Writers in the Schools initiative puts local teens and UMSL graduate students in vital conversation

by | Dec 4, 2017

First-year MFA student Ginger O’Donnell currently leads the all-volunteer WITS efforts alongside fellow UMSL creative writing students and alumni.
Ginger O'Donnell, 2017-18 WITS coordinator and UMSL MFA student

First-year MFA student Ginger O’Donnell currently leads the all-volunteer WITS efforts alongside fellow UMSL creative writing students and alumni. (Photo by Evie Hemphill)

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a chilly November Monday, and Melissa Lynn Pomerantz’s poetry students, while still a bit bleary-eyed, are already hard at work on their assignment for the week: the villanelle.

The word and the highly structured poetic form that it denotes are new to most of the Parkway North High School teens. And though they’ll be reading aloud newly drafted stanzas of their own within another hour, they’re beginning the morning with a close reading of a famous villanelle written long ago.

“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow,” the 19-line poem by Theodore Roethke begins, sounding particularly appropriate to the context.

Ginger O’Donnell, a visiting fiction student from the University of Missouri–St. Louis, is co-leading the day’s lesson with UMSL’s current poet laureate, Bridget McDonald. As O’Donnell explains that the Roethke piece is in fact her “favorite poem ever” and asks the younger students for their observations about it, the discussion inside Pomerantz’s tree-house-like classroom gradually grows more lively.

It’s the second time this fall that the two Creative Writing Program MFA candidates have worked with Pomerantz’s class – and they’ll likely be back again. They’re both active participants in UMSL’s Writers in the Schools initiative, which first started providing lessons and activities for young St. Louis-area writers nearly two decades ago.

“I think it’s really helpful to interact with Ginger and Bridget … they’ve dedicated their higher education to writing, so it’s something that they’re obviously really good at,” Parkway North senior Roshae Hemmings, an aspiring journalist, says afterward. “Getting their help and expertise challenges me to look at my writing in a different way and try something new.”

Her teacher sees value in the visits as well. Pomerantz was delighted to learn about the possibility of free, customized workshops earlier this semester when O’Donnell, who currently serves as the coordinator of WITS, reached out with the offer.

“I think having another person discuss poetry and the process helps them see that the things that we are doing in class are the same types of activities that college writing programs are doing,” she says. “They also just like a break from the same old teacher. And I think having Bridget and Ginger together works well because they can do a sort of interview-style lesson.”

They and other graduate students, plus several alumni of the MFA program, do it “for nothing but the love of writing and teaching,” notes the program’s founder, Mary Troy, a professor of English and creative writing at UMSL.

Particularly in O’Donnell’s case, it’s no small volunteer commitment, as she typically visits a couple classrooms in the region every week on top of the intensive UMSL writing workshops she’s enrolled in and her job at INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine. But she’s found WITS to be a welcome addition to her present pursuits.

“I put in a lot of work at the beginning of the fall semester reaching out to schools, scheduling visits and determining which MFA students were interested and available, but now we’re sort of in a groove,” says O’Donnell, who was a high school English teacher herself, at Grand Center Arts Academy, until leaving to pursue an MFA earlier this year.

She’s able to draw on some of her existing lesson plans, as well as the expertise of fellow UMSL writers, depending on the focus of each visit – and, in the meantime, still do some teaching as she furthers her own education.

“I’ve always found that a balance of teaching and writing pairs really well for me,” says the St. Louis native. “They’re both passions of mine, and they both have to do with relationships. With writing, the relationship with a reader is more distanced, and so I crave the immediate gratification of communicating in person with students.”

And while there’s a common assumption that writers are solitude-craving folk, McDonald adds, many writers including herself really thrive on being able to share the things they’re excited about.

“I think it would be pretty hard to get inspired without a certain amount of curiosity toward the world, and teaching is one great way to feel inspired by people,” she says. “Plus, talking through the craft of writing out loud sometimes helps me understand new things about my writing that I wouldn’t have articulated otherwise.”

In keeping with WITS’s mission, it’s also about making communities – including what can be a relatively insular writing community – larger and more inclusive.

“I think it’s vital for writers and artists of any kind,” McDonald says, “to make sure that they spend time with people beyond their usual day-to-day peers and make younger students feel welcome.

“Something that makes me particularly happy is when students go out of their way to ask questions. It’s one thing for them to tolerate the lesson and follow along, but asking questions like ‘How do I submit to literary journals?’ or ‘How do I write poetry even when I feel stuck?’ shows me that I am playing some small part in fueling a continued interest.”

O’Donnell loves watching the local teens’ full-time teachers interact with their students in new ways.

“Classroom teachers often write with the students during the exercises and end up sharing some beautiful writing of their own with their students,” she says. “Students are always highly entertained and intrigued by viewing their classroom teachers as ‘real writers.’”

The teens also reap the benefits of critical feedback from someone they don’t know well, a gift that can be as valuable as it is uncomfortable.

“This is my second time having Ms. Pomerantz as a teacher, so she knows me as a writer really well,” Hemmings gives by way of example. “She knows how I think and how I work, and because of that there’s a sort of comfort that comes with being in her class.

“However, with Ginger and Bridget, they don’t know me and I don’t know them, so there’s this kind of feeling of discomfort, which is nice for me as a writer. It requires me to stretch my thinking, move out of my comfort zone and look at my writing from a more critical viewpoint.”

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