Ellen Aug Lytle is a poet and journalist. For many years she conducted young adult writing workshops at the New York Public Library. Waterways brought her talents to the Frederick Douglass Center located in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. She introduced students to poetry and expressive writing.
Ellen's work with students addressed the second of the New York State Learning Standards for English Language Arts: Students will read, write, listen and speak for literary response and expression. The Frederick Douglass Literacy Center students, many of whom were recent immigrants from the Caribbean wrote original poetry published class anthologies and individual chapbooks, took part in poetry readings and book parties, creating, performing and participating in the Arts.
Ellen also brought her talent as a poetry instructor to Chantal Firstman's VTC classroom at the Hebrew Hospital Home in the Bronx. Students, who had dropped out of traditional high schools, were engaged in writing projects and using literary techniques. As a result, Waterways published the anthology, VTC Players. The students held a book party to celebrate their publication, addressing the second New York State Learning Standard for English by reading and writing poetry. They selected original poems to form an anthology and took part in poetry performances and book parties. During the book party, the students taped a reading of their poems.
...from person to page...
A teaching artist's narrative
One stormy September day, in 1997, I crossed the river by ferry to visit my friends and writing colleagues, Barbara Fisher and Richard Spiegel at their headquarters on Staten Island. I wanted to discuss a way for me to join their team and merge our creative abilities. It's more than great, it's provident when you know, and admire the people with whom you wind up working, for years. And it's precisely their understated brilliance at bringing together so much talent from our downtown artist's enclave, that makes me feel so 'right at home'.
Waterways is a grass roots project that is filling many people's needs. But to begin with it's fulfilling the altruistic, artistic and communal needs of its founders, Fisher and Spiegel. With this premise you win. ( For years projects would start out with the best intentions to fill some gaps in society's cracks by employing artists. The organizations were half baked and not at all well planned so once again we, the artists, were exploited and left without funds) If the work we are doing fuels us, we work well. If the work we are doing stimulates, challenges and educates us, as well, we gave our maximum. Waterways' intentions are expandable. From this communal sense of social justice to utilizing artistic talent, they have an elasticity which thrives on learning through experience and experimentation. Hence, as an artist on their team I am encouraged to work with the mostly 'at risk' students with patience and understanding. To creatively use my abilities to experiment with anything and everything in order for the students to not only be attentive, but to retain and incorporate the knowledge they can then use in everyday life. From my observations art indeed helps.
How, in fact, does art help educate people who are sometimes disenfranchised as well as disenchanted with many of our established systems? This is what I want to explore and eventually answer through this evaluation/ assessment.
By the end of September I eagerly walked from a subway train in the Bronx to a #28 bus on route to my first job site for Waterways; a New York City Vocational Training Center at the Hebrew Hospital Home in Co-op City. The teacher in charge, Chantal Firstman welcomed me. An amiable person who, from the very beginning, made it apparent that she was not only deeply interested in her student's welfare but in the way I would be instruct them in creative writing. Throughout this residency, Chantal Firstman displayed a genuinely keen interest in everything that interested her students. This kind of encouragement, of course, made it easier for me to teach and for the teenagers to learn. However it's always extremely difficult when a new person comes into a class with unfamiliar expectations. I had few, but I had a huge mission; to get these kids to unload a lot of (their own) pressing emotional issues onto paper. This can 'free' them immensely. What ever comes onto the paper can always be reworked into form, but for starters we needed to unleash the binding constraints in order to absorb. This actually took longer than I anticipated. In fact most of these students use the period when I'm with them to talk about and write down imminent, angry feelings and never get to much imaginative work. This phenomena isn't so unusual; the more underprivileged and societal fringed one is, the more intrepidly he/she thinks. Reality becomes a balancing act and certainly takes prominence over any sort of artistic wandering. Ok. Then we work within the boundaries of their reality.
