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The Return to In-Person WITS Instruction: 2021 Classroom Reflections from a WITS Specialist

by april joseph

As the new Writers in the Schools (WITS) Specialist at Literary Arts, throughout November and December 2021, I joined WITS Manager, Jules Ohman, every chance I could to observe classrooms at Gresham, Parkrose, Franklin, Benson, and McDaniel High Schools. I’ve learned so much over the last couple of months from the team at Literary Arts, the WITS writers, partner teachers, and students. Below is a brief overview of my new role and some reflections from being back in the classrooms.

The winter view

The WITS Specialist role includes the opportunity to visit high schools throughout Multnomah County to support WITS writers as they take the lead as a writer-in-residence developing a course outline for 10-15 classes, final project, facilitating writing prompts and student-centered discussions, making space for students to read out loud—including their own writing, and ultimately giving the students a glimpse into the life of a working artist. (It’s true, you can be a teaching artist, writer/poet and make a living in the world!)

After the last year and a half of virtual teaching due to the ongoing pandemic, it has been incredibly nourishing to be back in the classroom where students don’t have the option of keeping their video and mic off. As we continue to adjust to life during a pandemic, it wasn’t a surprise to witness some quiet classrooms, yet some were filled with students’ enthusiasm to write, discuss prompts, and share their own writing. The teaching artist in me wrote along with the students, taking note of my own excitement as I observed the students’ eagerness to reconnect with their peers, the writer-in-residence, and instructor. The energy that you can sense in a room which was lost during virtual learning was buzzing along again!

An excerpt from the book “Fears of Your Life” by Michael Bernard Loggins, used as a model text in a WITS class this semester

The purpose of the classroom observations is to note what’s working well during the lesson, what may need improvement, as well as encourage students to submit their writing to the WITS Anthology. My role also serves as a bridge or liaison for the WITS writer and the classroom instructor to ensure a successful collaboration. My first experience was in Dey Rivers’s class where they skillfully asked students to be a timekeeper during the writing prompts as well as invited students to share their favorite songs/music to the classroom writing playlist to encourage student engagement.

Another memorable experience included observing a long time WITS writer, Mark Pomeroy, teach from the 2008 WITS anthology. Mark shared the work of a former student—essentially, encouraging students that they too can be published writers. This led to a contemplative prompt that invited students to stand up, look out the window, and notice what they notice. At one of my last observations as I walked around the classroom checking in with students, one student graciously thanked me for the opportunity to be a part of the Writers in the Schools program. My heart leaped in joy!

The poem Valentine for Ernest Mann by Naomi Shihab Nye, taught as a model text in a WITS class this semester

By winter break, observations were complete and I walked away from each classroom in awe of the WITS writers, instructors, and students for their resilience and dedication to creativity and education. As each high school throughout Multnomah County has had their own experience navigating returning to in-person instruction, dealing with the rise of our dependency on cell phones/technology throughout a pandemic, the Writers in the Schools program remains as a force to uplift and inspire students to return to the page, reminding students that their voice matters, and aims to create a safe and brave space for students to write their dreams, their fears, their story.

As we begin a new year (Happy 2022!) Jules and I are preparing for student readings—an opportunity for students to celebrate the end of their writing workshop by sharing their hard work, witness their classmates’ read, and even hear from their writer-in-residence and classroom instructor, too. Ultimately, I’m grateful for Literary Arts and our community for the opportunity to foster a creative environment that encourages students to practice expression, to write to be free.

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