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Everybody meet Josh

Happy New Year to everyone!!!!

To start off 2013, here’s a guest post by Josh, our fall intern, about his time at the Workshop. Josh is known around Room 9 3/4 for his (real) moustache, his knowledge of wrestling terminology, and his unique ability to enjoy The Eagles. Josh we are really sad that you have decided to gallivant around Europe next month; we will miss you a lot.

I Like It Here; That is an Understatement

By Josh Cohen

Josh_zombie

Also, Josh is one of the undead.

When I say working with the D.C Creative Writing Workshop (DCCWW) has been the most rewarding experience of my life, I mean that. I am not just looking to take over Abbey Chung’s job. (I am, but that’s not the point. Although I will take this opportunity to say that my first lesson last week went very well and a good time was had by all.)

If I say that DCCWW has been the most rewarding experience of my life, then I should probably give that context. I’ve never chained myself to a redwood in order to stop a logging company from destroying the habitat of some rare tree dwelling rodent. Nor have I ever used my blue belt in Brazilian jujitsu to foil a professional thief from stealing Yoyo Ma’s violin. (My instructor has, but you probably don’t want to hear that story.) I did once save my little brother from drowning in a river, but it didn’t impress my cousin Laura, the coolest person 10 year-old me knew, so it didn’t seem that great at the time.

I have worked with kids before. I taught archery at a camp in Montgomery County. It was fun. I volunteered at a day care. It was messy. The kids at Hart Middle School, however, have continued to impress me since I started there. Whether it is watching a child who speaks English as a second language begin to use similes and extended metaphors in his writing; or having a child who missed last week’s writing club come into our holiday party with poems she wrote to make up for lost time; or listening to a group of students aged 11 to 23 discuss racism in America, these kids continue to impress me.

It isn’t just the students who work hard and would excel anywhere who impress me, it’s the writing club as a whole. It is the high school students who come back to help out the younger students and continue to work on their own writing. It is the kids who I know are barely paying attention in regular school, working hard to perfect a poem. It is watching kids who probably never speak during the school day working side by side, trying to master the day’s exercise. It’s the fact that, despite being from the opposite side of the city, despite having very little in common with these kids, they accepted me into the family that is the Writing Club.

They accepted me into their family and let me teach them, and they taught me a thing or two as well. That is what I mean when I say working with the D.C Creative Writing Workshop has been the most rewarding experience of my life.

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Student Profile #2: Kajuan

Every couple of months we have a pizza party in Writing Club. They remain as holiday-unaffiliated as possible so as not to exclude the array of religious affiliations at Hart. (Jehovah’s Witnesses are unable to attend any kind of holiday celebration.) So the October party was precisely an October Party. There was pizza. There were obscene amounts of Cheetos.

Via mysterious channels news of the party spreads through the school, so by 3:30 we always have a dozen or so party-goers whom we’ve never met before. Junk food is the best recruitment tool. Most of the newcomers leave with the last slice of pizza, but a few stay. A few become dedicated poets. A few were poets all along.

Kajuan was one of these few. Every time I think we have encountered every talented writer in the school, someone like him shows up to remind me how many unique voices are whirling around the hallways outside of our classroom. And Hart is just one school. Imagine all the other schools in the city, in the country. How many voices are being heard and how many are not.

Kajuan’s family is Peruvian; he’s part of the 2% of the school that doesn’t identify as African American. The other kids don’t always know what to make of this. Too often he gets told, “You’re not black, you’re Mexican!” We try to explain the diversity of Latin America. It would be helpful to have a map of the world on a wall. Frightening cracks in their knowledge get exposed, in this school with no required Social Studies classes. They do not mean to be insensitive, though. In this childhood of extremes there is very little malice. They are straightforwardly kind with the resources given to them. Last week Kayla wrote in a poem: “My yes day / is Kajuan’s Spanish accent”

I didn’t notice for several days that English is his second language, because 90% of his communication is through laughter. He moves like an entertainer, his mouth is always open, his feet are a blur. At least once a week some kid ends up wounded from one of Kajuan’s miscalculated jokes. But he apologizes as exuberantly as he teases.

The poem he wrote on his third day here begins: “Oh; kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas! You’re really beautiful! Pearls, harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins, all the stuff they’ve always talked about.” He has only spent three years in an English-speaking country. It is always a mistake to pigeonhole our kids based on their experiences. I wish we had a time machine and a recorder, to go back through his life and find the places and people from which his mind collected all that startling language.

We asked him, “Why are aspirins beautiful, Kajuan?”
He shrugged. “Because they’re round.”
“And what about kangaroos?”
He rolled his eyes. “They jump. And they carry their babies.”
Duh.

