Creating Emotional Space with Words

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , on February 26, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Imani Sims, WITS Writer-in-Residence

It was day five and my eighth grade students were still writing about an inside joke that had something to do with pears and noodles. As you can imagine, after the fifteenth poem about pears, I sat down with my classroom teacher to brainstorm how we could adjust Monday’s lesson to inspire some emotional response from these eighth graders. After a bit of deliberation, we decided to give them a list of emotions, ask them to silently reflect on specific times when they felt that way and simply write them down. We turned the lights off. Asked the students to close their eyes and simply think. After five minutes, we asked them to list all the instances that came up for them, during reflection. Hands flew across pages. It seemed to be working. Students were jotting things down and dumping real responses onto the page. After a few minutes, the chatter began and I knew it was time to move into the next phase of writing. I asked students to choose one emotion or one instance they had written down and begin to list details:

“What room were you in?”

“Who was with you?”

“Did you hear anything?”

“Maybe the cars outside or yelling?”

“What were the smells around you?”

A hand flew into the air, “Ms. Imani, can sterile be a smell?”

“Absolutely!” I responded.

“Keep working. What colors were around you? Give me as many details as possible. Put me inside of the moment with you.”

As the students crafted their moments, my classroom teacher and I circled the room like shepherds, gently guiding sheep to pasture. Each question was inspired. The eighth graders were finally coming into their own as writers and the bell rang. The next day, we took their moments a step further. I asked them how they could begin to craft these details into a poem. We displayed an example from a creative writing course their classroom teacher took, years before. She used provocative images to describe the day her father left. Everything from Legos to doors slamming placed the students in the moment. We asked the eighth graders to pick the imagery they thought would transport the readers to whatever moment they chose.

Over the next 50 minutes, the Broadview-Thomson eight grade class crafted some of the most beautiful poetry I had read in a middle school setting. For the culmination, I asked all of the students to present their work to the class. As students read, the eighth graders bore witness to their classmates’ stories with grace. They responded in a way that was supportive and loving. They held space for every emotion that surfaced. A few students cried, as some told tales about struggles with self harm and others boiled up with passion as they described the injustices the black community, in America, faced. These are the moments that inspire me to continue my work as a WITS Writer. Here, my work as an educator and artist has purpose.

Turning History into Comics: David Lasky’s Visit to Washington Middle School

Posted in Author Visits with tags , , , , on February 24, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate

The Oregon Trail seems to have been following me for most of my life. To some extent, I followed an urban version it, from growing up in the suburbs of Illinois, to attending college in Colorado, to eventually moving to Seattle. Like many others who grew up in the 1980s, my most memorable connection to the Trail was the hours I spent moving the massive pixels of my digital “family” and their wagon across Missouri and Nebraska, usually losing most of them to dysentery and typhoid before reaching Wyoming, in the video game I played during elementary school.

Those sicknesses and the existence of the wagons are most of what I can remember from what may or may not have been a history unit about the Trail –clearly not a very fruitful one. What made me realize this recently was not my own westward journey but a version of the Trail that took the form of a graphic novel, as it was projected before an audience of Washington Middle School students, by the artist and writer who created them, David Lasky.


David Lasky speaks to students at Washington Middle School.

It is not difficult to convince a room full of sixth graders to take a pause from the school day to think about comics. We expect comics to induce laughter or pull us into the drama that unfolds across their panels, both of which David Lasky’s comics and graphic novels do. However, the moment the artist started showing drawings from his and Frank Young’s book, Oregon Trail: The Road To Destiny, the library full of students fell especially silent. Apparently things have not changed since the 80s: kids still love the story of the Oregon Trail.


Pages from ‘Oregon Trail: The Road to Destiny,’ by Frank Young and David Lasky. Image from

As David went on to show them an advertisement from a more recent video game inspired by the Trail, he asked the students to point out parts of the image they thought might be historically inaccurate. A field of hands shot up instantly. One noticed how the wagon looked like it was moving too fast; David agreed and pointed out the way most people on the Trail walked beside the wagons rather than sitting in them. Another thought the horses pulling the wagon should actually be oxen; David confirmed this was indeed correct. Most often, students were bothered by the expressions on the travelers’ faces; these people were having too much fun to be enduring the laborious journey of the Trail. David wholeheartedly agreed.