I start with warm ups. Literally and figuratively becoming closer to the students through human identification. They have to trust me before they will 'open up' to write, as a matter of fact they have to trust me enough to talk among themselves and include my input. At the beginning sessions I try to listen more than talk or teach. I try finding out their strong points and their likes and dislikes. They very much like me reading to them. They very much like taking turns reading from Waterway's "Streams" books. This is a series anthologized with work written by their peers, city wide. Poetry mostly, which they can identify with. Familial angst as well as harmony and love, sex, and friendship. Once in awhile, introspection and real, honest to goodness poems choked with metaphor and rhythm. But I notice the stuff they like most is the raw honestly emotional feelings expressed straight out from person to page. These are the emotions they can count on, even in strangers, because they've experienced similar things. Throughout my residencies, I turn to Streams for support. When they are disenchanted with the writing process, i.e. "I have nothing to say, Miss," Streams is a good arbiter. It reacquaints them with their own underpinnings through the identifiable reactions of their unknown peers. Hence, art at work!
About three months into each residency I gather all the student's work, put it on disk and give it to Fisher and Spiegel who magically turn it into tiny stapled books. The students are usually proud of their work and seeing it published is an incentive to keep going. The best of the best, in these small publications, city wide, then becomes a part of a new book of Streams.
Here's an excerpt from a first piece of writing, day one, at the VTC site. publication; dec., 1997
look at me, i'm always playing handball and i'm winning- my friends are looking at me play- they tell me end the game, eddie- i tell them don't rush me... because i get so nervous when you tell me to end the game...
Then look at this excerpt from the same student about three months later. publication; spring, 1998
I'm climbing the hill for a handball tournament- I'm struggling for a game- I am so desperate to have the ball in the palm of my hand- once I get to the top of the hill the crowd goes wild- I get to the top of the hill with power...
Now look at the last published piece from this same student. publication; June, 1998.
I see a big strong brown god in my little baby
brother's room- My brother was calling, "Eddie, Eddie,"
I ran faster- I got into the room and my brother said, "Eddie, can I sleep in your room? There's a big strong brown god in my room."
I give 'springboards', that is one to three or four words in which the students can use to 'dive' into their pool of resources. In the first six months, Eddie used the springboards to write about actual events in his life. But by the last section he was beginning to use imagination. He may have gotten the 'strong brown god' image from T.S. Eliot's 'dry salvages', part of the volume; "Four Quartets". Still he used it to stimulate his own imagination.
We also had two excellent female poets in the group who could, by the end of the residency write with imagination using stark imagery. Another male student who predominated the VTC spring publication, was clearly above the average 'at risk' student and one of the clearest examples of a poet in all of my five residencies this year. Here's one small example.
Life is when animals and people are born. Life is being able to move around, not being frozen in time. Life is breathing and feeling and being at peace with yourself. Life is something you cannot play with - you can lose it.
Practicality, and the righteousness of a decent teenager makes up the core emotions underlying the previous lines. But more than that Victor, the student, mixes in a visual surreality, a combination for a potentially excellent poem.
In early October I begin a second site. It's location is the Frederick Douglass Literacy Center, housed inside Boys High School in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The "A" train lets me off some six blocks from the school on Nostrand and Fulton streets. It's a bustling shopping area and I find my way around instantly which isn't bad for a Queens girl who gets lost in a movie theatre! The teacher in charge is Gail Tuch, again amiable and welcoming, though her 'back seat' approach to the students is very different from Chantal Firstman. First of all there are at least double the amount of students here than at the Hebrew Hospital Home/ VTC site. Approximately twenty five, and each has their own 'agenda'! Still, Tuch is patient and soft spoken, though she does 'prompt' the kids to partake in class projects as well as the writing exercises which I bring. The students put a great deal of importance in what their teacher maintains. Therefore if the teacher appreciates the artist's work and respects what we do, the students, will mostly follow suit.
And, Tuch is encouraging. Right from the beginning she is supportive of my aims and wants the students to expand their knowledge and learn to write creatively. Energetic, she'll walk around the room a dozen times while I'm there, assisting me with questions, answers and problems. Because many of them have poor reading skills they tend to deflate quickly if the writing exercise doesn't come easily and especially when they get caught up in accurate spelling. However this particular class goes very well despite much of the emotional 'baggage' carried around by teenagers and magnified ten-fold by 'at risk' students. Also, most of these students have recently immigrated to the USA.
I begin with simplicity; 'springboards' that will lead the students from their physical lives to something they can pinpoint inside themselves; introspection/ an inner life. We all have one, hopefully. For example; how do you feel when you wake up in the morning? They respond well to questions like this because it's specific, concrete yet feelings are part of it.
