Pilot Graduate ENGAGE Course Expands CCA's Community of Writers
Posted on Wednesday, June 20, 2012 by Jim Norrena
CCA's MFA Program in Writing and the Center for Art and Public Life launched a pilot course in the spring, called ENGAGE: Teaching Creative Writing. The course marks the first partnership between the graduate Writing Program and Oakland School for the Arts (OSA), an urban, public charter school housed within the Fox Theatre's administrative offices in downtown Oakland.
The innovative course, which gave graduate writers hands-on practice teaching creative writing to middle and high school students, was developed as part of ENGAGE at CCA, a project-based learning initiative that builds communities by placing CCA students in neighborhoods, organizations, schools, and other collaborative-learning environments.
Writing and Literature and MFA Program in Writing faculty member Matthew Iribarne led the course, working closely with Barclay Simpson Chair of the Community Arts Program and Center for Art and Public Life Director Sanjit Sethi, Humanities and Sciences Assistant Director Dominick Tracy, and OSA Director of Advancement and Literary Arts chair Soma Mei-Sheng Frazier to solidify the process of integrating CCA interns into OSA's Literary Arts Program.
(Although it's the MFA Program in Writing's first ENGAGE partnership with OSA, the undergraduate Writing and Literature Program -- each program is chaired by Aimee Phan -- has successfully collaborated with OSA previously in its Young Adult Literature and Comics Anthology courses, which paved the way for this latest partnership.)
Said Iribarne: "It's my sense that ENGAGE fits a very necessary niche in the CCA literature curriculum, specifically in the MFA Program in Writing, where so many students are looking for real-world opportunities in their field before they graduate."
CCA's Pilot Teachers
Once fingerprinted and proof of a nonreactive tuberculosis (TB) skin test was provided for those working one-on-one with the students, the ENGAGE: Teaching Creative Writing pilot teachers included Miquila Alejandre; Jessica Arèvalo; Ryan Buresh; Autumn Darbrow (fiction editor for CCA's graduate literary magazine, Eleven Eleven); Jayo Miko Macasaquit; Stefia Maxwell; Jim Norrena; Jeremy Ravdin (OSA volunteer and 2012 MFA Writing alum); and Srividya Suryanarayanan (a former volunteer at 826 Valencia, an ENGAGE community partner organization).
Teaching Teachers How to Teach
“Working with the Oakland School for the Arts, a progressive, dedicated charter school in the heart of Oakland, and the MFA Program in Writing, with its strong focus on collaborative learning, was a natural fit for the ENGAGE at CCA initiative," explained Sethi.
"This ENGAGE partnership demonstrated the delicate balance between youth mentorship and the craft of creative writing as a form of communication and pedagogy. On the one hand, an opportunity for writers to work with and encourage other writers; on the other hand, a window into the intricacies of teaching that required CCA students to address technical lesson preparation as well as personal preparation and immersion in a diverse learning community.”
Similar to CCA's curricular goals, OSA’s arts and academic programs build discipline and confidence, effectively preparing creative youth to achieve their potential both in and outside of the arts.
OSA's Literary Arts Program: Something for Everyone
Frazier, who also is the editor of OSA's student-run literary publication Enizagam, devised a two-part program in which students practice the mechanics of creative writing (e.g., proper grammar usage and punctuation) as well as share their independent projects during workshop critiques and full-class presentations.
CCA writers could choose between the two categories of instruction. The mechanics section was half-lecture, which required more lesson planning, while the independent projects portion required the instructors to engage with students both in workshop format and one-on-one instruction and guidance.
For the independent projects portion of the program, students selected a genre to study and prepare a final project:
- horror/science fiction/fantasy -- short story collection, full-length novel
- illustrative -- visual arts / digital media: graphic novel, 'zine, art or picture book
- “literary” publishing focus -- chapbook/manuscript of creative nonfiction, poetry, short stories, or full-length novel
- spoken word -- culminating in production of a CD and public reading/performance
- writing for screen or stage -- completed manuscript: screenplay or play
Partnership a Dual-Benefit
"At the heart of the course's success is the strong connection that OSA's students forge with their CCA teaching interns," explained Frazier. "In the interns, our young artists find an inspiring vision of their future selves; and in the high school students, the CCA interns reconnect with who they were as they embarked upon their artistic education."
OSA guest artist and poet Katherine Chatel worked directly with the CCA students in the classroom: "The opportunity to have the CCA interns in my class provided new voices, opinions, and structure for the students,” stated “I think it's valuable to have a variety of teaching styles in the same classroom. As a first-semester trial, I think we did quite well navigating a pilot project . . . . The concept of working on semester-long projects is something I don't see in most high school curricula."
Student Materials Put to the Test in Classroom
CCA graduate Writing students were asked to develop five and 10-minute exegeses as well as 15 and 20-minute craft lectures throughout the course. Each presentation was put to test before the classroom, where peers evaluated its effectiveness. Presentations included such topics as identity in poetics, character development, exploring description, understanding monologues, introduction to Haiku, among others.
For each of the assignments and craft lectures, students were asked to identify not only the learning objectives and goals but also possible stumbling blocks. Using the classroom as a platform to test their materials, students were able to fine-tune their collateral before applying them in the classroom.
CCA students were also required to create a 16-week course syllabus geared toward an introductory undergraduate creative writing course. The syllabus had to incorporate four distinct writing genres (e.g., poetry, playwriting, creative nonfiction, novel writing) as well as include practical and theoretical lesson plans to further complement the learning objectives.
By the completion of the course, almost all of the CCA graduates stated their interest in pursuing a career in teaching in some capacity in the future, while those who were undecided about teaching as a career said the course was invaluable in terms of providing a perspective to which they otherwise would not have had access.
And here's what one of the OSA students had to say about the guest visitors:
"My experience in independent projects helped me experience making art in different ways," said Kameron McDowell, an emerging skilled playwright and screenwriter. "It also helped me conquer that midstory writing block. And really I'm just glad I could work on a project I wanted to work on start to finish. I had a great time."
“CCA’s ENGAGE program gives these students a chance to actually practice in their field, talk about what it is they know, and apply their knowledge in very useful ways," explained Iribarne. "This course in many ways serves as the culmination to what has been learned in these different classes. . . . It serves to compliment and enhance one's understanding of poetry, fiction, drama, and nonfiction."
Therein lies the intrinsic value of the ENGAGE at CCA initiative: Students improve their own work via first-hand exposure working with others -- established professionals or up-and-coming artists, or both -- to reinforce the very principles they must discover and apply within themselves.
About Oakland School for the Arts
Cofounded in 2000 by then-Mayor Jerry Brown, Oakland School for the Arts balances an immersive performing arts program with a comprehensive academic curriculum, providing students unique opportunities for learning, innovation, expression, and personal growth. In 2009 OSA was recognized as a Distinguished Middle and High School (part of the California School Recognition Program (CSRP) administered by the California Department of Education). Read more »
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