Afterwards, David explained the reason he knew so much about the Oregon Trail was all of the research he puts behind his work. Once, he journeyed all the way to an obscure museum in Virginia, in order to see the belongings of the Carter family, which he used to illustrate the intricate details of his and Young’s more recent graphic novel, The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song. He pointed out the way a quilt he had seen became the background for a vivid panel that showed the family recording one of their most important hits. Images like that of the quilt, in which historical facts intersected with the creative mind of an artist so beautifully on the page, were the ones that will help us all remember history in the most meaningful ways.


Page from ‘The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song,’ by Frank Young and David Lasky. Image from

My Future Self is Now

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , on February 19, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Katy E. Ellis, WITS Writer-in-Residence

On February 2nd, I started my first ever WITS residency, a two-week intensive at Broadview Thomson K-8. My mission: to teach memoir to 78 kindergarteners. The idea of teaching memoir to five- and six-year-olds mystified and tickled me at first. Not only did I wonder how much personal history they might have to recount (seeing as almost half of their lives they couldn’t even speak understandable words), but how in the world were they going to physically write about their memories on the page?

I mostly used techniques I’d learned from working with my daughter’s phenomenal K-1 teacher at Pathfinder K-8 and from my experience teaching very young, emergent writers at The Family Learning Program, a West Seattle home school organization. Lots of empty boxes for drawings that will help the writer get started and to remember what he or she wants to write. Beginning sentences or poetic lines that the writer completes. Modeling my own writing on a large piece of paper, sounding out the letters and “reading the room” for frequently used words (e.g., and, the, my, is, friend). We did “My Six Word Memoir”, a list of “I Remembers” (using a kid-appropriate selection from Joe Brainard’s classic book length poem), a repetitive poem called “A Version of My Life as [my favorite animal]” and other exercises. I asked students to rely on the fact that they are the experts of their own lives since they are the ones living it. Even though fine motor letter making was a challenge to most students, they understood the lessons and put their best kindergarten selves forward.

But then, things went a little wonky. I asked the kids to look into the future. Memoir by definition is a story from a person’s life, an experience of a story that has already happened and the person has lived to tell about—usually in great detail—so it’s no wonder “Letter to My Future Self” was the toughest lesson I taught in this residency. Now, the students’ task was not only to move their small hands in tiny movements to make shapes that represent the sounds in each word, but to also dream up something that may or may not happen in his or her future! Yes, a tough writing assignment but one that eventually generated a lot of excitement in the room and seemed to turn a lot of wheels and cogs.

It started with a math lesson. The kids helped me figure out how old I would be in 10 years (we don’t need to talk about the sum they came up with), and then we calculated how old they will be in 10 years. When they discovered they’d be teenagers, most students were nonplussed and hard pressed to tell me what life would be like for them. I told them that they would be in high school, old enough to drive and maybe have an after-school job. Slowly they began to see it. They sat “knee to knee” and talked with a friend about what they might be doing when they were 15 or 16. Would they drive a car? If so, what kind? (For Brian it would be a “kuhmaro”!) Would they have a job? Friends? Long hair? How would they feel? Soon, being a teenager seemed to some students the same as being a fifty-year-old, with a steady mad scientist job. For others, it meant sleeping all day or traveling. Most everyone hoped they were happy, healthy and employed.

Future Soren

Dear Future Me, Age: 15,
When you read this I think you will get a job. It’s going to be a policeman.
I hope you get a job.

Soren, Age 5

Future Sierra

Dear Future Sierra, Age: 15,
When you read this I think you will knit a scarf.
I hope you get a job.

Sierra, Age: 5

Future Dasha

Dear Future Dasha, Age: 15,
When you read this I think you will be in Russia.
I hope you will be happy.

Dasha, Age 5

Future Fatimah

Dear Future Fatimah, Age: 80 [some kids wanted to go far into the future]
When you read this I think you will drive a car.
I hope you don’t get sick.

