Although it might be too soon to validly reflect on Writers Week XVIII, our school’s just-concluded annual celebration of writing, I should try to see through the exhilaration and exhaustion for some insights into why this week means so much to so many.
Last fall at the NCTE convention in Chicago, my colleague Tony Romano and I, along with Jodi Moeller and Douglas Jameson, our Writers Week colleagues from Hazelwood West High School in Hazelwood, Missouri, presented a session entitled “Writers Week: A Platform for Building Community.” Community. Did we, in fact, “build community” at our school last week? At Writers Week XVIII, we saw students, teachers, parents, alumni, and writers, all telling each other through their words and actions that they matter to one another. I saw more hugs at Writers Week than in all the rest of the school year combined. Our student writers told me that people they don’t know said nice things to them in the hall after their words were shared on our Writers Week stage.
Some of this “community” isn’t directly related to writing. During Writers Week, we transform one classroom into a hospitality room where authors, students, and teachers can gather for conversation and refreshments. This concept was begun by a colleague who is now retired, but it’s one of the best things about Writers Week when students and teachers who don’t know each other, but who have writing in common, find themselves talking around a table of goodies. Some of these refreshments are supplied by Writers Week fund-raising but we also see food brought in from students, parents, and staff members from around the building who want to contribute something to Writers Week. One of the best programs at our school is the Chemistry of Foods class, an interdisciplinary course that produces excellent food and even more excellent learning. They brought amazing treats to the hospitality room.
The community extended beyond the walls of our school this year as one of our colleagues arranged to have Writers Week sessions streaming online, and our incredible tech department made it happen. Those in our auditorium experienced Writers Week directly, but people around the world watched our streaming sessions. Family members who live elsewhere, siblings and other alumni away at college, fans of specific writers, and interested educators all checked in to say how much they appreciated being able to participate in Writers Week via our online streaming. (Most of the Writers Week XVIII sessions are now archived here on Ustream.)
I’m a believer in the power of Twitter for building community too. We established a #ww18 hashtag on Twitter, and all week long we saw students, teachers, and writers contributing comments, virtual applause, and thank-you messages on there. Teachers and students who don’t know each other were re-tweeting messages, and in doing so were saying in essence, “I value your words and ideas.” More community? I think so.
In this education era when some seem to value only numerical data, our school saw clear proof that students are much more than the data they generate. More than one hundred students and a dozen faculty members took the stage last week to share their writing. We heard writing that was funny, sad, poignant, dramatic, ironic, entertaining, tragic, and important. Those writers created laughter, tears, applause, empathy, and community. Many student writers voluntarily praised their teachers, each other, or their parents for making a difference in their lives, but not a single one of them praised a standardized test. If we want to create a data bank, we know how to do that. If we want to create community, we know how to do that too. It’s hard to do both at the same time.
I’ve barely mentioned our Writers Week XVIII guests! We were privileged to welcome to our school Sierra DeMulder, Mary Fons, Dann Gire, Kate Hogan, Ellen Hopkins, Thomas E. Kennedy, Jenna Marotta, Emily Rose, Veronica Roth, and Patricia Smith. Any one of them would have been the highlight of the school year, but we had all ten of them! I’m proud to say that these writers are like rock stars at our school. Our kids mobbed these authors, sought their autographs (in books, on programs, shirts, and body parts), and asked them astute questions about careers, writing, and life situations. I could write a thousand words on the impact of each of the authors who visited our school last week, but let’s just say that if you want to find out what is going on in the life of an American high school, sit at a table with Ellen Hopkins for a half hour as she signs book and talks to students. Wow.
So, will all of this help our students become better readers and writers? I may not be able to produce any data points, but I can submit these facts: Last week our students listened raptly to writers talk about their lives and work. The students in our school who claim the mantle of “writer” were honored and shown respect by their peers. Students purchased copies of Divergent, Crank, Impulse, Perfect, and Blood Dazzler that we ordered for these author visits, and it’s a safe bet that those books will be read. Students processed what they learned on Twitter, through hall-talk and bathroom-talk, and through a variety of activities designed by their teachers.
I could not be more proud that my colleagues collaborated authentically and meaningfully to produce an event placing writing and reading at the center of the curriculum for a week. But maybe the impact of Writers Week is said best by this student tweet that came through the hashtag in the wee hours last night: “I inspired someone today. I didn’t know that was possible. Without #ww18 I wouldn’t feel so empowering and strong.”
Maybe we should do this again next year. Writers Week XIX, anyone?