Words & Wonder: Two Weeks in Port Townsend

by Samar Abulhassan, Blue Heron Middle School & Hutch School

I have decided to leave my mesmerizing world of words, but I will not abandon my words altogether, so I go down the river where “pure” and “clear” are sitting together, singing with the river. Their beautiful enchanting voices mixing with the water. I gingerly dip my hands into the water, and pluck a small stone where “smooth” sleeps. I gently put it into my bag, and walk through the forest where “peaceful” and “serene” play, laughing and dancing in the grove. -Ally M., sixth grade

Entering a new classroom, no matter how many you have visited before, is a little like coming to a clean white sheet of paper. You’re hopeful, excited, a little awkward, a beginner again. So for our first day together at Blue Heron School, I begin with a simple handout entitled “Inventory of Wonders” in which I asked students to make a list of favorite words. “Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear,” wrote Sappho, and these favorite words provide an entryway into my teaching residency with sixth and seventh graders in Port Townsend, WA. “Treat each word like a treasure. Really taste each syllable, allow yourself to fall in love again with language,” I told them. When it was time to share, no student held back: window, storm, vivacious, luna. Self-consciousness fell away. And on our last day, at the end of our two weeks together, sixth-grade teacher Julianne Dow gathered phrases as students read from their work, and then recited a spontaneous poem from these at the end of each class. We were delighted and surprised, and as I write this now I realize that it’s important to frame a writing class in just this way: to begin and to end with pleasure.

Her laugh is so light and carefree that it can raise anyone’s spirit. When it rains, my muse goes outside and twirls in the mud. When it snows, she climbs a tree and watches the birds flutter around with frost on their wings. When it is too cold to go outside, she sits on a windowsill and softly sings to the animals on the other side. -Maria M., sixth grade

With a hearty word supply in tow, we got to work stringing words together to create tiny tales. We brainstormed a list of wonderful things that come in tiny packages – chocolates, jewelry, tangerines, tiny tarts. And we began to consider where stories come from: bits and pieces from experience, overheard conversations, dreams. I asked students to imagine what a muse might look like – a gentle and encouraging force, “real” or “imagined,” that might inspire them. Their muses were ready to help, regardless of the weather, and were relentless in their willingness to support the creative process. My muse is a part of me, one student wrote.  No mean-spirited muses, I advised, and the students nodded, invoking kind-hearted muses in all shapes and colors and forms.

I see a stallion galloping in a sea of dark blue. Rays of moonlight shoot through the image and once again it is dark. As the horse stares back at me I wonder, “ who am I, do I matter? -Rose D., sixth grade

What is life? What if we are only here to do our purpose and be disposed of after? The sparrow turns slightly sideways as though to listen to my mind more closely. -Tuula M., sixth grade

I have been playing football for over 100 years. Every day I sit on the field playing by myself in the ruff green turf. Thinking and waiting for someone to play with me. Sometimes I think I might be going crazy when it feels like I can still hear echoes of them. -Jacob B., sixth grade

I worked with many of these students last year as fifth graders; as sixth graders, they still greeted the world with wonder and appreciation, though now their minds seemed more sophisticated and inquisitive, and they had just finished a philosophy unit.  Now the page offered them a fresh place to pose their unanswerable questions.  While many adults can’t seem to resist the urge to move a question or character into a premature conclusion, middle school kids, I noticed, were willing to leave you wondering and pondering.

Open your heart
And fall back into the blue abyss
Fall back into the arms of the mourning sea
-Maryn M., seventh grade
Give me a glimpse of my refurbished reality
-Ari W., seventh grade

The seventh graders were exploring the elements of fire, air, water and earth while making poems. We met first thing in the morning, with the dawn’s light ringing in my ears, the glimpse of the Sound fresh from the brief morning drive over from Fort Worden to the school. Sometimes life is just ridiculously generous. I sprinkled drops of blue food coloring into plastic cups and set them on the desks while students wrote about their relationship to water. We read Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda. We wrote along wavy lines on legal-sized paper. Literally. Students’ heads swayed as they wrote. (A good opportunity to talk about how we read: how does physically moving our bodies when we read, not just our eyes, affect the reading experience?) It seems to me that one vital role a teaching artist plays in the classroom is to create an encouraging and relaxed atmosphere. I am reminded of my friend Eleni who says she lights a candle before she writes, to “seduce” herself to sit down. Students love it when you turn off overhead fluorescent lighting. It was early December and their white paper was not always covered with dappled light. But one day I dimmed the lights and projected vivid, surrealist images from a French board game on the wall, and they wrote tiny tales inspired by the pictures, as well as fragments of their dreams. (“I am bleeding water. I feel like I need a bandage bigger than the love of nature,” wrote sixth-grader Clover Couple-Carlin.)  I had asked them to keep dream diaries over the weekend, and they were jumping out of their seats to share bits from their private theaters.

The central heating in our building rattles and pops like a campfire in the rain. Maybe that’s why mother likes it here. She met my father in a university classroom with a hissing radiator. Today I sat next to the peeling white radiator, thinking. -Ella W., sixth grade

I only think about the consequence when there is nothing on my mind. I have, for a few months now, written in my journal about the necklace. I always want to tear my words out and rip them into a million pieces and forget about them, but I have never been able to. -Ruby G., sixth grade

I can’t picture myself wearing a white nurse outfit with white shoes. I’ll show them I can be an artist if I want to be. I’ll draw flowers and peace signs and faces everyday and show them my work and give it to them.  -Kylie M., sixth grade

I love inviting students to make things happen on the page that seem more difficult to realize in real life. To give voice to what persists. I offered a quote by Virginia Woolf, “How I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters.” I shared lyrical passages illustrating interior monologues. Take us on a journey of your character’s mind, I said, and they did. Sometimes the most important thing is to give young writers permission. They returned with reflective prose that was both descriptive and vivid. Asked to reveal what their character was really thinking, they wrote quietly and furiously for several moments, then lifted their heads from their folders looking flushed and relieved. It is an honor to witness the writing process of a young writer, to repeatedly be stunned by their thoughtful exploration of their own experience, to help them find ways to express their contradictory and wild and necessary visions.


One Response to “Words & Wonder: Two Weeks in Port Townsend”

  1. This is beautiful, Samar. I love hearing about the magic that you help create and give permission to exist in the classroom.

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