Fatimah, Age: 6

For years, I’ve imagined what it would be like working with so many children, learning their names and teaching something that I truly love and that I believe in. I’ve hoped that I would do right by my students (i.e., not scar them for life or totally turn them off of writing). I’ve looked forward to being a writer in the schools for a long time. And now it has happened!

I keep mulling over one student’s words, “I hope you love myself,” and how her sentence wrestles with the shift of tenses and the shifting self in the confusion of trying to understand something new. In my head I’ve been saying “I hope you love myself” and it feels like a little reminder from my future self telling the present me to keeping loving myself despite the tough lessons. Or maybe it’s the present me forewarning my future self to stay present. We still have one last day together, me and the kindergarteners at Broadview Thomson K-8. It will be our celebration day, and it will always be something I’ve looked forward to.

WITS Broadsides Project, Starring Poems by Seattle Children’s Hospital Patients

Posted in General with tags , , , , , on February 17, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Jeanine Walker, WITS Program Director

On a sunny Friday morning, 9 a.m., Sierra Nelson and Ann Teplick trekked to the Seattle Arts & Lectures office in Georgetown to convene with me over coffee and tea about the poems we’d select for this year’s Writers in the Schools (WITS) collaboration with the School of Visual Concepts (SVC). The project—its fifth year in the making now—is a partnership between WITS, SVC, and Seattle Children’s Hospital.

photo 2

How does it work? Each year, WITS places Sierra and Ann at the hospital as writers-in-residence. Working with the hospital’s Education Department and the Pediatric Advanced Care Team, the poets visit students in their hospital rooms, in the schoolroom, and in the The Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Unit to lead generative writing activities, working either in small groups or one-on-one. Sierra and Ann, replete with a full bag of lessons adaptable to any age, inspire and guide the students to write image-filled, inventive, emotional, and delightful poems. The poets then compile many pages of these student poems from the past year—all of them moving and completely irresistible—and we three, as a group, struggle to narrow down the poem selection further to match the number of SVC letterpress artists who will volunteer their time and talents this spring to interpret these poems into beautiful, colorful, inspired letterpress designs hand-printed as broadsides.

The process of poem selection is, perhaps needless to say, a challenge. Understandably, Ann and Sierra are often attached to the young writers: they remember the moment each poem came into being, the memory often bound up in the intensity of the hospital setting or the circumstances of that young writer or their family. In some cases they may have worked with a student over a long period of time and have gotten to know them and their struggles, along with their writing, so that it’s often hard to separate the poem from the poet. That’s where I come in—though, occasionally, I, too, have met the poet—and then it’s even more difficult. I do, though, attempt to lend a degree of objectivity, and all in all, we aim to end with a collection that is full of unique images, just the right mix of younger and older students, and a celebration of the imagination exploring a range of feelings, from the difficult to the playful, which will be ripe for the picking by the letterpress artists.

photo 1

We’re not quite ready yet to announce which poets will have their poems made into a broadside this year, but we know that we’ll know come March 17, when the lot of us—poet-teachers and artists—will gather at SVC’s brand-new space and choose which artist will work with which student poem. It’s a lively, exciting event, oftentimes with the artists’ hands shooting up in the air, ready to claim the rights to their favorite poem.

This year’s beautiful broadsides will be part of our live auction at our benefit gala on March 12, as will a spot at the final collating party, in which the artists present their completed work and speak about their design process and the inspiration behind their work. We look forward to sharing these with you!

No Matter What His Name: Writing about Ferguson

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , , on February 12, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Aaron Counts, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Sometimes in schools, it can feel like the weeks around Thanksgiving and Winter Break are an unproductive waste of time. Students and teachers alike are tempted to watch the clock and calendar and coast towards the upcoming time off. Since folks often have their minds elsewhere in a short school week, we don’t press too hard.

This year, during Thanksgiving week, the news offered a learning and teaching opportunity too powerful to let pass.

On November 24, in Ferguson, Missouri, a place that not too long ago seemed a world away from Garfield High School in the heart of Seattle’s Central District, a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed teen Mike Brown.

We’ve all seen the news by now, the debates have raged over what did or didn’t happen, and uprisings and protests that began in Ferguson have spread to most major US cities, including some organized locally by the Black Student Union of Garfield High. But on the morning of November 25, just hours after the non-indictment was announced and the fires that burned in Ferguson weren’t even at their peak yet, I was supposed to teach poetry to a class of predominantly black teenagers. Many not too different from Mike Brown himself.