After a few sessions they begin to emerge, they are starting to trust me. Now the work becomes multi purposeful. Writing to expand our intellectual points of view. Sharing what we write to learn what others are thinking and feeling. Writing to express imagination. Writing to express innermost thoughts and feelings. Writing out the sore, hurtful parts of living because it's better on paper than cooped up inside of us. Writing to create something, the way others create a drawing or mold clay or fashion an outfit or make a 'teddy bear'. We create that something without concrete material, just with the words we know or are curious about.
Usually the students get five minutes to follow the springboard. Here are some excerpts from Gail Tuch's class; The 'springboard', 'I feel happy...'
I feel happy about being my own person and
not a follower of people in my surroundings.
I feel happy about all my accomplishments whether they turn out
good or bad.
I feel happy about the school I am attending - the choices I've made...'
Kevon who wants to be a journalist someday after college, wrote the above piece . He's an exemplary student. His work though, is far from imaginative and I've encouraged him to try hard and focus on journalism. His other writing reflects the same careful scrutiny, without much risk taking. Look at some of these lines from other students using the same springboard-
I feel happy about life- this wonderful life-
I feel happy about the good things I do...
I feel happy about all the love I have-
I feel happy about my favorite holey socks-
I feel happy I am my father's only child...
I feel happy about just being happy -
don't want to go sad or be mad or go bad-
I feel happy about the world
it will not end and won't start over...
I feel happy about the congressional session
police brutality and misconduct that was held at Medgar Evans College on Nov. 18, 1997-
The reason I feel so happy is because victims that were brutalized by police officers had their chance to express the way they were treated...
I feel happy 'cause I have a Benz, three Lexus,
four BMW's and one Jaguar-
Having all this I think I am the lucky one...
I feel happy to be still alive because all
of these gangs out there killing because of the color of people's
skin color of their clothes, color of their scarves...
So here we are in a relatively small, very cliqueish class (what else is new!) and we still have variety. There are three more classes which I will touch on but before we leave Tuch's class there is a poet, perhaps the most creative I've yet to come across, who, with minimal skills less self esteem than most, and a bare bones attendance record, 'stirs' the best of us. And I think he is happiest when writing from his imagination.
These are excerpts from the poems of Donald Groom;
...as I search for my happiness I travel to
of the city above the mad streets I've lived on for most
of my life- I will find happiness in spite of the hard winds that follow...
...my heart is deep like blue waters my passion
tall like mountains- life is only a story; for love flows
hearts break like rocks falling into the beautiful clean
walking across the beaches my mind casts off
a late night ship leaving for heaven- my feet feel refreshed like I never walked a day in my life-
passion lies within the heart and explains why
we are here- listen to the waves...'
By Christmas Waterways had prepared a 36 pp. booklet from Tuch's class. We had a party and the students read aloud their work. Well done.
Before Christmas vacation, though I started another class at Frederick Douglass. This one belonged to Sal Canale, a formidable teacher whose astounding capabilities are matched by his eagerness to share what he knows. Here there are less students but they are somewhat rowdy and less focused. I don't ask what their grades levels are. I judge what they need as they progress. Sal Canale is a computer maven and a science buff. Somehow he combines his scientific knowledge with practical emotions and the results are very interesting. Canale, like Tuch and Firstman, writes along with the students. I do too, but I don't always read mine. If the students ask, sure or if there's a point in my work that pushes the lesson forward, then I read it too. But a teacher who's following the artist sets a wonderful example and if he/she is creative to boot, like Canale, then it's a plus for the students. But Sal Canale's time with me is short lived. He is to direct the computer section and by late winter another teacher takes over his class. Meanwhile, one student, a young woman named Vanessa, on an emotional roller coaster, writes from her secret 'inner world' and by summer recess has made huge learning advances. Extremely bright, she begins by writing about her somewhat abusive family and her day to day unhappiness.
The whole class wrote about 'time passes', here's Vanessa's;
time passes but I'm still in this world- with
nightmares and problems on my mind- time passes but the world
won't change with violence and hatred and sexual abuse each day-
time passes and my problem is still here, I grow to hate myself
each day...I hate when time passes by...
As you can see from this and of course in her other work, Vanessa, in all of her misery, shows a penchant for art. It bleeds through the mundane content and depressed voice. I believe that through art people like her can come to terms with their problems and resolve much of their impact. She already has.
