Questions Without Answers by Nicole Callihan

“Is there anything in the world sadder

than a train standing in the rain?”

–Pablo Neruda

I’ve always loved Pablo Neruda’s poems. Ripe-apple-tender and wild-eyed, they’ve carried me from classroom to classroom for more than a decade as I’ve worked as a teaching artist in the New York Public Schools through Teachers & Writers Collaborative. One of my favorite lessons asks students to do nothing more than question the world. “Ask a question that can’t be answered,” I tell them. “Anything,” I say.  The students stare at me or gently rock or twirl hair around the tips of their fingers, but bit by bit—with the help of teachers and paraprofessionals and communication devices and speech therapists—their questions emerge.

Why don’t apples grow on pear trees?

Why doesn’t America have Founding Mothers?

Do broken hearts break things?

Why is night?

What is different? Why is different different?

I’ve been working with these same students for the past three springs, all of whom are middle school-aged and considered to be on the “lower end” of the autistic spectrum, and each time I return to them after a long city winter, they disarm me.  To be quite honest, it almost always feels like we’re starting from the very beginning. I hold up a poem on a piece of paper, and week after week, I ask them, “How do we know this is a poem?” And week after week, I wait. Today, lesson five, the room promised as much silence as ever, but then James spoke. “Space?” he said, more of a question than an answer. And I clapped and jumped, and Yes, James, yes, we know it’s a poem because there’s SPACE!

Eighteen months ago I gave birth to my daughter, Eva, and immediately she carved out this frighteningly tender spot in my heart. It’s strange because mornings, before I go teach, I do the same sort of exercises with her that I do to warm up my students. And this is your nose, and these are your toes, and where o where are those pretty elbows? The fact that my students are so much older than Eva—and so trapped in their pubescent early teenage bodies and in their very different working minds—is sometimes difficult for me to take.

Motherhood has cast my work with these students in a special, harsher light. If I think about it too hard—and sometimes I do because, I believe, as writers and artists and compassionate beings we must—this discrepancy threatens to disable me. It’s such a reminder of how unfair the world is, of how unequal we all are, of how many questions there are that fly so  wildly around refusing to be pinned down by any single answer.

It’s at those times that I have to remind myself to see the world a bit more like Neruda does—as unanswerable and surreal and magical, as a train standing in rain—knowing that, sometime soon, either the rain will stop or the train will pull away, and I will be left standing oh-so-near the tracks, weighed down only by poetry and love.

Nicole Callihan works with Teachers and Writers Collaborative, a sister organization  in New York City. Her poems, stories, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Painted Bride Quarterly, Salt Hill, Washington Square, and New York Quarterly. She was a finalist for the Iowa Review’s Award for Literary Nonfiction and was named as Notable Reading for Best American Non-required Reading. She teaches at New York University and in schools and hospitals in New York City.

WITS Alliance AWP Schedule – Newly Updated

WITS Alliance Schedule for AWP 2010

Wednesday, April 7th
4:30 – 5:45 PM Granite Room
Hyatt, 3rd Floor
Membership Meeting

AWP Book Fair Booth =

Exhibit Hall A, 400
Thursday, April 8th
10:30 AM to 11:45 AM
Room 304 – CCC
Raising the Funds for Changing the World. This WITS Alliance-sponsored session focuses on strategies to fund creative writing programs for students in K-12 schools. This panel of funders and fundraisers will share their success stories in garnering support from individuals, foundations, corporations, government grant programs, and school budgets in order to place writers in the schools. (Amy Swauger, Michele Kotler, Robin Reagler, Amy Stolls, Elma Ruiz)
12:00 PM to 1:15 PM
Mineral Hall ­ Hyatt
Geek to Write: True Tales from the Literary Internet. The buzz words of technology—twitter, facebook, blurb, flickr, and YouTube—may sound bizarre to the uninitiated, but web applications offer writers options that were unthinkable even three years ago. On this panel, writers who are also educators will share their experiences in which they have used the new media technology to teach, learn, publish, and create stronger communities. (Robin Reagler, Nandi Comer, Brent Goodman, Amy King, Paul Munden, Jim Walker)
1:30 PM to 2:45 PM
Room 111 – CCC
Journey to Identity: Teaching Creative Writing to Immigrant Students. Beyond the debate on immigration, teaching writers have to deal with the very real issues of how to teach first and second-generation immigrant students. How do we encourage students to tell these often secret and untold stories? How do we create and manage trust? How do we navigate language barriers? This panel will explore these questions and other issues surrounding the topic. Panelists will share practical teaching ideas that writers can utilize in their classrooms. (Long Chu, Jose Luis Benavides, Margot Fortunato Galt, Ellen Hagen, Merna Ann Hecht, Sehba Sarwar)
5:30 p.m.Altitude Restaurant – Hyatt