We talked news. About sadness and anger. About how rage boils over and feelings don’t always come out looking pretty. We guessed what we thought would happen next for Ferguson and for the rest of the country. We didn’t really have a goal, except to process what we were feeling.

When we felt ready to move on, I brought out Willie Perdomo’s poem “Forty One Bullets Off Broadway”– a poem written in response to the police shooting of Amadou Diallo. In case you don’t remember the story, Diallo was on the stoop of his New York apartment when he was approached by four plainclothes police officers about a robbery that had occurred in the neighborhood. Forty-one bullets later (nineteen of which hit him), Diallo was dead. The officers said they saw a gun. It was Diallo’s wallet.

I didn’t talk the history behind the poem, not even to tell them about Diallo. I just read it and let students respond. Which lines to you remember? What images do you see? The consensus favorite section were these lines, for the way they wrapped the anger and sadness into the push pin imagery:

forty-one bullets
like silver-colored push pins
holding up a bloody
back to Africa announcement
on the sheet rock
where your body is mapped out

Next, I turned to a poem by Danez Smith, “Not an Elegy for Mike Brown,” which was written after Brown’s murder but before the grand jury decision. It gave students space to frame the anger they were feeling and to contextualize burning and other property damage they could see happening in the uprisings—the “sweet smoke” Smith wrote about in his poem.

not an elegy for Mike Brown

I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name

his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning

& isn’t that what being black is about?
not the joy of it, but the feeling

you get when you are looking
at your child, turn your head,
then, poof, no more child.

that feeling. that’s black.


think: once, a white girl

was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war.

later, up the block, Troy got shot
& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy

of a city of ash? of 1000 ships
launched because we are missed?

always, something deserves to be burned.
it’s never the right thing now a days.

I demand a war to bring the dead boy back
no matter what his name is this time.

I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.


look at what the lord has made.
above Missouri, sweet smoke.

Smith’s line, “no matter what his name this time” provided us with the opportunity to place Brown’s death in the context of history. I asked those with cell phones to take them out. I started listing names names: Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Trayon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner. We took it back a little further, to Fred Hampton, to Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, to Emmitt Till.

Near the end of class, we still hadn’t gotten to much writing yet, so I asked them to write a journal entry, a freewrite responding to the discussion of the day or to a specific instance of violence that they had experienced or observed. I told them this piece writing would be private, and there was no need to turn it in. I haven’t read any of them, but somehow, I feel like I know what they all say.

The Science of Words and Truths: Sheri Fink Visits Cleveland High School

Posted in Author Visits with tags , , , , on February 11, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate

While it is easy think of the arts and sciences as separate entities, some of the most interesting conversations I have experienced during my years living in Seattle—a place very much defined by both—are those that bring the two together. Yesterday afternoon, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Sheri Fink spoke in Cleveland High School’s auditorium about precisely such an intersection point, making insightful connections among over one hundred students who stayed after school to hear her speak.

As a STEM school (one focused on curriculum rooted science, technology, engineering and math), Cleveland students were primed to interrogate Dr. Fink’s methodologies. They probed her with a number questions about the information gathering techniques she used to write her investigation of the events that happened at Memorial Hospital in the days following Hurricane Katrina, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.

Herself residing very much at the intersection between the arts and sciences, as both a writer and former relief worker in disaster and conflict zones, Dr. Fink explained, “Journalism is a lot like the scientific process. We all want to prove our own theories about the things we are researching, but all of the facts and evidence must be in order before we can do that.” Similar to scientific experiments, replication is essential to building a solid piece of journalism. A margin of error must also be considered. Evidence in as many forms as possible—videos, photographs interviews, diaries, transcripts—is essential.

Likening the research process to a vacuum cleaner, Fink advised students to collect all of the information they could, using all of their senses, before deciding what represents the most salient details—those that that will “portray in words what the situation was actually like.” Dr. Fink’s own words and experiences clearly resonated with many of the aspiring young journalists and scientists in the audience: a mass swarmed around her for photographs and autographs after her talk, one even primed with her camera and notebook at the ready to capture those salient details.