Here’s Kajuan reading his poem “I Triumph.”

I Triumph

I am the ruler of victory
I am the ghost you can’t see
the one that everybody looks for
but I am always winning
so they can’t find me.

The president, the ruler of victory
I decide who wins and who loses
I am the one that the football teams thank
when they score a touchdown.

Other rulers try to overthrow me
like the ruler of childhood,
the ruler of language;
what they didn’t know
I was the one who wins every time.

In that fight I had some friends
the ruler of emptiness
and the ruler of mountains.

One day I was in Vegas
I was winning so much
I was not paying attention
and the ruler of the forgotten
made me forget my power.

After days, I felt something was happening
First I won the mayor
then I won governor
then I was the president.
I had awoken my power.
I had finally realized
that my allies were me
and I was them.
I was living two or more lives.

The original draft:

 

Student Profile #1

Kayla likes to sit near the front of the room, where all the light falls on her. She stays out of the corners. Her closest friends in Writing Club are Ty’Shea and Steve, both sixth graders like her, but she’s just as comfortable playing tag with the eighth grade boys or talking about the presidential election with the adults. She’s quiet but not shy. Her poems are ferocious in their imagination and painstakingly careful in their form. When you speak, she listens with such solemn concentration that it makes you slow down and reflect more carefully on what you’re saying.

Kayla making the most of our colored chalk.

Last week Kayla got up to read her poem, but one boy was being so smart-alecky that she eventually put down her paper and walked out of the room, visibly upset. The whole class was outraged. Two older students jumped up to make the boy apologize. We told him to take the rest of the day off. When Kayla returned to the room and walked back to the front, the applause was deafening.

Here’s Kayla in her own words, telling us about her experience in the Workshop:

How did you find out about Writing Club?
I found out about Writing Club because of Ms. Nancy. Every time I went to Busboys and Poets, Ms. Nancy would say, “I hope to see you next year.”

What is your favorite book?
My favorite book is Matilda because I like what it is about and I can relate to Matilda in a way.

What do sixth graders know that other people don’t?
Sixth graders know the ages of two of the teachers, and the feeling of silent lunch. [Note: Can I just say, she went super literal here, and I’m impressed 🙂 The silent lunch thing refers to the fact that a couple sixth graders were being disruptive at some point in the past, and in punishment the entire sixth grade is now required to have lunch without talking. Ironically it’s the sixth graders who least deserve the punishment, like Kayla, who are most likely to obey the terms.]

What is something you want to have done by the end of sixth grade?
Something that I want to do by the end of sixth grade is memorize everything I’ve learned. I also want to make the Honor Roll.

If you could change one thing about Writing Club, what would it be?
One thing I would change about Writing Club is chicken wings for snacks. That’s all. I would also change the color of the classroom because the color needs to be bright like the sun, so I can remember that my future depends on Writing Club.

Writing Club Turns 13!

It’s the start of a new school year. We are half way through the fourth week of our thirteenth year at Hart Middle School. That means Writing Club is now a teenager–an eighth grader. It wears a black uniform and no longer thinks any of my jokes are funny. We are about to ban it from dating.

We have gained so many new followers, here and on Facebook, that I thought it would be good to do a new introduction to the Workshop, in case anyone is still confused about how amazing we are. Last month I had to give a presentation to the DC Arts and Humanities Commission about our organization. As it turned out I didn’t get to say a tenth of what I had planned, but the notes shape up into a decent blog post.

So here it is. Written as though I were going to be heard rather than read, this is how I see the identity of the Writing Workshop.

At Our Core…

We are currently the only nonprofit operating an extracurricular program at Hart. There are other organizations that have come in and out for brief periods of time—we have been in these schools, serving this community, since 2000. Nancy’s actually been there since 1995. We’re the only creative writing program for Congress Heights students, and except for the marching band, we’re the only arts opportunity that Hart students have. There’s no chorus, there’s no art teacher. Up until last year there wasn’t a library in the school. We as an organization have a library, and so we were their only source of books.

Basically, the students in these schools have very very few chances for self expression. Almost none. And we are there to provide them with this one vital outlet when otherwise they would have nothing.

I see us as having a twofold mission, basically. The first part is to provide a high quality, professional arts education experience to our students. It’s not like they have other subpar options. They have no other options. So that gives us an incredible responsibility to be really good, to ensure that the way we teach them to approach creativity and think about language, and the way we instill in them the idea that these things are integral to life—we have to be very thorough and very thoughtful & have very high standards for ourselves.

