The WinS Blog
Welcome to the WinS (Writers in Schools) blog, where we post dispatches, updates, and reflections about our author visits with DC high school classrooms, teen parent groups, and youth facilities.
In the coming weeks and months, we’ll expand the content here to feature helpful, downloadable resources for teachers, writers and students, as well as showcase exceptional student work, so make sure to check back soon.
To learn more about PEN/Faulkner’s Writers In Schools Program or to make a request for an author to visit your classroom, click here. To contact Writers in Schools with questions or concerns, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One month ago, on Monday, October 7th, esteemed writers from all over the country came to D.C. to read at the PEN/Faulkner 25th Annual Gala—as well as to visit local schools to discuss their books. Among the writers was Roy Scranton, who visited McKinley Tech to talk about Fire and Forget, a collection of war stories from Iraq and Afghanistan that he and another writer, Matt Gallagher, edited together. Scranton served in the U.S. Army from 2002 to 2006, including fourteen months in Baghdad, and spoke to students about writing, putting together a story collection, and what it was like to be a soldier in Iraq.
He began by reading from his story in Fire and Forget, acting out dialogue between soldiers and Iraqis with gusto. A storm raged outside, making the moment all the more dramatic. Students leaned in and applauded him when he finished, and then had a slew of sharp and unafraid questions. When one asked if a soldier could really “fire and forget,” Roy shook his head, and replied candidly. “As a solder, you go overseas and fight—and it’s impossible to forget. We wanted the title of this collection to have a certain irony to reflect that.”
He went on to discuss the order of the stories—chosen carefully, like a well thought out “mix CD or playlist,” where each story is in conversation with the others, drawing on different aspects of the two wars. One student asked Roy to talk about what inspired him to write and collect stories about war. Roy responded that while both Iraq and Afghanistan played a hugely important role in the last 10 years of this country, very few people seem to understand what was going on in these countries while soldiers fought. The collection, he said, aimed to help translate the experience he and others had overseas.
One student commented that reading the stories had raised this question in her mind: Does war make people more human, or does it make people inhumane? What did he think?
Scranton paused to reflect on this thoughtful question. War is such an extreme thing, he began, and so it can bring out the best and the worst in a person; overall, though, it tends to brutalize people. He went on to say that war can make a person numb to others’ suffering—“because you just have to get through it.” He made the point that things that are horrific in a civilian zone become normal in a war zone. But then, he said, you also have to consider that humans are the ones making war—and so there are lessons to learn about what it means to be human from the way we start and wage wars.
To conclude, one student asked Scranton: how did it feel to put the book together?
It was difficult, he said, to go back over some of those experiences, which reminded him of his own life as a soldier. And he’d found that with his own writing, it often felt odd to use personal memories to create fiction, mentioning that sometimes now it was hard for him to discern between his real memories and the ones that he’d altered for fiction.
After his visit ended, students lingered to sign books and talk with him. As we left the school, he marveled at how brave the students were with their questions – commenting that few readings he’d given elicited such an intense discussion.
I, too, was impressed by the depth and intensity of the questions, which clearly came from students who read closely and thought critically. As a new member of the PEN/Faulkner staff, this was my first WinS visit —and I have to say, it exceeded even my highest of expectations. I can’t wait for more!
— Elizabeth Gutting
Alison Stewart & The WinS Triathlon
The WinS Triathlon with Alison Stewart
If you’ve been following the WinS Blog for a while now, you’ve certainly read about the time-honored tradition of the “WinS Marathon.” It’s when a writer visits three or more class sections in a single day, which, given block scheduling often amounts to spending an entire day discussing their work with students. Much like it’s 26.2-mile counterpart, the marathon is the ultimate test of the writer’s endurance, tenacity, and commitment to his or her craft. It takes training. It takes courage. And, most importantly, it takes granola bars.
To continue our well-documented obsession with sports metaphors, this past Tuesday one daring writer took on a brand new challenge: the WinS triathlon. Whereas a marathon takes place all at one school, the triathlon spans three schools, and three completely different types of class settings — much like the three events of a traditional triathlon.
I met Alison Stewart at her hotel on that fateful morning. “You’re the boss,” she said gamely. “Just point me in the right direction and I’ll talk.”
She was in D.C. to discuss her much-publicized new book The First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School. The book traces the storied history of Dunbar High School from its beginnings as an elite academic institution that offered a well-rounded classical education, Latin class included, to its current state as an urban public school facing challenges with attendance, test scores, and graduation rates. Perhaps one of the most telling details of the school’s present-day reputation comes in the introduction to Ms. Stewart’s book. When she mentions to a colleague that she wants to visit the school to see the institution that has produced so many illustrious African American leaders (including her own parents), he responds with, “Dunbar — hey, they have a great basketball team.”