Joy in Mudville

Posted in Writer Posts with tags , , , , on February 5, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Laura Gamache, WITS Writer-in-Residence

          There was no joy in Mudville
          Mighty Casey had Struck Out

                        Ernest Thayer, from Casey at the Bat

This past Sunday, seconds to play in the Super Bowl, three feet from the end zone, the Seahawks did not score a touchdown. The Patriots intercepted. The Patriots won the Super Bowl.

Monday, before school, I sat in my car outside the building, engine off, radio on. A psychologist was explaining that we Seahawks fans are in mourning, that it’s okay to acknowledge our feeling of loss, that he, not even a particularly rabid fan, couldn’t sleep last night for playing with “what ifs.” All morning I’d been repeating to myself, “There was no joy in Mudville.”

I was out of sorts, grumpy, reluctant to go into the classrooms where fifth graders I knew would be glum. I felt like driving away. I did not feel like teaching, reaching towards those kids, and, doing what exactly? The last two weeks I’d been using the energy of the Seahawks’ conference win, in overtime, to talk about mythology and perseverance. How the team continued to function as a team, kept trying, never descended into blame or depression, believed, and, miraculously, won.

And Sunday night we’d all seen how a member of the other team lit a match that almost flared into mayhem at game’s end. “No, guys. No, no,” I’d pleaded at my television screen. One of my students said today, “I don’t want to talk about it.” He meant the game, and none of the rest of us wanted to talk about it, either.

That night, too, was Langston Hughes’ 113th birthday. Google put up his poem “I Dream a World.” I had copied the image, a dove with an olive branch in its mouth, a light and a dark arm shaking hands in front of our watery world, a little bit cliché, but not if you’re eleven. I’d printed the text from another source. These fifth graders wrote dream-themed poems last week, using other Hughes poems for inspiration, and I was sure they would appreciate this one.

As the first teacher reclaimed her class from PE, I set a blue paper handout on each desk, the “I Dream a World” side up. After the kids gathered up writing notebooks, pencils and name plates, we read the poem together. I lingered on, “Where greed no longer saps the soul,” which is a wonderful, unlikely dream and a terrific line.

With reluctance and a lack of belief that we were going to go anywhere, I launched into the pre-write for today’s poetry writing, asking the kids to brainstorm a list of things in the natural world: pine cone, rock, tree stump, cloud. I said to exclude anything human-made, humans, and animals. “Can we use something animal-made?” someone asked. How could I wallow with this interesting idea before me? “Of course,” I said.

In the two classes, lists included feathers, vines, anthills, waterfalls, lightning, water, a beaver dam, tree root, and iron ore.

After choosing one item from the list, each kid wrote about his or her choice using each of the five senses, after which, I had them flip the handout over, so they could see “Stone” by poet Charles Simic, along with three fifth grade poems from last year. “Go inside a stone,” Simic wrote, “That would be my way.”

I told the kids in the second class that I’d set my timer for two minutes, and then kids could share beginnings so others could get ideas for starting their own pieces. I urged them all to use the two minutes to get their poems going. At the sound of the duck timer bell, some writers had half a page or more they wanted to share.

“Discover lightning,” Jadyn began her poem. There was a fiery poem about a volcano, where the volcano intoned a curse on us, and promised that “none will survive,” and spewed ash when it sneezed, a poem where a morose tree stump misses its leaves, one where a waterfall cannot stop dropping and booming, dropping and booming, dropping and booming, a grumpy anthill, a coolly elegant pearl, and a poignant page-long riddle that ends with a feather lying on the ground, telling the sky about its life flying with an eagle.

I spent much of each writing time flitting from writer to writer, hearing surprising, witty, curious, consciously-intentioned poems in progress. There were many pieces, in each class, that engaged their writers and the rest of us as transported listeners. “I like your nails,” one of the girls said, late in the last class. I looked down at my Seahawk blue and green tipped fingers. “Me too,” I said. There was a little murmur of noticing and agreement. Then, we went back to listening to poems, these poems that took us somewhere other than the aftermath of a stinging loss, giving us, as Mark Doty put it, “esthetic distance.” And joy.


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