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.
Already we have plans for Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the acclaimed novel Wench all set to discuss Solomon Northrup‘s memoir Twelve Years a Slave. She wrote the introduction to a spectacular new edition of the text, and is eager to share her knowledge of Northrup’s harrowing story with the students. Stay tuned for more details.
Also coming down (the frozen) pike is the very first virtual Writers in Schools visit. Longtime visiting author James Grady has always hoped to share the WinS experience with students from his hometown high school in Shelby, MT. When he published a new e-book entitled This Given Sky, he saw the perfect opportunity. The short story, set entirely in Shelby, was sent out to over 75 local high schoolers and Grady will Skype from PEN/Faulkner headquarters in D.C. with each class to discuss the story, and his life as a writer.
The low temperatures have also given the cold shoulder (har har) to Baltimore, our fair neighbor to the north where our Writers in Schools expansion is entering its fourth semester of programming. As you might suspect, Baltimoreans are not ones to let a little ice and snow stand in thier way. This week, WinS Baltimore will hold four visits with author Geoffrey Becker at Baltimore’s Academy of College and Career Exploration.
To the cold we say meh, and you to we say keep warm out there!
— Ariel Martino & Nate Brown
A Series of Firsts for Reading Series Authors: Perrotta, Semple, Caputo, and Powers Head into High Schools
When an author comes to DC to read for PEN/Faulkner, we ask if he or she would be willing to participate in Writers in Schools. We lay out the basics of the program—that we aim to serve students in public and public charter high schools by donating books, providing instructors with curricular materials, and by arranging for students to meet with authors whose work they’ve studied—and unless there’s some extenuating circumstance that prevents an author from participating, they almost always enthusiastically say yes.
It’s amazing, though, that no matter how good the program sounds in theory, in practice it nearly always exceeds expectations. Perhaps that’s merely illustrative of the differences between theory and reality; that is of course it sounds like a good idea to donate books to kids and of course it sounds like a good idea to arrange a meeting between students and the authors they’ve read for class, but just how the visit goes is often something of a mystery if the author hasn’t yet participated in Writers in Schools.
In October, we kicked off the 2013-2014 Reading Series with an event called The Human Comedy: Serious Humor in the American Novel. The reading featured authors Tom Perrotta and Maria Semple, who packed the seats at the Folger and who participated in an engaging and entertaining discussion moderated by NPR’s Linda Holmes. In addition to the reading, both Perrotta and Semple participated in Writers in Schools for the first time. On October 22nd, Maria Semple visited the SEED School of DC where she met with 21 students who’d read her novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Perrotta visited another 30 students at McKinley Technology High School on October 23rd.
In each case, the students peppered the authors with questions about their inspiration, their writing process, their lives and—not surprisingly given each author’s particular talents—their senses of humor. For her part, Semple’s Writers in Schools visit focused largely on the details of writing an epistolary novel. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is largely composed of notes, emails, diary entries, etc. It was, according to the students, not like many other novels they’ve seen. Perrotta’s visit was wholly different, though the students also zeroed in on the structure of the book. Perrotta’s latest publication is a collection of short fiction called Nine Inches, and it provoked several specific questions about individual stories but just as central to the conversation were the questions about collections in general. How long does it take an author to put a collection together? How do you know what to include and what to leave out? Once you’ve written several stories, how do you most effectively put them in an order that makes sense to a reader? Do the stories need to be thematically linked, or can they represent a range of ideas, narratives, and writing styles?
In November, authors Philip Caputo and Kevin Powers travelled to Washington to participate in a reading series event that we called Blood Lines: The Literature of War. As with Semple and Perrotta, the visit represented the first time each author would participate in Writers in Schools. Caputo visited the newly renovated and recently reopened Cardozo High School while Powers met with a class at Washington Latin Public Charter School. Because Caputo and Powers both write about war (NB: both are also veterans of war), the tone of these visits was necessarily different than it’d been for Semple and Perrotta. During Kevin Powers’s visit to Washington Latin, students had many questions about the ethical guidelines of the military’s Rules of Engagement (ROE), and about the ins and outs of being a soldier.
Having accompanied Perrotta, Semple, and Powers on their Writers in Schools visits, I was struck not merely by the range of tones, topics, and craft issues that were touched on, but by the analytic depth and the rigor that students applied to their own reading. In an age of abundant forms of digital entertainment and distractions, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the state of American readership and the future of the book. But in every visit I’ve attended this semester, the students have had such clear-eyed questions and such genuine insight that fretting over the future of the book and, more generally, of readership seems unnecessary and, well, wrongheaded.
As Writers in Schools aims to complete 170 author visits in Washington, DC this school year and another 30 visits in Baltimore as part of our expansion to that city, it’s hard not to feel excited about the future. As an arts administrator and as a reader, I can’t think of a better or more fitting way to bring 2013 to a close.
— Nate Brown
Deputy Director, PEN/Faulkner
Elizabeth Gutting, PEN/Faulkner’s Newest Staffer, on Her First WinS Visit
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