I am honored and lucky to work at Fremd High School – where great things happen every day, where students inspire with their eagerness to learn while teachers touch lives with their passions and knowledge. One particular week I feel blessed to be a part of is Writers Week. Founded twenty-three years by now retired English teachers Gary Anderson and Tony Romano, and now tirelessly run by English teachers Gina Enk and Russ Anderson, Writers Week is an annual celebration of writing during which professional writers, students and faculty share their stories to help us better understand writing and authors. It offers wonderful opportunity for students to make the connection between what we do in the classroom and the outside world they are preparing for. Writers Week always inspires my students to write more and I’m inspired write along with them!
The following is just a taste of the many, many memorable moments that stick out in my mind of Writers Week 23. For a complete video archive of each period, each day, visit the Writers Week video archive HERE. Writers Week certainly inspired me to write more, and what better way to start than with Writers Week itself!!
Months before, students are invited to submit their writing to share during Writers Week. Every year, many, many students stand bravely in front of the auditorium filled with their peers and teachers. One of my own AP Language students shared her Indian culture and passion for dance while a beautiful video of her recital played behind her as she read; and, another of my Expository Composition students shared a comical rhyming “roast,” as well as her “This I Believe” essay – two proud teacher moments for me! So many students disclosed bravely – one talked about overcoming cancer, another about getting over her grandmother’s death, another revealed she suffered from social anxiety while another shared her love for her favorite stuffed animal. Such courageous sharing going on!
I’ve never seen a more polite, supportive audience of peers through all of this. Students shared lessons learned – one talked about finding that “firework moment” in which you learn and grow, one declared that bad days make good days even better, while another told stories from teaching preschool depicting how little kids say the darnedest things. One of the co-editors of The Logue, the school newspaper I co-advise, eloquently spoke of Muslim contributions to the U.S. and the fact that many are simply scared of what they don’t know . . to which she received a standing ovation!! Unbelievable, goose-bump moment! I could go on . . . . over fifty students spoke throughout the course of the five days.
This year, students were lucky to here from a former student as well. Erin Dismeier, a 2009 grad and radio broadcast producer came to speak to students about writing for the radio, and how different that is. Students had a chance to hear a sampling of her actual broadcasts! It’s important for students to see the success of alumni who started out like them.
In addition to the students, faculty takes part in the sharing. Virtually every department in the school has been represented with teachers sharing their own writing. It’s eye-opening for students to see that their science or P.E. or math teachers write too! This year, for instance, science teacher Brad Graba shared the importance of being scientifically literate, business teacher Brittany Seivers illustrated – through her own personal story – how we are all going through something but that’s what ultimately unites us, and world language teacher Andrea Fritz shared own writing inspired by her mom. And having her parents there was very touching for the students, I might add. Of course, it wouldn’t be Writers Week without English teachers writing: Eric Schaeffer shared a re-count of when he courageously took part in Running with the Bulls in Pamplona; Grant Dawson shared his two-week jury duty experience, English t.a. Torie Eldridge told about overcoming the death of her mom, Marilyn Berdick wrote a fun story about the Cubs (and sang!); Jaclyn Han recited her own versions of Encyclopedia of Me and Russ Anderson wrote about sharing his love for the Cubs with his own children. The unbelievable amount of sharing going on during this week is like at no other school.
Moreover, Fremd students have been lucky to have a chance to hear from three retired English teachers, coming back to share in the writing celebration. Gary Anderson, co-founder of Writers Week, has never missed a year of presenting. For his 23rd year, he bravely disclosed about his strained relationship with his own father. Tony Romano, co-founder of Writers Week, previewed a few chapters of his third, new book to be published, and Kevin Breuner recited one of his stories titled “Original Sin,” a story from his youth playing golf. The different perspectives the students gain about writing . . . about life . . . . is something they will remember for a long time.
