When I arrive to the San Francisco probation office, the members of the Women Rising reentry theater group are in full-on production mode. I quickly slide my writing prompts into my bag, knowing instinctively that they are unnecessary. The writers are asking me to weigh in: how on earth do we structure these stories? I’m not sure I hold the answers, but I roll up my sleeves. The scenes are ready to go, characters fleshed out and alive. But then there is the problem. The group agrees it is important to bring the voices of currently incarcerated women into the mix, but where do the poems best fit into an already-written play? We decide the poems will serve as chapter markers, and spend our time together matching themes. Our task is an electric current riding a steady breeze — we zoom through our work, finding the many interconnected threads with ease and joy.
This is the 5th stop on the re-imagined tour for my recent book that pairs public speaking engagements with opportunities to work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated writers. The women are reminding me that teaching is an identity inextricable from my own work as an artist— and one that requires the same flexibility and room for surprises that the creative process demands. Our collaborative practice sparks with the very energy I strive to infuse into all of my work spaces: a hunger for learning and contribution, a sharp-eared listening to peers, a complex grappling with civic and social issues, an ability to reflect on process and product, a sense of responsibility to self and community, and a continuous commitment to growth, action and necessary risk. Each student has a gift to impart, each member is a teacher.
Excited by the mutual learning that naturally occurs in the classroom, I am consciously softening the barrier between the traditional roles of teacher and student. Addressing the full spectrum of intelligence and learning styles, I strive towards dynamic, project-based and participatory curriculum. It is my belief that peer-to-peer and hands-on modalities deepen critical thinking and help students to better synthesize challenging material. Tasked with creating a living-document portfolio, students cultivate responsibility for their own learning process by tracking progress and growth. Becoming attuned to their specific patterns and pitfalls, students are able to develop personalized strategies to advance their skills beyond our classroom walls. Plus, outside the classroom, let's face it, writers are maddeningly solitary creatures. It's fun to play together! A synergistic environment creates authentic community, and holds students accountable to one another as comrades and collaborators.
Literary citizenship plays a central role in my creative life, as well as my teaching practices. I have facilitated writing, as well as equity, diversity and inclusion trainings, in a vast range of learning spaces including (but not limited to) public schools, prisons, disability advocacy programs and needle exchanges. This commitment to writing as an instrument of change outside of academia infuses the college classroom with a vibrant array of possibility. I've ignited linkages across departments and to outside community. For example, teaching essay writing to Pre-Med students through the lens of Narrative Medicine, and bringing second year writers to conduct real-world fieldwork in Writing for the Social Sciences. An advanced high school writing class of mine exchanged writing with young women incarcerated at a detention center. A recent workshop proposal visioning collectively authored poems through the walls of prison — and subsequent public art crafted from the resulting work — was recognized by Columbia University’s June Jordan Fellowship as a finalist project.
While fore fronting craft, I feel a simultaneous call to nurture students’ writing as a meaningful, reflective conversation between self and humanity. I am concerned with the ways collective narratives and individual stories, embedded in our psyche and invented consciously, support or inhibit connection, progress and understanding. In each endeavor, beyond teaching the craft of writing and the common goals prescribed by the particular teaching placement, it is important to note my practice infuses the pedagogy of three key areas:
1. Critical Assessment and Inquiry, where students learn to question and disrupt long-held norms in media, literature, representation and society — developing informed, independent and expressed opinions about world issues and personal identity. I emphasize the importance of deep reading, and bring a wide breadth of diverse voices into the classroom.
2. Self Awareness and Personal Development, in which a socio-emotional lens encourages revolving internal reflection, as well as the sharpening of interpersonal skills. A considered balance between solitary engagement and group work support these goals.
3. Local and Global Community Engagement invites students to place themselves in a larger narrative, defining interconnection and examining positive difference, ultimately identifying and implementing their own contributions to societal discourse. What are my students leaving the classroom newly understanding about themselves, and ways they can — and will — affect the world?
With the proliferation of undergrad and graduate writing programs, it feels especially important to urge students towards a personal definition of the artist and writer’s role in society, and to foster the development of singular voices that forge distinctive paths. As a multidisciplinary creator, I invite students to join me in stepping beyond the silos of strict creative identity, and smack into the uncertainty of encouraged experimentation. It is this elasticity that allows us to locate our greatest contributions, widening the boundaries towards an authentically intersectional, multi-voiced society.
And if I am fully transparent, perhaps selfishly, teaching is also one of the only ways I can imagine surviving as a fractured being in a fractured world. Writing, at best, becomes a place of refuge, complication, questioning, connection, dissonance, spirit and resistance. The work of wrestling with words and ideas in shared community is central to my sense of hope in a complex and confusing civilization — and, quite simply, one of the richest pleasures of being alive.