From that first visit, ten years ago, Ms. Stewart has remained fascinated with Dunbar, from its more distant past as a rigorous school that circumvented overtly racist policies and practices of 19th and 20th century D.C. to offer quality education to its students, through its recent past amidst the tumultuous era of school reform under Michelle Rhee, and through its present in a brand new $122 million building that just opened for the 2013-2014 school year. It was that evolution, and her genuine hopefulness for Dunbar’s future, that she most wanted to emphasize when she spoke with nearly 100 D.C. students over the course of her WinS triathlon.
The first leg took place at Cardozo High School in an AP English classroom. The students eagerly asked Ms. Stewart about her motivation for writing the book, why she chose to structure the book in the way that she did, and the persistent rumor that she’d attended Wilson High School (not true — Stewart grew up and attended school in New Jersey).
After a quick cup of coffee and a change of scenery, we were off to the second leg at McKinley Technology High School to meet with a lunchtime book club. There she spoke poignantly about her parents’ experience in 1950s D.C., an era in which they received a first-class education at Dunbar, but could not sit at a local lunch counter. She also shared one of her favorite anecdotes from the books, which concerns Lt. Commander Wesley Brown, the first African American graduate of the Naval Academy. Brown faced rampant discrimination during his time at Annapolis, but received encouragement from a surprising source — future president Jimmy Carter, who Stewart interviewed for the book.
Finally, Stewart took the day into its homestretch at Dunbar High School where she spoke with students in a D.C. History class. There the students were just as concerned with the elements of their school that they’d recognized from the book (Matt Stuart, the English teacher profiled in the final chapter of Stewart’s book, was teaching just down the hall) as with the process of writing in. Ms. Stewart shared stories of her research process, including the boxes of research she lugged between her home and writing space, and of the many challenges she faced in writing her first book. The visit ended with Stewart and the students exiting the 4th floor classroom to gaze at the ruins of the old Dunbar, currently in the process of being torn down.
As we left the school, Alison Stewart, reflected on her triathlon experience. Meeting with three different groups of students, at three different high schools provided her with a truly panoramic vision of what it’s like to be a part of the D.C. school community. And, as an added bonus, she became the Gordon Haller of Writers in Schools.
2013 PEN/Faulkner Gala/WinS Recap!
Here at the PEN/Faulkner office, we’re knee-deep in our busy season. We’re sending out our first shipments of books to the judges of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, we’re kicking off our annual Reading Series at the Folger, and our free, community-based series at Hill Center @ Old Naval Hospital, and, of course, Writers in Schools has started for the 2013-2014 school year.
This past Monday, we celebrated the start of this year’s WinS programming with a day chock-full of visits. As part of our annual Gala, a fundraising event that supports both the administration of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Writers in Schools program, we bring about ten writers to D.C. each fall. Included in their trip is a visit to a high school classroom as part of the WinS experience. But, because each writer is only coming through town for a short period of time, all of those visits must happen on the day of the gala. It makes for one of the busiest, craziest, and most exciting days of the entire school year.
Monday saw eight writers visit eight classrooms at seven D.C. high schools. The conversations covered the incredibly diverse range of topics that each writer covers in his or her work. At Bell Multicultural High School, students chatted with Chris Castellani about his debut novel A Kiss from Maddalena and its portrayal of World War II-era Italy. Meanwhile, Roy Scranton, co-editor and contributor to the collection Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War discussed his experience serving in Iraq with a book club at McKinley Technology High School. And National Book Award long-lister and DC native son Anthony Marra talked to students at Phelps ACE about his acclaimed novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Meg Wolitzer visited Banneker High School to discuss The Interestings, and Tiphanie Yanique headed to Duke Ellington to answer questions about her collection How to Escape from a Leper Colony.
It may seem a little crazy to add an intricately choreographed day of programming— involving so many schools, teachers, writers, and PEN/Faulkner staff and board members, and, in the case of Monday, flash downpours—on top of what is already a pretty busy event. But Writers in Schools is an enormous part of our programming, and we’re committed to offering writers a panoramic view of what we do here at PEN/Faulkner. And part of that is meeting the district’s young readers where they are—in classrooms across the city.
—Ariel Martino, Programs Coordinator
The WinS Questionnaire Is Back! First up Is Author Melanie Hatter
WinS Author Questionnaire with Melanie S. Hatter
The WinS Questionnaire is back, and we’re featuring writer Melanie S. Hatter in this first installment of the school year! When Hatter set out to write the novel that would eventually become The Color of My Soul, she envisioned a romance novel where two very different characters, from two entirely different cultural backgrounds find love despite all odds. But as the writing process wore on, she found herself more and more interested in the issues of identity and culture that her characters were struggling with. What resulted is still a love story, but also a story of the search for identity. She discusses these issues, and more in the conversation that follows.
