Guest post: ‘Flow – writing workshops for Inner City Youth’ by JD Mader

I’m delighted to welcome back ‘Joe Café’ novelist, short story author, blogger, biker and musician (and more) J D Mader on the topic of teaching writing to young adults. (I’ll never tire of this picture :))

Flow – writing workshops for Inner City Youth

I have spent the majority of my professional life teaching.  Much of that time was spent working with students who suffered from learning challenges such as autism, severe dyslexia, hyperlexia, auditory processing disorders… the list goes on.  I enjoyed it thoroughly.  It was challenging and frustrating at times, but the kids I got to work with made it worthwhile.  And the insights I gained into the workings of the mind were incredible.  There is no doubt that working with these students improved me as a person and a writer.

When I look at all the teaching I have done, however, what sticks out the most are the writing workshops I led for almost six years.  I was employed by a non-profit that worked with low-income, at-risk youth in San Francisco.

I “designed” this writing workshop, but it was like most writing workshops… like many writing workshops I have been in myself.  We wrote from prompts, pictures, discussions… all the standard stuff.   The big difference was that most people participate in writing workshops because they want to write.  They have the desire to mine their subconscious, to see if there is any gold there, to learn how to make it sparkle, and to learn how to make the process easier… faster.  This was a whole different ballgame.

The first workshop I did, I basically begged the most cooperative kids to participate.  They did.  We started out covering basic concepts like metaphor, showing instead of telling, the importance of vivid, interesting language and flow.  We met every day.  The first week was slow going.  Then something amazing started to happen.

Every day we would do ‘circle writing’.  We always sat in a circle.  And, well, we wrote.  Pretty ingenious name.  I or one of the students would provide a prompt.  Usually a sentence.  Sometimes an emotion, a color (my story ‘Green’ that has been featured here came from one of these exercises), anything that I thought would ignite that illusive creative spark.  The first few times, we would write for five minutes and then go around the circle and read what we’d written.  I wrote with the students, and, initially, this exercise resulted in the kids writing a few awkward sentences and me writing a few hundred words.  We talked about what we wrote, and the kids would listen to what I wrote and say, “Damn, that’s hella good!”  It made me feel bad, but I feel that modeling is a very important part of teaching.  We talked about what parts were good.  What parts seemed weak.  Why it resonated (if it did).  Why it sucked (if it did).  And before I knew it, the students’ writing got faster, more interesting, more emotive… more, well, ‘hella good’.  Instead of a few sentences, they were writing in a frenzy, begging me not to stop them when the five minutes were up.  They came up with bizarre and ingenious metaphors that would never have occurred to me.  They had their own styles.  They were not copying their favorite writers because they had no favorite writers.  It was raw and powerful writing.

These were kids with some serious shit to write about.  And when they were given the opportunity, they hit the ground running.  And word got around.  And, pretty soon, I had kids begging to be in the writing workshop.  It grew.  I got better at finding out what worked.  And every workshop was different.  If the kids really wanted to write poetry, we leaned more in that direction.  If they wanted to write their life stories, they did.  If they liked fiction, we wrote fiction.  I always covered a little bit of everything, but it was majority rule.  We voted on everything.  We were equals.  And some of the writing that was produced in those workshops was staggeringly good.  And only some of the good writing came from my pen.

I would be lying if I said there weren’t kids that never ‘got it’.  But there weren’t many.  There were a few kids who just didn’t have the chops.  There were a few kids that didn’t take it seriously and just tried to make everyone laugh with sophomoric poems and stories.  But 90% of the kids entered the workshop with no confidence in their ability to write and left as better writers and, more importantly, as writers who wanted to write and felt like they could DO it.  They wrote things I didn’t even assign and emailed them to me just because they were fired up.  They couldn’t wait to show their Moms, Grandmas, and friends.

We wrote everything from essays to rap lyrics to folk songs, but the one constant was freedom.  I did not try to control the process.  I did try to guide it… gently, with praise, love and respect.  And it worked.  And watching kids who have rebelled against everything “educational” find their voices and start to see the beauty in the written word… well, it was damn near miraculous.  They not only wanted to write, they wanted to read, too.  And when they read, they read like writers, amazed at the poetry in the language and the simple beauty of words.  Some of these students still email me years later.  I was very lucky to be a part of it.  We all were.  And we all realized it.  There are not many things in life I can say that about.

I loved that, thank you (again) so much JD and congrats on going freelance… I’m right behind you!

J D Mader is a teacher and writer / musician based in San Francisco.  He has been fortunate enough to encounter many giving and inspiring people in his life.  He hopes to repay the debt.  And to make enough money with his writing to buy a house. You can help him buy a brick (although I think the eBook is actually cheaper!) by checking out his debut novel ‘Joe Café’ and there will be more soon. He’s done a lot for my blog so probably the easiest way is to read them all is via the ‘Contributors‘ page… just scroll down to the Js (although not too quickly in case there are some other authors you like the sound of :)).

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please” (while quietly bouncing up and down in my seat with joy!).

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with firefighting mystery novelist Kurt Kamm – the one hundred and eighty-fourth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can read / download my eBooks from Smashwords (Amazon to follow).

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