The second part is to draw on the tradition of the arts as a refuge, as a place to cement your sense of self and take power over your experiences and traumas. That’s where we serve the kids who need it the most, the kids who maybe aren’t going to turn out to be poetry prodigies but who need that basic catharsis that writing provides. They need a place that tells them negative emotions are okay, that accepts and takes seriously the intense angers and sadnesses that they feel, as eleven and twelve year olds. That’s a really important part of what poetry can do.

We’re constantly balancing those two missions, which are slightly different but are also very intertwined, and we’re trying to serve a wide range of ability levels while providing each student individually with the things they need and the best possible experience.

What Makes Us Unique

There’s the fact that we’re the only after school arts opportunity for kids at this school (Hart). There’s the fact that we’re the only organization that works with teachers in these schools on a regular basis, goes into classrooms and makes a sustained commitment to growing students as artists.

But besides that, there are two things that make us, in my view, a unique organization, and are why I wouldn’t want to be working anywhere else in the city. Read the rest of this entry

We Made Some Movies

Children who pollute the world with their innocence–
Eternally damned offspring of Oedipus, who, as the sun whispered tans on their faces,
Made them clueless with irridescent days, making their youth stop bringing truth to their doom.
Twas America’s rich and money-filthy mansions, swept in gold tooth smiles,
Be costing more than what lies above Olympus…

The word “films” sounds snobby and elitist, but I think “movies” is too casual to fully capture the gut wrenching amount of work that went into these three productions. Our students–along with intrepid director Tom Mallan, of the Educational Theater Company–labored from November through April, three days a week, nearly every week, to bring these scripts to life.

It’s no small feat to construct a continuous story from the exuberant efforts of forty Hart students. Our kids often lead transient lives–they might attend our program faithfully for a month, then stop coming; they might switch schools or move. They most definitely will get haircuts. The movies are a mosaic, and, if you look closely, you’ll see the signs of the life in flux that generates so much creativity.

The scripts come from Writing Clubs of years past, going all the way back to 2001, when the class sat down to adapt Antigone to a modern day Congress Heights setting. Some of the original script writers of that play are now high school graduates, who returned to help us out with our production this year. They got to hear their own lines, from the mouths of students a generation younger, being captured on camera for the first time. There’s a lot of history tightly woven into Writing Club, even as we welcome in the new.

In Antigone 2K1, the civil war that erupted after Oedipus’ death has left his two sons dead. Their uncle, Creon, has seized power and declared one brother a hero, while condemning the other brother as a traitor and forbidding his body from being buried. Creon’s niece Antigone defies him, repeatedly sneaking out to the battle field to sprinkle dust over her brother’s body. She is arrested and, along with her sister Ismene, confronts her uncle.

James Tindle, who plays Creon here, was in middle school when the original script was written and is now one of our Young Writers in Residence. Yukayla, who plays Antigone, is in sixth grade and had never acted before.

Alcestis Revisited: Red Hot Death was performed as a play in 2007. King Admetos has the opportunity to prevent his own death, but only if someone willingly dies in his place. He can’t find anyone in the kingdom willing to die for him, until finally his loving wife, Queen Alcestis, agrees to go with Hades. In this crucial scene, the residents of Southeast mourn as their queen slips away, and Admetos finds that along with the joy of keeping his own life comes the pain of losing his love.

Our final, and longest, film is not an excerpt but the entirety of Persians 2K6: Tragedy in the Hood. Here the bloodshed of Aeschylus’ war drama (written in 441 BCE) is adapted as gang warfare in Southeast. Queen Atossa and a chorus of citizens gather at the late King Darius’ memorial to try and make sense of the death and loss that surrounds them. Xerxes, Atossa’s son and the new king, returns in shame, having led his men into a massacre from which he emerged the only survivor.

These are ancient explorations of death, violence, and the power of family bonds, but they gain new meaning when transposed into the struggles of life in a modern inner city. Most of our students know first hand what it means to lose a family member, to be surrounded every day with the threat of violence. The old stories provide a place where they can find echoes of their own lives, reflections of people they know. Filmmaking allows them to turn their experiences into something that can be not only controlled, but celebrated. Thanks for watching.

Fall Internships with DCCWW!

We are currently seeking interns for the fall of 2012!

Are you interested in arts education, creative writing, the DC public school system, and/or nonprofit management? Join the DC Creative Writing Workshop for a fall internship! We are a literary arts nonprofit working with at-risk youth in the Congress Heights neighborhood of D.C. We conduct in-class poetry workshops and run an after-school creative writing program based in Hart Middle School.

