The last time Jovan Mays, poet laureate of Aurora, performed his slam poem about his grandmother’s cages of birds it was for Colorado’s governor, Denver’s mayor and a room of other local leaders. Today, Mays’s audience is a little different: 90 elementary school students.
It’s the second day of the Denver Writing Project’s (DWP) Young Writers Camp, which brings more than 100 writers aged 10-16 to CU Denver for a week of workshops and writing sessions led by Denver’s best writers and teachers. Mays is one of the very best.
Before the camp is over, Mays will recite the poem again for the group of middle school and high school students on campus for the week. Then, Mays will perform it one more time for a group of 40 K-16 educators from across Colorado gathered for a similar week of writing and learning in the DWP’s Summer Institute.
Both the Young Writer’s Camp and the Summer Institute fulfill the DWP’s mission to help Denver-area students become stronger writers and effective 21st century communicators. While one program encourages students who are passionate about writing, the other devotes three weeks to the instruction of the instructors. Here, away from their classrooms, teachers gather to share teaching strategies, bond over shared experiences and, most important, write.
“Writing, reading and thinking are inextricably intertwined,” says Richard Argys, DWP co-director and senior instructor of English education for the School of Education &Human Development. “A better writer has to become a better thinker. Through writing, kids will find their voices–writing voices, speaking voices, community activist voices. Through writing, through these kids, our entire community is empowered.”
This is the fifth year that Mays has agreed to lead poetry workshops for both programs because he believes in empowerment through writing. His agenda for the three different groups, though nuanced, is similar. In each workshop, Mays speaks a poem, leads the group in a creative writing activity and facilitates the sharing of the newly written work with the rest of the group. Whether students or teachers, the writers are there to discover, or rediscover, their voice through writing–a goal that requires little adjustment for age or experience. Still, as the workshops progress, the writers find their inspiration, and ultimately their voices, in different ways.
“Why do you write?”
Mays begins the workshop with the question, and the young writers immediately begin yelling out their answers.
“To make others feel.”
“To go on adventures.”
“To change the world.”
The answers are surprisingly insightful coming from students who barely fill the university chairs. Mays gives everyone in the room a chance to answer, pointing to each child, one after the other, until their voices become a patchwork quilt of inspiration. It’s a simple exercise, but one that gets the kids thinking about their writing.
Mays then distributes pictures of fantastical paintings of nature and cartoon characters with only the instruction to “tell the picture’s story,” and the students begin to write–to feel, to escape, to go on adventures.
Though the older attendees are also given pictures (black-and-white images from history or haunting portraits) as inspiration, they are given more freedom to write whatever comes to mind. Mays calls the activity “breaking the wall”– a writing icebreaker to avert writer’s block.
“Be incorrect. Be not perfect. Be first thought,” Mays encourages them.
Some students write fragmented sentences on the page, others compose paragraphs of uninterrupted thought, but all the students write. As they do, Mays circles the room, dropping into a seat now and then to read over a shoulder or scribble in solidarity in his own notebook. The room is silent except for the pounding of fingers against laptop keys and the scratch of pen against paper.
Eventually, Mays asks for volunteers to read their work, and nearly every hand in the room goes up. After each student reads, the audience claps its support, so that the voices of the students become increasingly confident.
“Believe in your voice,” Mays says between readers. “Believe in the power of your voice.”
It’s easy for the writers to believe in their voices here in the safe space of the workshop, but the DWP hopes that this one week of vulnerability and expression will teach the students to continue to share their writing with not only the Young Writer’s Workshop network, but also with their own communities. It appears this hope will be realized. When the workshop is over, the students continue to read their scraps of writing to each other as they make their way in little groups out the door.
The teachers are the last to see Mays. Again, he instructs the groups to write about a photograph for one minute before passing it to the person next to them and writing about the next photo. It takes the teachers longer to master the passing of the photos than it did the grade-school kids, but when they get writing, few want to stop as Mays calls time.
Like the young writers, the instructors are asked to share their work and talk about their inspiration. For many of these veterans the writing itself is the most powerful part of the day. Sarah Lebovic, an eighth-grade teacher, expressed her gratitude for the activity that got her writing again.
“I chose to come to this training for this kind of workshop,” she says. “This wasn’t forced on me by my principal. Nobody else sent me here. I just knew I needed it to write. It’s this space that reminds me of my passion for writing. It reminds me why I fell in love with teaching to begin with.”
With renewed passion Lebovic and the other instructors will go back to their classrooms to focus anew on the craft of writing. While certainly helpful, the practical exercises they learned are not the best thing that the DWP provided this week. Ask any of the young writers or instructors what they’re taking away from the week and they will all say the same thing–they’re going home writers.