Res. in name of

Mellissa Barrett

Small Group Discussions

  • Vietnamese Children’s Art Exhibit (David H.)
  • Professional Development Programs for Classroom Teachers (TBD)
  • Other?
7 p.m.  Hyatt – Granite WITS Alliance Reception
Friday, April 9th
12:00 PM – 1:15 PM
Rooms 210, 212 Colorado Convention Center,Street Level
Navigating Need: Teaching Creative Writing to Students with Disabilities. In educational jargon, the special needs label serves as a catch-all for students with disabilities who have been left behind by a highly standardized school curricula. WITS writers are asked to teach students who are deaf, blind, autistic, dysgraphic, or who have other disabilities, often without training or having these students identified. However, as these five teaching writers show through case studies, creative writing becomes an amazing bridge among all students, regardless of ability. (Jack McBride, Nicole Callihan, Sharon Ferranti, Jourdan Keith, Laren McClung, Giuseppe Taurino)
Friday at 1:30:
Room 109
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level
Starting a Writers in the Schools Program at Your University. (Melanie Moore, Chloe Honum, Sean Nevin, David Hassler, Terry Ann Thaxton) On this panel sponsored by the WITS Alliance, panelists discuss the pragmatic aspects of starting a Writers in the Schools outreach program. Topics include developing relationships with public schools, finding funding sources, and compensation/course credit for students teaching in the program. Program directors from the University of Arkansas, Arizona State University, the University of Central Florida, the Wick Poetry Center, and Badgerdog Literary Publishing will share their expertise.

Related and Recommended:

Friday, April 9
3:00 PM to 4:15 PM
303 – CCC
Writing on the Walls: Promoting Writing and Museum Relationships within the Community
Saturday, April 10thNoon

Room 111
Colorado Convention Center, Street Level

What Do Kids Want? Building Community In and Around Schools. What do kids want from writing instruction? How do you figure out what kids want, and how do you go about providing it? Teachers and administrators from youth writing programs across the country share their experiences getting buy-in in order to build community in the classroom, after school, and beyond. (Rebecca Hoogs, Sheryl Noethe, Jeff Kass, David Hassler, Margot Kahn Case)

Way To Go, Austin!

Badgerdog Literary Publishing, the WITS Alliance member organization serving Austin, Texas, is set to launch a new creative writing workshop series for senior citizens in East Austin this spring. This new addition to Badgerdog’s slate of education programs is made possible by a generous grant from A Glimmer of Hope Foundation, Badgerdog’s first funder. Thanks to their support, Badgerdog will serve 50 seniors at two locations in an often under-served area of Austin. All participants will be published in a new anthology—Silver Voices in Ink.

An additional bit of good news: A Glimmer of Hope recently named Badgerdog Executive Director Melanie Moore its 2010 Angel of the Year. A Glimmer of Hope made the announcement with this video that follows Melanie’s story from a career in business to the inception of a literary nonprofit.

Getting Your WITS about You

Are-you-ready_1024For anyone interested in starting or growing a WITS project in your area, you should know about the Writers in the Schools Alliance.  We just received word about new funding so we hope that we can find ways to help you. Whether you work with K-12 students through an organization or as an individual, we hope that you will participate in WITS Alliance activities, if they seem useful to you.

