From the Poetry of Apples to Personal Narratives, Wheeler 7th-Graders Engage in a New Writer’s Workshop Series

February 17, 2022

Journalist and former war correspondent C.J. Chivers points to a white board while 7th-graders listen to his instructions during a writing workshop.
Journalist and former war correspondent C.J. Chivers joined a large group of other writers in the Wheeler community in leading 7th-graders in a new workshop series designed to enrich students’ writing skills.

Wheeler 7th-Graders had a rare opportunity to learn directly from 10 professional writers during a new two-week series of workshops that explored the power and wide range of writing. Poets, journalists, and screenplay writers, among others, joined English classes in-person and through Zoom sessions to offer insight into their individual processes.

Following the departure of their former English teacher, Middle School Director Vanessa O’Driscoll formulated the idea of reaching out to the Wheeler community to help enrich the writing journey of 7th-grade students. O’Driscoll casted a wide net in search of contributors to a potential workshop series, and spoke with current parents, parents of former students, and Wheeler alumni who had become established in their own writing careers.

“Once I put out the plea, people in the community started reaching out to me with other names, including Aerie instructors, relatives, and former students of other faculty members,” she said. “Every writer was connected to Wheeler either as an alum, a parent, or a friend. Every writer was eager to help because they have forged their path with words and love sharing their art with young writers.”

The recent workshop series featured a wide range of writers including: poet Kate Colby; environmental writer Rebecca Altman; television writer and showrunner Lesley Wake Webster; novelist Rachel Moulton; poet Fred Lafortune; journalist, critic, and essayist Asha French; sports journalist Claire Rogers; medieval historian and writer Alizah Holstein; journalist Mike Stanton; advertising and public relations copywriter Alec Beckett; screenwriter Kuba Soltysiak; children’s book author and poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie; young adult author and television writer Karyn Parsons; journalist Eamon Levesque; film editor and writer Spencer Roth-Rose; and journalist and former war correspondent C.J. Chivers.

Poet Kate Colby stands at the front of a class with poetry in hand as she hosts a writing workshop for 7th-grade students.
Poet Kate Colby used her time with students to focus on the difference between using concrete and abstract concepts in poetry.

“Seeing professional writers from so many different spheres–fiction, poetry, journalism, advocacy, advertising–opened their eyes to the ways a writing life can exist,” O’Driscoll said.

Each writer discussed their professional journey and guided students through writing exercises and other activities that helped the students learn about a key element connected to the writer’s career. For example, Alizah Holstein discussed the link between history and storytelling and conducted an exercise with students on how to merge history with personal narratives. C.J. Rivers shared tips on how to write with clarity, precision, and economy.

Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie focused on teaching students how to “see” as a poet, and had them play a poetic version of the game Taboo, where they needed to describe an apple without using words commonly associated with it. She followed this exercise by asking students to write something based on only a scent, and finally answered questions about writing in an informal Q&A. She said she hoped students would take into account the idea of being present in the moment and to not judge something based on other encounters with that same thing.

Children’s book author and poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie holds an apple in front of 7th-graders gathered around her while leading a writing workshop
Children’s book author and poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie demonstrated the power of being present through observation and writing with the help of an apple.

“For instance, with the apple – everyone has seen an apple before, but you haven’t necessarily seen that particular apple before,” Ekere Tallie said. “I hope that’s something they can extend to all things, like how it’s not just a person, but a person with qualities and uniqueness.”

O’Driscoll said the series turned into a huge success and that it will return next year.

“Every writer told me how thrilled they were to work with our amazing kids,” she said. “We will absolutely do it again next year, and we hope some of these presenters will return, and that we will find new people to participate.”

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