Matthew Iribarne: Why ENGAGE at CCA Is a Win-Win Initiative
Posted on Wednesday, June 20, 2012 by Jim Norrena
In the following interview, Writing and Literature and MFA Program in Writing faculty member Matthew Iribarne discusses his recent experience teaching CCA's ENGAGE: Teaching Creative Writing graduate course (spring 2012).
The pilot ENGAGE at CCA course created a new partnership between the college's graduate writing students and middle and high school students enrolled in the Literary Arts Program at Oakland School for the Arts (OSA).
What’s the principle benefit of the ENGAGE at CCA initiative?
Going out into the community, specifically the Oakland School for the Arts, ENGAGE makes the college experience all the more worthwhile. College should be about having one's worldview both broadened and challenged. Here ENGAGE at CCA is an opportunity for these things to happen, for the student to find these ways to connect to the community in ways that inform his or her studies, while teaching what he or she knows.
Do students need outside participation to succeed?
The most important way to think about this need for ENGAGE courses that tie into the curriculum the student is studying, is to consider it as that which amplifies his or her study, allowing for real-world application that I believe will make that student a better teacher and in turn, writer.
How did the ENGAGE: Teaching Creative Writing course meet its objectives?
Having to look at writing in an objective manner forces the student to see his or her own work more clearly. As related, coming up with the language to talk about it, in regard to craft, pushes the student toward this all-important goal. The two-fold aim of this ENGAGE course is to create not only teachers of writing, but also better writers.
Students were challenged to include multiple genres in their materials. Say more.
Looking at literature from the multitude of angles in relation to genre and craft is a way of achieving this [goal]. Factored into such instruction is the community aspect, where the student meets with high school students from the wide range of backgrounds and cultures, broadening such understanding even further.
At the end of the day, what’s the goal?
Everything about this course feeds the ultimate goal of the student to get to know his or her work more intimately through such knowledge of the world and sharing.
So could one say when teaching others one is actually teaching oneself?
The value of such collaboration with the ENGAGE program can be found in this communication with the student at the Oakland School for the Arts. To be more specific, it is in the interaction with the student at the Oakland School for the Arts that the CCA student can find answers to questions about one's own work.
For instance, the CCA student might be talking about elements of characterization and how one describes his or her characters in a story. In talking about such things he or she might well find ways to make the CCA student's own work all the more alive, the dialogue with the student creating opportunities for illumination of one's own work.
So it’s really more of a collaboration where everyone gains something?
A more generous way of thinking about this collaboration has to do with the value of community. Writers (and artists) are by their very nature a solitary bunch. The ENGAGE initiative gives the CCA student an opportunity to step outside his or her box, both socially and in the way he or she might think about his or her work.
It sounds both exciting and challenging.
It pushes the student a little bit out of his or her comfort zone, to good measure. It makes the writers push themselves toward new ways of thinking about their work, and themselves. With such results a student inevitably grows, and therein lies the value of the ENGAGE experience.
If graduate school is about growth and more importantly, taking a journey, then the ENGAGE program is the perfect companion to one's CCA experience. In other words, there is learning galore that happens within the ENGAGE framework, so many elements coming together in this course experience.
What about your own experience with teaching? Have you learned from those you taught?
In my own instruction I've learned a lot from watching other students approach their own teaching in this class. I've seen students take chances with their lesson plans, fail and succeed in equal measure. In so doing I've been reminded that it's important to take such chances, that the end result is often more than worth the uncertainty of doing as much.
Any challenges in your teaching experience?
There were some challenges that came up with the course, mostly having to do with logistics. That is, there was a lot to do and not so much time to do it. What to do: come up with four lesson plans for at least three different genres in the course as well as talk about the different aspects of teaching pedagogy and discussion of readings.
In addition, we had the Oakland School for the Arts internships, this part of the ENGAGE course finding equal time in regard to classroom discussion as we talked about our struggles and rewards. And these struggles and rewards were many -- ranging from how to deal with these unfamiliar approaches encountered at OSA to talking about different strategies that worked in reaching these students.
What did you especially like about teaching the course?
What I liked so much was how the CCA students generously offered their impressions and suggestions each week, helping all of us along in making us better instructors, making the internship a true team effort. We were all in this together. There was never any doubt -- all of us going along on this maiden voyage and sharing whatever it was we might know -- how we could help OSA students, and ourselves, as we learned how to best teach what we knew.
Now that the course is over, what did you learn – the instructor of the instructors?
I've learned that you are not always going to reach every student every time; that what works for some doesn't always work for others. As well, I've learned to be more patient; ENGAGE students might struggle at first, but chances are they will find their footing.
What inspires you?
Most importantly, I've found good inspiration in watching my students work with students at Oakland School for the Arts. I’ve been reminded how passionate a person can be about the very act of writing -- what words can do.
Indeed, it's been through watching my students work with the Oakland School for the Arts students that I was able to recall what brought me around to writing in the first place. That it was a way to connect to others, that this sense of community was instilled through the very act of putting words to paper (or computer), compounded by the process of teaching.
What was most successful?
All in all, I think what was most successful was the outreach that occurred. Our students became more accomplished in their craft as they discovered ways to talk about their writing, finding these personal connections with their OSA students. The course stretched the capabilities of the CCA students, bringing them to a new place by semester's end.
Our language of writing was broadened, along with our own writing abilities. It was as if we were able to rise above our own work and see it in a new way, or so was my hope. We learned how to talk about fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction in new and exciting ways.
We created and administered writing exercises that were exciting and imaginative, pushing all of us to create better work, see ways back into our own creative writing that brought us to new places.
All the while, there was the connection made to the OSA community, making them aware of our college and the terrific students therein, all that they had to offer. There was much generosity on display from our students, as they took great risks and ended up being rewarded in the number of ways in the high school classroom and our classroom.
Final words or thoughts?
This course is an essential part of the CCA student's experience in the graduate program, making possible a greater knowledge of one's writing, while pushing the student further in his or her own creative work. Not just for those who plan to teach, but also for all students, the ENGAGE at CCA initiative connects the student to the wider world, seeing how it is our own creative work forges relationships, in the classroom and beyond.
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