Our big group meeting this year will be at the AWP Conference in Denver in April 2010. At the conference there will be six official WITS panels, as well as a membership meeting on Wednesday afternoon, April 7 and a party on Thursday evening, April 8. If you decide to attend, feel free to use your WITSA “membership” –we don’t have a formal process in place for this yet so you’re obligating yourself—but take advantage of the discount if it will help you.

The WITS Alliance is a work in progress. We are writing a new grant next month, and it would be great to hear back your specific interests in this field.  Let me know if there are items on your agenda that you think might be shared.  Happy back-to-school!

Bechtel Prize Winners Announced

AA039576-teacher copy

The Bechtel Prize is awarded annually in recognition of an exemplary article or essay related to:

• Creative writing education,
• Literary studies, and/or
• The profession of writing.

Teachers & Writers Collaborative recently announced the winners of the 2009 Bechtel Prize:

2009 Bechtel Prize Winner
Emily Raboteau, New York, NY: “Jazz Poetry”

2009 Bechtel Prize Finalists
Marcia Chamberlain, Houston, TX: “When You Listen Deeply”
Garth Greenwell, New York, NY: “Reading with the Voice”

For more information, click here.

Back to School: Great Books for Teaching Writers

As the new school year looms ahead in the not-so-distant future, it might be a good moment to restock your library of teaching materials. Teachers & Writers Collaborative has published more than 80 books to support WITS teaching. Favorite resources for writers who teach include:

Poetry Everywhere: Teaching Poetry Writing in School and in the Community, by Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe, contains 60 writing exercises and more than 450 example poems by children, teachers, and poets. It also discusses how to integrate poetry writing into the English class, sound and rhythm, using great poems as models, traditional poetic forms, poetry units, investing and adapting exercises, revision, publishing, and other essential topics.

The Adventures of Dr. Alphabet: 104 Unusual Ways to Write Poetry in the Classroom and in the Community, by Dave Morice, features innovative ideas for engaging students, including poetry mobiles, poetry robots, postage stamp poems, rolodex poems, chopstick quatrains, and other inventive exercises.

Old Faithful: 18 Writers Present Their Favorite Writing Assignments, edited by Christopher Edgar and Ron Padgett. In this book, 18 writers describe their single best writing assignment: the one that never fails to inspire students to write autobiographical pieces, fiction, poetry, and plays.

In addition to books, T&W publishes the quarterly Teachers & Writers magazine, winner of 10 Educational PressAwards for Excellence. The magazine covers contemporary issues and innovations in creative writing education, and engages writers, educators, and students in a conversation on the nature of creativity and the imagination.

To see the full catalog of books offered by T&W, to read a sample article from Teachers & Writers, or to order books or a subscription, go to the T&W website. You can also place orders via phone (toll-free) at 1-888-BOOKS-TW.

Bechtel Prize for Essays on Teaching Writing

39-2_cover-fullTeachers & Writers Collaborative (T&W) awards the Bechtel Prize annually in recognition of an exemplary essay addressing important issues in the areas of creative writing education, literary studies, and/or the profession of writing. The deadline to receive submissions for the 2009 Bechtel Prize is 5:00 PM (Eastern), Tuesday, June 30, 2009.

In 2009, T&W is seeking Bechtel Prize submissions that explore the teaching of creative writing in combination with another artistic discipline, such as dance, media arts, music, theater, or the visual arts; or with another academic discipline, such as math or history. We are seeking essays that shed light on the nature of the creative process and want to read your stories about viewing the art of writing through a different lens, and your take on the benefits and challenges of such cross-disciplinary work.

Questions that might be addressed in essays include, but are not limited to, the following:

What are the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to teaching creative writing?

Are there aspects of the creative processes central to the literary arts that students can understand more clearly in the context of other disciplines?

What are the complications of teaching creative writing with another discipline?

Do writers who teach in an interdisciplinary way find that work influencing their own creative processes?

The winning essay appears in Teachers & Writers magazine, and the author receives a $1,500 honorarium. Authors of submissions selected as finalists for the award share honoraria of $500, and their essays may also be published in Teachers & Writers. The previous winners of the Bechtel Prize can be found here.

