Our marathon begins with each participant declaring “I am a writer,” and that mindset travels with them as they leave the WP room and walk across campus and through the city. In fact, we encourage the Fellows, when they loiter on a sidewalk or at a café table, to identify themselves as writers because servers and shopkeepers will see that they’re working and honor their effort. As a result, these writers become bold, and their writing follows. A great power is unleashed, and it’s the energy from this that I felt when I returned to the Summer Institute the day after our marathon.
One of the great successes of this year’s Summer Institute was the participation of four teachers from one school, Farristown Middle School in Berea. This relatively large number created a sense of community that never felt cliquish, but still gave that group chances to plan together for change in their classrooms, and change in their school. Their regular talk gained a new dimension after the writing marathon, and when they returned to school in August the groundwork had already been laid for a schoolwide marathon. It helps that their principal is a Writing Project teacher-consultant, and it helped, too, that the day selected for the marathon, October 1st was the day before fall break and usually offers perfect weather for outdoor activities (not that the out-of-doors is required; Natalie Goldberg’s original conception of the marathon keeps participants in their seats for the duration). So plans were made and for glorious hours on an absolutely ideal morning students and teachers wandered and wondered, wrote and shared.
Groups filled bleachers, lined gym walls, surrounded tree trunks, squatted on sidewalks and sprawled in outfields. Some started one story and added to it at every stop. Students searched for inspiration, and their teachers took them places where it could be found. All of them engaged with their surroundings, taking in – and writing about – the clouds, the football field, the softball bleachers, the flagpole, tobacco hanging in a barn, corralled horses, trees and a pond. Students seized the chance to define and pursue their own agendas, writing about robots and holidays (October 1st seemed to put Halloween on many minds) and their daily lives, including pets, parents and siblings. Groups passed through the library, where the school’s media specialist (yet another EKUWP teacher-consultant) had classical music playing and the projector showing a series of thought-provoking images on a screen.
Some students and teachers gathered in a tight bunch to share and others shared from across open spaces. Sometimes students passed, choosing not to share. Some hesitated, but then shared anyway. Some groups shared so rapidly, with such enthusiasm that one student’s voice blended seamlessly into the next. Teachers shared with students, because they wrote with them, balancing freely writing and creating with the break-down-the-walls liberty of a change in the routine. While writing, teachers became students, all of them using their environment to inspire and allowing their imaginations to drift. While sharing, they were all equals, taking a turn, thanking each other when finished, celebrating the written word and the chance to give themselves over to it entirely.
Students interpreted the marathon as an adventure. They went new places – 6th graders discovered the pond behind the football field; a group of 7th graders sat on top of the baseball dugout. Old, endearing, habits died hard: a student told a teacher she couldn’t share one time because she was busy looking for acorns, another somehow misplaced his writer’s notebook between the classroom and his group’s first stop. At the same time, though, new life emerged. Students were invited to think about their surroundings, and 6th-graders’ wide-eyed wander joined 8th-graders’ heartfelt reflection.
Yeah, they went new places all right. They started pieces they will return to as the year goes on. They thought about things that wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t been writing right then, and hadn’t been where they were and surrounded by the people they were with. They demonstrated endurance and opened new avenues of thought. None of them wrote five-paragraph essays; not one of them saw the marathon as an assignment, an order to write on demand. Instead, they wrote because they were given the chance to, and they wrote what they wanted to. Writers were born today at Farristown Middle School. Something tells me that it’s not only students who will see themselves differently after today. In fact, I was glad to be able to join them for it, glad to get some of that energy I had been missing.
Once you feel that energy, you want more of it. I want to join your school for its marathon. Let me know you’re planning one, even with just your class. Let me help you plan it. Let me put you in touch with these awesome teachers at Farristown, and they’ll help you plan it. Let me chronicle it and write about it here. Your students need what Farristown’s students got today. So do you. And so do I.