As cliched as the title is, it really fits in this instance. Last week, as part of a final project before I graduate from Manhattanville College’s MFA in Creative Writing program, I went back to high school to spend a day teaching. I’ve never taught before and I never had the desire to do so either. But, the class I am currently taking, Advanced Seminar in Creative Writing is a teaching course. An MFA is the terminal degree in Creative Writing which means that once I graduate, I am qualified to teach in a college. I never intended to use my degree as a pathway to a new career but the option is always there. Our final project was to create a curriculum on any type of creative writing and then, if possible, teach it.
It didn’t take me long to come up with my project idea. For the past several years I’ve written for CNN and now Hometown media. In both cases, I write creative non-fiction under 1000 words, which maps very nicely back to the college essay. And with four children, two already in college, I find I can relate to high school seniors more so than any other group of students. And over the years, I’ve helped many a friend’s sons and daughters on their essays. It’s fun and gives you a window into a child’s life that you may not have had access to before.
But this was going to be a little different. My classroom would not be filled with the children of upper middle class dual parent households. I was to teach at the Bronx Academy of Letters – 339 Morris Avenue, South Bronx. If you haven’t been in that part of New York city, mapquest it and you’ll see what I mean. I chose this school for a reason. Last spring I was invited to their school’s fundraiser by a friend who helped start the school and sits on its board. The fundraiser was unlike any other I’ve been to because many of the children who would benefit from the funds raised were actually in attendance. And they weren’t shy. In fact, they made it their business to come up to the guests, introduce themselves and tell us why the school was making a difference in their lives. The desire to help was contagious – I wanted to get involved and do a little something besides donate money.
This fall, when my teacher announced the final project, it made perfect sense. I would come up with a curriculum to teach high school seniors how to write a great college application essay. And I would teach it to the seniors at the Bronx Academy of Letters. Within a few days of contacting the school with my idea, I had a date on the calendar, September 26th. It had to be early in the semester because college essays take time to write and re-write and there are different deadlines depending on the school you are applying to. It was very early in my semester but I really didn’t have any other choice.
A major part of my presentation was focused on “show, don’t tell.” High school seniors spend most of high school telling. They are constantly asked to tell what they know about a particular subject. First person narratives are rare. I put together a 50 minute lesson plan that I thought would highlight the difference and why it was so important. I was fairly nervous on the drive down to the Bronx, mostly because I have NEVER taught before but also because one of my biggest fears in life is getting lost, especially in neighborhoods that are not exactly safe. But I arrived without incident and the college guidance counselor was waiting for me in her car with a parking permit and a smile.
After a few words of advice from the counselor and the teacher whose class I would be teaching, I walked into the class and stood in front of the 28 high school seniors. I’ll admit I was definitely intimidated. With advice from my MFA teacher, I introduced myself by saying I wasn’t a teacher, I was a writer. That helped. I also used examples from my own children’s experience with the essay including the one my son wrote about the 9.4 earthquake in Japan that we lived through. That woke them up a bit. With an eye on the clock and my lesson plan in hand, I was able to come in right at the buzzer the first time. That was a huge relief. But then it dawned on me. I’d have to do the entire presentation again in 3 minutes. I was so focused on getting it right the first time, I didn’t even think about the fact that I’d have to make it fresh all over again. And again…
I don’t know how teachers do it.
For most of the class, I spoke, or read out loud. A few of the students would raise their hands to read out loud too. There were some questions, not many. During the lesson, I gave them time to work on their essay and free write. I walked around and asked if anyone needed help. Some of them asked me to read what they had written. The common application prompts are extremely personal as its the only way that colleges have to really get to know someone. The first paragraphs I was shown were raw and honest. The lives these kids have led were all challenging. I wanted so much to help them tell their stories. There was a theme throughout all of them – don’t judge us by our circumstances or the lives we’ve lived so far, or the fact that we live in the worst congressional district in America (this from an actual essay). We are more than our stories.
It was truly a learning experience.
Bronx Academy of Letters – for more information on their school go to: bronxletters.com