emersonWRITES – A Cutting Edge Program for High School Students
by Jacquelyn Malone
Emerson puts the adjective “creative” in an active voice in their cutting-edge program for high school students, emersonWRITES. In this outreach program, they are presenting courses in creative writing to students who love to write and would like a taste of what college courses are like. And what excitement the program ignites!
If you know a student who might be interested in this program, have them read these interviews with the program Director, Mary Kovaleski Byrnes and with two of the instructors, Johnette Ellis and Jordan Pailthorpe.
Interview with Director Mary Kovaleski Byrnes
How did EmersonWrites begin?
emersonWRITES ran our pilot program/ first semester in the fall of 2010. I was teaching in the First Year Writing Program, working on my MFA in Creative Writing (poetry) and also working as the executive assistant to the Vice President of Enrollment, MJ Knoll Finn. I found myself in a lot of conversations about access to college for students from Boston. Boston is a wonderful city with 80 colleges and universities within the city limits alone, and often these universities do not feel accessible to our city's own young people. We wanted to run a program on the campus that invited students to learn creative writing, become part of a writing community that was similar to what you might have in a college classroom, and also offer assistance and support in how to get to college (not just Emerson, but any college). I worked on this project with a team of people from the Enrollment Office and from the First Year Writing Program/ Writing Literature and Publishing Department, and we hired 13 graduate student teachers to teach the classes for that first year; we had a great start, and the program has been growing ever since.
What has changed and improved since then?
The program continues to grow in its reach, mission, and understanding of our students and their needs. We've worked to solidify our curriculum goals and put in place some core practices for keeping students interested and building upon what they're learning so they can really get a sense of accomplishment during the time they're in the program. We've seen students come back year after year to take different classes, which is really encouraging. And we've also started publishing revised student work in an annual anthology that's professionally printed and looks beautiful. Everyone is so proud of it. I could not be more impressed with the way our teachers create trusting communities where students are able to write at this high level. Currently, we are running a program called PATHWAYS, which builds upon emersonWRITES and works with students over three years to build creative/academic skills and awareness of how to make their dreams of going to college a reality.
How does curriculum differ from year to year?
The courses are taught by graduate students in the MFA and MA programs at Emerson. Each year, teachers are hired and paired up to team-teach courses, which are all genre-based. Teachers have a lot of freedom to develop the courses they think will really inspire students. Doing it this way means we always have slightly different course offerings each year and as our faculty changes. We always have courses in the core genres of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, but there are often twists on this. We've had courses in journalism, historical fiction, hybrid genre courses, fantasy and sci-fi courses, graphic novels, etc. The curriculum is always really exciting and the grad students bring a wealth of knowledge and experience as writers to the classrooms.
How can high school students get involved?
While not all the classes are still open, some are, and we are still enrolling students for this year. They can visit: http://www.emerson.edu/admission/undergraduate-admission/learn/emersonwrites to register.
Interview with Poetry Teacher Johnette Ellis
Can you talk specifically about your course/what it's about?
Jordan (Pailthorpe) and I immediately clicked on the idea of creating a course that made room for the exploration of what it means to move beyond the norms of poetry, and how that could connect with moving beyond the norms of who we are (or suppose to be) as people. Hence the title of the course: Being A Linebreaker.
We are playing on what poetry is and what it could be, thus playing with who we are and who we could be as poets. We also want to foster a space where students are truly working with each other, workshop style, to explore their own ideas. As one of our students eloquently stated our first day, when we asked them all what they needed in order to thrive as poets and people, “I need problems”.
We broke this down to examine the importance of challenging each other as poets as much as we support each other. If fact we see a part of supporting and accepting each other’s work is to challenge each other to be our best self on the page. In order to do this trust is key and we are overwhelmed with how much trust is in the room already. We are lucky to have this group of poets to work with
Why do you love teaching poetry at emersonWRITES?
Working with emersonWRITES is reminiscent of some of the work I’ve done in the past with young people in Boston and New York. Yet through Emerson I have many resources that I am not used to. I am Boston native and love that young people from my city are benefiting from the resources Emerson provides. I love that I am reminded of the genius of young people through this work. I love that I am able to co teach the course and learn and grow with my colleague in a way that helps us individually as teachers, poets and people. Our students want to be in this space with us, they beam with excitement and gratitude. It is something beautiful to feel.
What do you hope students will learn/gain from your course?
Confidence in their perspective on the world and the confidence to use their voice – however loud or subtle it may be. I want our students to claim who they are as poets. Regardless of what they do with their lives these next few years, I want their experience with us to help solidify their identity as poets (if not already) and thus agents of change. I want them to learn their truth and speak it wherever they go.
(Jordan and Johnette would all like to encourage prospective students to try out their Instagram hashtag: #linebreakerpoets to show pictures of their own inventions.)