As an intern, you have the opportunity to:
– work with a Writer-in-Residence in their in-class workshop
– assist in our after-school program and lead poetry lessons
– form relationships with our exuberant and hilarious students
– expand your understanding of the communities of Southeast DC

Requirements:

– Must be available at least one day between Monday and Wednesday, 3:00 – 6:00pm, to assist in after-school writing program. In-class residencies are conducted during the school day, Mon-Weds, and can be coordinated on an individual basis.
– Must be able to devote at least 4 hrs/week to administrative/internship-specific tasks. Total time commitment is probably 10 hrs/week, but is flexible.
– Reasonable understanding of poetry terminology and techniques
– Lots of patience, sense of humor, willingness to work with kids with behavioral problems and learning disabilities.

Positions:

Classroom intern – You’ll assist our staff in maintaining our library of over 2,000 books (often the only source of books for our students), creating educational displays, decorations and murals in our classroom. Sense of aesthetics and creativity is a must!

Outreach intern – You’ll assist in building our relationships with local businesses and other organizations. You’ll gain experience in the world of small nonprofits as you help organize fundraising events, seek donations, and expand our social media presence. We need someone excited about interacting with the DC community.

Organizational intern – You’ll conduct surveys with our students and maintain the information we need to illustrate the impact of our work. Need to have a strong commitment to the importance of the arts, and an interest in how to present data to capture that importance.

All interns will have the opportunity to work with students. Positions can be altered to accommodate your specific interests/skills. Internships are unpaid, college credit can be arranged.

Please see our website www.dccww.org for more info about the organization.

If interested contact our program manager, Abbey Chung at achung@dccww.org. Please include a few paragraphs on why you’re interested/past experience, resume, and a brief writing sample.

Summer poems and goodbyes

The kids are gone for the summer, but the Workshop staff is still working hard at portfolio evaluations and gearing up for next fall. All the office work makes us miss the kids! Going through student work from the spring, I found this poem that a student wrote on the last day of Writing Club.

We were celebrating the end of the year, but she was upset that we weren’t writing and asked me if she could write a poem on her own. This is a student who spent a lot of the year pushing back against authority. She’s stubborn and loud and uses all her smarts to provoke confrontation. She likes conflict and is uncomfortable with positive attention; praising her effusively always led to her acting out.

Teenagers are so hard to read sometimes. They pour most of their energy into convincing everyone that they don’t care. I get taken in by that sometimes, and then they go and write the most surprisingly heartfelt poems, and I have to reprimand myself for being surprised. It’s one of the things that makes poetry so valuable–providing a space where emotion doesn’t have to be resisted. This student is headed to Ballou next year, and Writing Club will be a shade less lively in her absence. I won’t say too many nice things about her because I know that would make her uncomfortable, but we’ll miss her straight-up no-nonsense delivery, and the nuanced imagery that she always tried to sneak in like it was no big deal. Here’s her poem:

It All Over

It’s the end of time
no more parties, games or fun
It’s time to say bye
to all my lost dreams and
unspoken words
Time passed me by
like the wind that flew
past my face
If that’s the case
it’s all over
No more thinking
outside the box
or sitting inside
eating cool pop tarts
Time to fly
let the wind pass by
It won’t get no colder
cause it all over

Students speak!

Okay, actually, they speak all the time. It’s a much bigger challenge to get them to quiet down. However, we did manage to get them especially quiet for one afternoon in June, when they filled out end-of-the-year surveys. Here are some of their responses…

Poetry is…

I think it emotions

an intricate form of expression, an in-depth description of something/someone/a concept

one’s feelings, soul, their very being put into words

a way to let go of stress, talk about yourself in a secret way

something that comes from your heart

about expressing your life and feeling and showing your talents

fun to write

poetry is your inspiration on what you think about with rhythm and rap in it

a way to transcend how you feel you are able, speak your mind and make something wonderful

good and awesome because it is fun

a reflection of one’s inner being

a creative outlet of pent up emotions, a stress reliever, a hobby, a dream for some people

it was cool and I had my good and bad days

feelings

written or spoken words that come from the heart

Do you think Writing Club is important?

Yes, to help people with lower self-esteem.

It creates a safe but open community for kids to come express, learn, and grow.

Writing Club is important because it helps kids be themselves and not something people say they are.

it is important because it helps me understand poetry more

it involves school english I learned new words and brung it into english class

yes because it calms people down.

Yes. Because you get to know something.

Yes it is important because it embraces your choice of words and before in english class I never talked so much more proper. I really improved and my teacher even said to me I now have high grammar.

yes because it helps kids put their feelings out there make new friends and keeps them out the street

yes because you can become a famous writer

yes. Writing club is a creative avenue to self–the true and authentic sense of self

yes because not only does it keep us occupied but it gives us a chance to meet other people

Writing club is important for all of us. It’s a safe community of artists pushing and motivating each other to grow

Yes because it’s like a place I can call home