Mary Fons: Mary Fons is a regular Writers Week favorite. She is a writer, quilter, designer and teaches a storytelling class at the University of Chicago. Students and faculty alike adore and are inspired by her as she shares her knowledge of storytelling. I am especially impressed with her willingness to put herself out there, to write what she knows and feels and live with passion – this is fabulous for students to see! One challenge she offered students is to write lipograms, a composition in which the writer intentionally omits a particular letter of the alphabet. What a way to challenge the writing muscles!
Rebecca Makkai: Rebecca Makkai is a fictional writer, with works including the short story collection, Music in Wartime and The Hundred-Year House, a novel about the secrets of an old-money family. She shared her own insight into storytelling and writing, pointing out that the best stories are ones in which characters change both internally and externally. Hearing a professional author talk about the story arc solidifies for the students what they practice within their own classroom writing.
Taylor Mali: Taylor Mali has been to Fremd’s Writers Week numerous times but this was my first time seeing him live – and I left inspired! We read poetry in class, we have the kids write poetry but, man, to have them hear poetry being read from the poet himself is exciting for kids. Mali orally interpreted quite a few of his poems, including “What Teachers Make” (per the request of a student in the audience), and interestingly declared that teaching is a lot like poetry – both instruct and entertain. He’s got a good point . . . we’re not just there to teach the content but to relate to students in such a way that they buy in, that they see connections, that they see want to learn.
AJ Pine: Amy Pine is a former English teacher at Fremd High School and a published new adult author of four different series of novels. As she herself indicated to her audience at WW, what we do in the classroom does connect to life outside – and what better way to see that then through the success of one of the student’s own former teachers. Amy talked about everything from the importance of digital citizenship to how to be disciplined enough to sit down and write a book.
Tyehimba Jess: Tyehimba Jess, acclaimed poet and author of Leadbelly and Ollo, shared a number of his pieces, including a concrete sonnet, a sonnet that visually conveys the meaning of the piece the graphic arrangement of the words themselves, as well as an intriguing crown of sonnets, a sequence of sonnets usually addressing one subject or person. The preceding and succeeding sonnets are linked by repeating the last line of the preceding sonnet to the first line of the succeeding. What was most fascinating about Tyehimba’s sequence is that the sequence makes complete sense no matter the order of the reading of the sonnets: up and down, left to right, diagonally. Now that is a challenge . . . one of my colleagues was so inspired, he started to write his own sonnet sequence to his wife for Valentine’d Day.
Jeremy McCarter: Jeremy McCarter enthralled students with the story of how his book Hamilton: The Revolution came into being born. As he stated at one point, ideas waiting to come out of our brains and into realization is like feeling “super pregnant” with ideas inside of us growing and waiting to become real. And while success may sometimes look fore-ordained, it’s not. What seems to come together well is only through hard work along with many trials and tribulations. McCarter recommends reading Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat for further writing inspiration. The premise of the book is “content dictates form” . . . we can’t prejudge how to achieve something until we know what we want to achieve. It is only then we can start to take the steps to achieve that something. So true.
G Neri : YA author G Neri, author of the popular graphic novel, Yummy, spoke of the importance of reading fiction to gain empathy. Something he said that still resonates with me is “When you start to open up to opportunities, opportunity opens up to you.” This is so very true – the more open you are, the more opportunities come your way. Students need to hear this, and hearing it from someone other than their usual teachers makes it even more impactful.
Joe Meno and Billy Lombardo: Joe Meno is Chicago fiction author and playwright; Billy Lombardo is a Chicago fiction author and educator. For two class periods, the two writers shared their writing and had a unique personal conversation about writing as they sat side-by-side on the stage. They asked each other questions before inviting students to do the same. Students thoughtful questions attested to the audience interest.
The above are just a sampling of the many, many inspiring, impactful moments of Writers Week. I did not list every presenter, just a sampling. Every period of every day brought more learning, more insight, more inspiration for students and teachers alike. Day after day, students left chatting about what they just saw on stage . . . left inspired to write a bit more and inspired to read a bit more. Bottom line, Writers Week makes us all a bit more nice to each other, a bit more glad to do what we get to do every day in the classroom – share our own passions for reading and writing with our students.