Interview by: Mikaila Hoffman
Lynn Powell is a professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College. She has published two books of poetry and one non-fiction book. She created and continues to teach the “Teaching Imaginative Writing” course at Oberlin, where she assists interested college students in running week long poetry residencies at Langston Middle School. The course is partially inspired by the Writers in the Schools Program.
Q: My first question for you is, what inspired you to start teaching the Teaching Imaginative Writing class?
A: My work in the Teaching Imaginative Writing comes out of the fact that, for over twenty years I worked with Writer in the Schools in grades kindergarten through 12th grade as a visiting writer where we’d go and work with a class for as little as one day or for as much as a year, depending on the grant and depending on the school. At that point, there was a little bit of Writers in the Schools work going on, a few writers visiting schools, but not very many. When I came to Ohio in 1990, I began to work for the Ohio Arts Council doing the same kind of work. So when I began to move into college teaching, about 15 years ago, I felt like this was something some college students would love to know how to do. There are some Creative Writing majors thinking, ‘what will I do when I go out into the real world,’ and also the larger question of, 'how do I take what I believe in and feel passionately about, and how do I share that with others who are hungry for it?' That’s when I began to teach that class in its earliest incarnation, and what has now become Teaching Imaginative Writing and the Writers in the Schools program.
"It is thrilling to see my college students learn from middle school students...how profound they are, how nuanced they are, how brave they are."
Q: What excites you the most about having this program in the schools and working with college students in that context?
A: Well, I often say this, but one thing that excites me is that the program is an experience where everybody is a teacher and everybody is a learner, and I really do believe that. I love helping the college students learn how to bring what they’re passionate about into the middle school, which is a place where kids are especially in need of that way to express themselves. Poetry is a place you can do that, uncensored, using all of your imagination. It excites me to have my students empowered to teach effectively and open that world to the middle school students. It also thrills me how much my college students learn from being in the middle school class, and how amazed they are by the middle school students, by how profound they are, how nuanced they are, how brave they are. How they’re willing to make themselves vulnerable in ways college students cannot imagine. It really is an environment where we’re all learning all the time. I learn from everybody, so I think that excites me the most.
Q: What have you seen the college students learn from the middle school students, and vice versa?
A: One thing that happens is that college students remember their middle school years as misery, pure misery and fear, and they dread going back into the middle school. They have certain notions of middle schoolers that are completely undermined when they actually get there. I think it helps them see their own history differently, because how they were experiencing middle school may not have been the objective reality around them, so they get more of an objective view of [the dynamics]. You get this window on other people when you are now in a position where you can look at these kids empathetically, across the board. Another thing is it’s amazing to them how vulnerable the kids will make themselves in their poems, and I think the contemporary, fashionable stance of being ironic and defended doesn’t really go down in middle school very well. Those middle schoolers will reveal themselves in poems so honestly sometimes. It is very moving, and it is very inspiring. It’s sort of chastening, too. The other thing is that they’re also wildly, wonderfully imaginative. They can take leaps when they’re not burdened by making an impression or taking a stance in a certain kind of fashionable way. They follow their imagination when it sort of bounds away, which is also inspiring for my students and for me.
Q: Can you speak a bit about what you’ve learned from overseeing both the college students and their interactions with the middle school students in the classroom?
A: In Teaching Imaginative Writing, we’re workshopping each other’s lesson plans. Each week, several of my Oberlin College students get up and teach the lesson they want to teach to the middle school, to us. One thing that I find really interesting is that college students are experts on what someone’s doing wrong when they’re teaching, but it’s a lot different when suddenly you’re the one up there trying to communicate
effectively, trying to communicate in ways that open up discussion rather than shut it down, in ways that aren’t about you but are about the material. The tables are turned on them, but the tables are also turned on me. The thing about teaching together is that I’m constantly learning from my students, and as we workshop lessons, I have certain things to say. But then I’ll hear my students chiming in with insights about lessons, about how [certain things] might be done more effectively or imaginatively, and I’m learning constantly from the really insightful feedback that they give, because they really are experts.
Q: You talked a little bit about what the college and middle school students learned from each other. I was wondering if you had any further comments on the types of relationships that develop between college students and the middle school students.
A: I have found almost uniformly that the middle school students are really open to what we do and they respond well to what we do. We publish books of the kids’ work. Every class we work in, we do a book of their poetry and the kids are invited to a book celebration at the Cat in the Cream. [The middle school students] are very proud of their work, and I like how the college students as writers become rock stars in their heads. I find it exciting that the college student poets are cool and the kids think ‘I want to be like that.’
"Quite frankly, when you walk across that street to Langston Middle school, you’ve left the bubble, in many ways. You have to get real about what really matters"
Q: Where do you see these interactions, skills, and relationships that both parties get from this experience fitting in the bigger picture, for example, whether that’s into the college students’ career or into high school for the middle school students?
A: Well it’s different for everybody. I’ve had students go on to get Masters in Teaching, so that’s one extreme. The other extreme is that it’s a meaningful experience where people learned something really deep about how to communicate something important about yourself to an audience that is not already true believers. I think that’s something college students around here have trouble with. Often whatever they believe in they’re almost always preaching to the choir, especially at a school like Oberlin. So, how do you talk outside of the bubble? Quite frankly, when you walk across that street to Langston Middle school, you’ve left the bubble in many ways. You really have to get real about what really matters. You have to think about what’s going to matter to them, and how can I connect in an authentic way? We don’t want to bring a bunch of gimmicks in there, we don’t want to bring a bunch of stuff that’s loosey goosey or eggheady. We want it to matter. We want to communicate what matters to us. To have these kids who aren’t necessarily interested in poetry respond and feel it as something that does matter and that they do get invested in, that’s a powerful experience no matter how you then use that later in your life. That’s the bigger picture for the college students. For the middle school students, some of them get turned on to poetry in particular. They didn’t know about it, and now they do. It becomes an important art form for some of them, and they really are talented. For others, it’s a neat place to go with their thoughts. For other kids it was just fun, and that’s good too. If all it was was fun, then it makes them more interested in reading, it makes them more interested in literature. Even if it just keeps their mind a little open. I worked in Eastwood School a lot when my kids were little, and one time I worked with the whole school over the course of the year. At the end of the year, the teachers had every little kid in the school write on a little sheet of paper ‘A poet is…’ and had them fill in the blank. My favorite one was from a little first grader who wrote "A poet is someone who opens your imagination when you think you don’t have any." To me that’s the big picture, that’s what we try to do.
Q: Do you have any further ideas for increasing communication or strengthening the relationship between the college and the community?
A: I think I just do my part, and what works for me is to do what I believe in and am passionate about. I try to bring it in a way that is respectful of the teachers over there, to work within the structures that they have, but to bring something that they might not otherwise have access to. I think in terms of how people can look to be more involved in the community, begin with what they do well and what they’re passionate about and think about why it might matter in the community, then go through that with humility and respect for the people already in the community. It is very hard when people come in as college students and think ‘Okay I’m going to go on my crusade and teach these community people stuff.’ Well, there could be some problems with that if you haven’t really asked the right questions about what matters to them, what their needs are, what they already actually know. So I think the larger, big picture, is be motivated by love for what you care about, and what matters to you that you want to share, figure out how it would matter to those folks, and then come in with humility and try to be a learner as much as you are a teacher.