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.

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Bechtel Prize Winners Announced

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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.

Teachers & Writers Collaborative Celebrates National Poetry Month with the New York Transit Museum

poem-logo_jpegTeachers & Writers Collaborative (T&W) and the New York Transit Museum will celebrate National Poetry Month with a public reading and writing event to be held at Museum on Sunday, April 26, at 2 PM. The event will feature a reading by award-winning poet Vijay Seshadri and students from the Magnet School for Science and Technology (K154) in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The event will also include a writing activity led by T&W writer Matthew Burgess, an experienced T&W teaching artist.

The celebration at the Transit Museum will mark National Poetry Month and is also part of T&W’s citywide poetry project, A Poem as Big as the City. Launched in 2008, A Poem as Big as the City is a special project for which thousands of young people across the city are working with T&W writers to write poems about their experiences growing up in New York City. As part of A Poem as Big as the City, T&W will publish selected youth poetry in a book to be nationally distributed and will feature selected youth poets in public readings with well-known New York writers.

The event at the New York Transit Museum during National Poetry Month will be the first of these readings. The event will showcase the literary talents of young Brooklynites attending PS 154K and will feature poet Vijay Seshadri, who has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. His poetry collections include Wild Kingdom and James Laughlin Award winner The Long Meadow, and his writing has appeared in The American Scholar, The Nation, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Best American Poetry. Seshadri currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives with his family in Brooklyn.

A Poem as Big as the City

Teachers & Writers Collaborative (T&W) launched its new project, A Poem as Big as the City, in July. This initiative will engage 6,000-10,000 young people in writing poems about their experiences growing up in the neighborhoods of New York City.

 

The project will culminate in public readings featuring the young poets and well-known New York writers that will be held in all five boroughs, and in the publication of A Poem as Big as the City, a collection of material written during the project.