By Shannon Auvil
Camryn Walker, a 10th grader at Paul Bryant High School, won third place in the 2013 Alabama School of Fine Arts’ Young Writers’ Literary Awards. She wrote her poem, “And All the Angels Weep,” at UA’s Creative Writing Club in Spring 2013, and she keeps coming back. Last summer, Walker returned to the program for the third time.
Walker said she enjoys meeting other students her age who like writing.
“I like to write because it lets me get my thoughts out and share ideas with others,” she said. “I’m not sure how many other people at my school like to write. I don’t think it’s a lot.”
Each spring, UA students pursuing master of fine arts degrees in creative writing coordinate and teach the Creative Writing Club. The club meets on campus Wednesdays from 4:30 to 6 p.m. for 12 weeks. MFA students also host a summer Creative Writing Camp every June. Both the club and camp are free and open to Tuscaloosa-area high schoolers.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, research indicates creative education improves high school graduation rates and kids’ performance in core subjects, but many schools have cut back or eliminated arts programs due to budget constraints.
MFA students teach the programs while taking EN 608 Creative Writing for Kids, through which they learn to design and conduct lessons. Robin Behn, a published poet and English professor who leads the course, said she hopes students gain a sense of excitement about teaching creative writing and form powerful mentoring relationships with kids who participate in the club and camp.
Ashley Chambers, a third-year MFA candidate, said she chose UA’s program because of the opportunities it offered to not only teach undergraduate classes, but also bring creative writing to other groups.
“I want to teach nontraditional students, those working full-time jobs, people with disabilities and underprivileged high school students,” Chambers said. “Often in our students’ cases, creative writing is not offered at their schools.” The camp and club began 10 years ago, Behn said. Ten MFA students lead the club each spring semester, and three lead the summer camp. Approximately 40 high schoolers attend each club and camp.
“The MFA students work very closely with the kids, and the emphasis is on fun and invention,” Behn said. “So often in school we’re taught to write to a test or to pass a course or to do well on the SAT, and we think there’s one proper way to write. Indeed that is important for life, but our job is to help kids become aware of using language as an art form.”
The EN 608 class creates original creative writing lessons each semester. They are now putting together a textbook called “Once Upon a Time in the 21st Century: Unexpected Exercises in Creative Writing” to share with a broader audience.
“We have gathered together many of the creative writing lessons we’ve created,” Behn said. “The graduate students write up their successful lessons as chapters for our textbook.”
Kids in the club and camp choose among a wide variety of units offered during each session, and work closely with several teachers in their areas of interest. Kids respond to prompts in a genre of their choosing, writing poems, plays, short stories or even producing videos.
Chambers, who taught in spring 2012 and 2013 and summer 2013, said they never assign kids homework, and students strive to ensure the club and camp do not feel like school.
“We’d have different prompts and sharing time every day,” she said. “I was deeply moved by their willingness to share. They were learning without knowing they were learning.”
Walker said she is often afraid to ask questions at school because she feels teachers will think she should already know the answers, but she is comfortable in the camp and club because UA students are happy to explain and repeat things.
Behn said the teaching experience is beneficial for MFA students as well. “I want them to leave with a sense of getting back to creative writing as serious fun that will help any writer in their own creative work,” Behn said.
Chambers said she improved both her teaching and her own writing.
“I did the prompts just like they did,” she said. “The only way to become a better writer is to practice. I had as much to learn from them as they did from me.”
Christopher McCarter, a third-year MFA candidate who has taught the club and camp, said the experience improved his writing.
“I learned more about what I envision for myself as a writer by facilitating writing activities and discussions for students,” McCarter said. “Essentially, I think my work with the CWC helped move some of my own work and writing into new and exciting directions.”
The programs culminate with kids presenting their work to an audience of other high school students, MFA students, parents and teachers. Each child leaves with a bound anthology of works produced during the semester or camp.
McCarter said he had a lot of encouragement as a young writer and wanted to give back that support.
“I want to return the favor and offer encouragement to young writers in my local community,” McCarter said. “They have so much to say and are so completely fearless, but they need support finding positive and accessible channels for this expression.“
For more information on the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility, service-learning efforts, and on UA students teaching creative writing in local schools, click here.