A young man, Julius, in Sal's former class, now taught by Onetia Murray, catches my eye with his gruff demeanor but his gentle nature and artistic expression when he writes. Because Frederick Douglass Literacy Center is arts oriented (poetry and drama abound in most classes) no one is terribly surprised at Julius' talent but without teaching artists, like myself and others, to recognize it Julius, and kids like him, will be lost I'm afraid. This is the last piece he wrote in June just before summer break.
Let me tell you a story about a man who was
never a boy
and the life he lived and the pain he felt is like
a thumb going through a tin straw and dreams are no more
but for the love of life he goes on
he needs time to clear his mind
do you feel the way I feel broken hearted, not because of a woman but because life has been hard from day one and I want to be free
so move over I'm way overdue for that pat on my shoulder
and the story holds more but for now I'm closing the door
However, it's in my fourth class at Frederick Douglass, that I have found the most inspiration. These students, are reading and writing at a first or second grade level, I'm told and do I really think I can manage to get them to write. I've never been around young adults (ages 17-21) who read one word at a time and almost can't even do that. Of course the teacher is very special. He has to be. He is John Georges and from the first day to the last, he helped me greatly. Georges aids and imparts knowledge to his students with his every breath. He is a wonder. He works with them, supports them, disciplines them and probably plain loves them. I certainly came to.
I remember the first day very well. It was special. We talked for the whole hour and forty five minutes about relationships. By the end of the period I felt as if I knew them and I think they felt the same about me. Of course John helped get us started but these fifteen or so students could hold their own in almost any conversation, the problem is academics. Mostly they're newly arrived from the Caribbean islands and two are from West Africa. The problem was in their countries no one cared if they didn't learn to read and spell. They were promoted anyway. Most have been raised with a language other than English. Many Caribbean countries have dialects, even Jamaicans, so English is mighty difficult to learn, especially as a young adult. But most of this group wants to learn, they want to elevate themselves and eventually go out in the big world and earn a living. They are charismatic yet shy, bright but uneducated and whatever we would do, no matter how small the accomplishment, they cheered. I'd give them simpler 'springboards'; 'the tree' , 'yellow spring', 'at last', 'one week ago', 'my girl', words which they could hang onto and process into shorts pieces of creative writing. They did. Right from the beginning, when four of them read their first work in front of the whole school in the auditorium, I applauded. These guys are the perfect example of what this country is all about. What we should stand for. They are the kind of hard working and idealistic people who bring out the stars on our flag and I think they really learned a lot from our writing sessions.
Here are some examples;
I remember this cotton tree in Africa- it's
the biggest tree that I've ever seen in my life- The reason it's
the biggest tree is because it grows with water and sun-
The tree grows along the road- when I miss my house
I look faraway and see that cotton tree along the road
I can see my house now.
How gently this art seems to rub up against men who otherwise might become disillusioned and instead of assets, complete liabilities.
I get angry when I read a word then I can't
it the next day- that's very stressful- it's not easy for me because when I know it and I do not remember it makes me angry and I get angry when i think about all the things I know and not being able to read puts me at a disadvantage.
One session I pasted a black and white drawing of a tree on the blackboard and asked the students to fill in the background with words. Here are some excerpts from the students in John Georges class; (however I used this drawing in all my classes at that time and it worked out well)
this tree reminds me of a lost love...she was
when I met her- she had the most beautiful eyes...'
This tree is a big tree- it lives in Africa-
It needs water and mud-
It grows up a little bit every day...'
This tree looks lonely-
It needs a lot of things around it like houses,-
It belongs in the park or somewhere it can get more attention...'
This tree is a nice tree - this tree reminds
me of my family- why does this tree remind me of my family?
When the sun is very hot we all come out and hang out under this tree-
This tree is very old- we take good care of this tree-
I want this tree to run in my kid's family.
The simple drawing of a tree takes on shapes of lovers, families and even a house and a road faraway in Africa. Without art stimulating our imagination how we would gloat! How metallic and cumbersome life on this planet would be and without new students dissecting and following the options of artistic endeavors how impossible any future worlds seem.
I want to thank The Waterways Project and all the arts funding projects for making this year possible for me. I so look forward to making the next season even more successful. We can make a difference in people's lives through art.
ellen aug lytle/ july, 1998