original songs via acoustic guitar. This is true literacy.
The “L” word: Literacy. Anyone who works in education knows that buzz words come and go in our industry and “literacy,” though legit, is buzzin’. When I interviewed to be our school’s new Literacy Coach this semester, I was hesitant. I’m a teacher and have been for 13 years. It’s all I know and can be broken down into equal parts comfort and passion. Literacy Coach, though only half time, is a mystery. I’ll be working with my colleagues in a different way: how can we deepen and strengthen literacy across our campus in all areas?
It hit me that events like the Writers’ Cafe do just that: they allow the kids a venue to make their art public, to take the words that live in their heads or their crumpled Mead notebooks and expose them to 100 of their classmates. Last night, we had honors students, drop outs, football stars, and kids who live on the fringe of campus life performing side by side, sharing their words and their hearts with equal weight. One of my colleagues brought her 10 year old daughter and by the time the night was over, she had written two poems in prep for “when she is in high school.”
Writing for a public event intensifies your work: now you need just the right word, the perfect image, the most creative thought. It’s not simply being turned in for a grade by your English teacher, the work is coming to life, shining and sparkling in front of a captive, sugar-induced, caffeine-laden audience.
Our Creative Writing class on campus publishes our literary magazine filled with student work,
“The Mission Oak Review,” three to four times a year. This is not an overly complicated book, simply word processed and bound with a table top binding press. The kids GO CRAZY. In a world of digitized communication, you wouldn’t think they would care about old-fashioned paper, but they love to see their work and their name in a “real book.” Since space is limited, they all scramble to perfect their poems, short stories, plays, and autobiographical pieces. They want just the right word and ask for writing conferences...they are not getting a grade for it...they just want to be a “published author.”
I feel that this similar vibe could be achieved in all classrooms...not that you need a “real book” or a huge event with blueberry scones, but simply posting a “Best in Show” in your Google Classroom or creating a gallery space on the wall of your classroom. How about lining the walls of your building with student work so it leaves the confines of your room. We need to find ways for the students’ voices to be celebrated and maybe a bit more public.
As we were packing up the stray oreos and vanilla-caramel creamer last night, one of my quietest students came up to me and whispered, “when is the next one?” I told her November and asked if she may want to perform. She responded: “I’m going to start working on some pieces now and see how they turn out.” A teenager is going to start on some writing SEVEN MONTHS AHEAD OF TIME.
I think literacy has has won.