Prospective entrants for the Bechtel Prize are encouraged to review a sample issue ofTeachers & Writers to familiarize themselves with the magazine’s style. To order a sample issue of the magazine for $5.00, click here.

Complete guidelines are available on the Teachers & Writers site. Questions regarding the Bechtel Prize should be directed to <bechtel(at)> (replace (at) with @).

[cross-posted on the WITS blog]

The WITS Alliance at AWP 2009 in Chicago: A Report

The WITS Alliance events at AWP:img_0210

WITS Alliance Members Meeting with Robin Reagler

 My Voice, Wide as the Sun: Preparing to Teach Creative Writing in K-12 Classrooms. (Robin Reagler, Ellen Hagan, Beth Divis, Darel Holnes, Avery Young, Rebecca Hoogs, Jack McBride) How do writers prepare to work with under served youth? Five organizations will share how they train MFA students, graduates of MFA programs, and professional writers to enter the K-12 classroom. As MFA graduates and professional writers look to share their love of writing and earn a living, Writers in the Schools work is an important opportunity. The panel will discuss different internships and training seminars for writers to transform their teaching methods to meet the needs of younger writers.

From The Ground Up, Developing A Writers In The Schools Program At Your College. (Allen Gee, David Hassler, Derrick Medina, John Teschner ) On this panel sponsored by the WITS Alliance, faculty and students from Georgia College and Kent State will discuss the pragmatic aspects of developing a Writers in the Schools program. The panel will talk about developing relationships with public schools, finding funding sources, incorporating service learning components, preparing college students as teachers, planning typical program calendars and events, and the many rewards of community outreach for faculty and students.

WITS Alliance Reception with Terry Blackhawk and John Oliver Simonimg_0235

Building Online Literary Communities: An Overview and Case Studies. (Emily Warn, Robin Reagler, Loyal Miles, Giuseppe Taurino) Emerging online technologies, loosely called Web 2.0, provide exciting new avenues to form literary communities and promote literary culture. For writing educators, technology choices—blogs, podcasts, distance learning, forums, YouTube, and Yahoo and Google groups—can sometimes feel overwhelming. This panel presents an overview of technological options as well as tips on where to start. Panelists will then present case studies from three WITSA programs that have used technology to better serve their students, their instructors, and their broader communities.

A Room of One’s Own: Student Writing Centers. (Amy Swauger, Renee Angle, Sherina Sharpe) Sponsored by the WITS Alliance, this session examines efforts to provide a writing community for students. Picture a young writer in a space where an older author is available to talk conversationally about the student’s work, to discuss the work seriously, critically, with both generosity and honesty. Whether based in a school or on a college campus, writing centers provide a place for students who want to write or to know more about writing to be welcomed and understood.img_0218

Writing Helps Kids…But Can You Prove It? (Melanie Moore, Kirk Lynn, Rebecca Hoogs, Mark Creekmore, Caroline Newman) This is part of the Writers in the Schools Alliance strand of panels addressing various aspects of literary arts programming for children. New and experienced program directors, as well as the countless writers who go into schools to work with kids, will learn the good, the bad, and the ugly of proving the effectiveness of literary programs in today’s data-driven world.

Best Practices: Teaching Expressive Writing With Hospital Populations. (Austin Bunn, Long Chu, Paul Sznewajs) This panel brings together representatives from four programs that teach creative writing to hospital patients and those struggling with illness: The Patient Voice Project (Iowa Writers’ Workshop), WITS Houston, and Snow City Arts in Chicago. The aim of the panel is to study and share the practical approaches to launching these programs, the current research on writing and wellness, and the challenges and rewards of teaching hospital populations. Given the multitude of art therapy programs, our specific focus is on the “best practices” for writing projects related to program design and pedagogy. The Patient Voice Project offers free creative writing classes to the chronically ill, taught by MFA graduate students in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. WITS Houston and Snow City Arts provide creative writing classes expressly to young people, as extensions of hospital education programs.