Faith in All the Possibilities
by Aaron Counts
Teaching creative writing is about making connections. We enter classrooms for a relatively short period of time and attempt to build relationships with students in a community built on words and ideas. Sure, we can do the job by assigning readings and writing prompts, and we’ll probably get a handful of great pieces that are poignant, funny and/or insightful. Those bits of writing will come from kids that have already decided that writing is part of what defines them.
But if we want to make lasting impressions with those students who don’t already identify as writers, then the most lasting effect we can have comes in reaching that other—much larger—group of students that haven’t decided that they enjoy writing and rarely do it outside of class. That is an exercise in trust-building.
Working with the WITS program for the past seven years, I have been blown away by the trust students have placed in me as a caretaker of their ideas. It is an act of supreme bravery, and is, perhaps, greater than any other successes I’ve claimed in this job. When taken seriously, that trust can develop into a lasting mentorship that extends long past the time I walk out of their classroom for the final time. It is those connections that I cherish the most.
Some highlights of from the past few months:
· In my first year teaching with WITS I met Kovan, a 9th grader at Chief Sealth High School. On the surface, he didn’t seem to fancy himself much of a writer. He was cooperative and pleasant, just didn’t use the time to showcase himself too much. But when I invited all 90+ students to participate in the local youth poetry slam, he was the only one that showed up to the event. Unaware of the format of a slam, K showed up with one poem to read rather than the required three pieces. Upon realizing his mistake, he still chose to compete—freestyling the final two rounds with lines he invented on the spot. Last month, he reached out to me to announce his upcoming graduation from Augsburg College in Minnesota. Also, he sent me a link to his new music video as a singer in a burgeoning R&B career.
· Another student I met as a 9th grader, Amanda from Garfield High, is now a freshman at UC Berkeley. Before her return home for Christmas break, she sent me a copy of a homecoming poem she was working on to share with family and friends during the holidays. I was so happy that she was continuing to write and that she thought of me to help with editing her poem, so many years after we were student and teacher.
· Rose, a former Garfield student, having recently turned 21, competed for the first time at the Seattle (adult) Poetry Slam. She won her way to the finals, and will vie for a spot on the Seattle slam team next month at Town Hall.
· Fletcher, who is a senior at Franklin High, and someone I worked with three years ago, extended his WITS connection to open for Richard Price at last year’s SAL lecture series. That same year, I convinced him to enter the youth poetry slam series, and he made it to the final stage at the Moore Theater. Earlier this year, he entered a national music video contest focusing on the power of education. He reached out to me to help promote the video to audiences outside his school and circle of friends. The one-minute rap video was a national finalist, placing him in the top 10 of all entries.
· During April, national poetry month, many writers embark on a 30/30 challenge, in which they write a new poem every day for thirty days. I continue to be amazed at how many former youth poets are still writing, and still thinking of me as they tag people to share their new work.
I mention these examples not to elevate my importance in the lives of these writers, but to elevate the work that we do. It can be meaningful and lasting for both student and teacher, and we should treat every day in the classroom as an opportunity to forge lasting connections. This means being present, being open, and remembering that the people are the reason we do the work.
Schools aren’t always the safest places to grow for adolescents. Another teaching artist I know recently sent this message:
I spent all day teaching middle school students and have to be clear: the greatest challenge was pulling the students from their controlling teacher’s faithless clench and reminding them they are indeed intelligent and possible.
It was a great reminder of what we do. As writer-in-residence, it is our job to have faith in all the possibilities, and encourage the students to pursue those possibilities to their glorious end.