PEN/Faulkner: When you were writing The Color of My Soul, did you anticipate the book being read by young people? Had you anticipated ever presenting work to those types of audiences?
Melanie Hatter: Young women, yes, but not high-school students. I imagined the audience would be women of color, but I’ve been surprised at the number of men who say they enjoyed reading the book. It truly is a thrill to see young people read the book and be able to relate to the characters.
P/F: Generally speaking, one of the most important goals of the WinS programming is to give students access to works of contemporary literature and, of course, to the authors of those works. What are your thoughts on teaching contemporary work in the classroom?
MH: I think it’s important to engage young people with work they can relate to, and contemporary literature opens the door for many who may feel intimidated by writers like Henry James, Jane Austen or Edgar Allen Poe. It’s also important to give young people of color the chance to hear voices that sound like them, see characters that look like them, and hear stories from their communities, whether it’s Edward P. Jones or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
P/F: What do you think high students get from interacting with authors in the classroom?
MH: I hope they get a deeper understanding of the work they are studying; an opportunity to see that authors are just regular people; and that if they love writing, with some work and dedication, they can pursue being a published author, too.
P/F: And what did you take away from the experience of interacting with the students?
MH: I’m always encouraged by the level of interest in literature and the thoughtful questions and comments they have about the book. It leaves me feeling hopeful that books will be valued by future generations.
P/F: When did you first meet an author? Was it in a scholastic context? Did it make an impression on you?
MH: I was studying at Hampton University when I met Ernest Gaines and Nikki Giovanni. Both were inspiring in different ways – Nikki is bold and speaks her mind; Ernest Gaines is quiet and thoughtful. Both inspired me to write and push toward my dream of being a published writer.
— Ariel Maritno
PEN/Faulkner Programs Coordinator
How Do I Schedule a Writers in Schools Visit?
Now that school is back in session, we’re getting our usual flood of emails about Writers in Schools. In that stack, there are a fair number asking some variation of “How do I get involved in Writers in Schools?” The program can seem a little too good to be true—a full class set of books and an author visit—so we find a lot of teachers are surprised how easy it is to participate. And, if you teach in D.C. or in Baltimore, your first WinS visit is just an email away.
Step 1: Contact a PEN/Faulkner
The easiest way to get in touch is through our Writers in Schools account, which is wins[at]penfaulkner[dot]org. We check the account each day, and make sure that your request goes to the correct person. Let us know who you are, where you teach, and how you heard about the program. We will get back to you within a two to three business days with more details. Note that currently our programming is limited to D.C. Public & Public Charter Schools and to Baltimore City Schools, and that we work almost entirely with high schools (grades 9-12).
Step 2: Choose an Author
When we received your request, we’ll send along a list of books by participating local authors. This list has everything: novels, short story collections, memoirs, creative nonfiction, and even young adult novels for younger grades and reluctant readers. Take a look at the list, which includes a brief summary of each book as well as a listing of major themes, and let your contact at PEN/Faulkner know if something jumps out at you.
For most instructors this is the longest step. The list is long, and there are so many amazing choices. I’d recommend sticking with it. Sometimes the best visits and most perfect matches are the result of a lot of back-and-forth about which writer might work best. As always, PEN/Faulkner staff is on hand to provide advice and recommendations.
Step 3: Logistics & Observation
Once you’ve selected an author, we get to work ordering your class set of books and scheduling the actual date of the visit with the author. We always schedule visits at least six weeks in advance to give the books plenty of time to arrive, and give instructors and students plenty of time to read and discuss. When the visit is confirmed, PEN/Faulkner staff comes into your classroom to observe and talk a little bit about the visit. This gives us an idea of what preparation you’ve done for the visit, as well as offers the chance for us to meet before the big day.
Step 4: The Long Wait
Over the next few weeks, you’ll be reading and discussing the book, and you may not hear from PEN/Faulkner staff as much. We’ll get back in touch about a week before the visit, though, to confirm directions, time, and any other logistical concerns.
Step 5: The Visit
At this point you’ve highlighted, dog-eared, underlined, and post-it-ed your book. The only thing left to do is talk about it. We bring the author into your classroom for a discussion of the selected book, its inspiration, and the process of writing it. Students will have time to ask lots of questions, and then will get their books signed. After the visit, students take their books home to begin growing their personal libraries.
Step 6: After the Visit
We’ll send you an evaluation so that you can offer feedback about your experience working with Writers in Schools. And then we’ll start all over again to plan the next visit!
— Ariel Maritno
PEN/Faulkner Programs Coordinator