Letter from a Teaching Artist #3

The third in a series on the intersection of landscape and identity in an American classroom.

The Friday session is my favorite part of each week-long workshop I teach. By Friday, I’ve gotten to know the students, have become thoroughly inspired by their teachers, and have usually figured out how to work the copy machine and where to find a good cup of coffee. But most importantly, Friday is posting day, when we publish work to our blog and wait for the world to read and respond to our posts.

In the school’s computer lab, students painstakingly type their drafts, then click “submit.” I read drafts as quickly as I can, approving them with minimal editing while students click refresh, refresh, refresh. While they wait to see their work among the newly-published posts, they read writing by their peers—students from their own school as well as other schools across the state or across the country, who are simultaneously publishing work. (In the recent workshop I conducted in Black Mountain, we shared a blog with students from Saxapahaw, North Carolina; Brooklyn, New York; and Westport, Connecticut.)

Their writing is often very vulnerable—on a public site, they are sharing sometimes difficult memories and complicated feelings, and their writing examines both the natural beauty and the human scars on the landscapes they inhabit. For many students, this is their first publication, and it’s important that their work is received with thoughtful appreciation. Before they post, we talk about the different ways—positive and negative—they’ve experienced online commenting, and I select a student’s work at random and post a sample comment.

At this point in the workshop, I’ve usually invited a few key readers to check out the blog, readers and writers and friends I know will leave detailed and supportive critiques of student work. The students are thrilled by these comments from unseen admirers. In Black Mountain, Grace, a ninth grader who wrote of her adoption and the experience of moving from Russia to North Carolina, quietly read her comments aloud, then replied with a detailed thank you to each one.

At a workshop I once conducted in Hiwassee Dam, a fourth grader wrote down every one of her comments in a notebook—she didn’t have a computer at home and wanted to show her mom what people said about her writing.

Here is an excerpt from a recent post by Kinsley, a tenth grader at The Hawbridge School in Saxapahaw:

I remember a hill that seemed as steep as a mountain, on an old bike that wouldn’t stop, almost crashing into my aunt’s driveway, everyday for six months…

I remember grandparents who cursed in Italian.

I remember Christmas Eves.

I remember unloading the kids at the Bible School cookouts from the covered wagon rides. They would ask me if I had ridden yet, if I knew the mules’ names, because if not, they sure did.

I remember smiling and saying, “Want to know a secret? That man driving the wagon is my Pappaw and I grew up with those mules.” And then they would look at me and say, “Really?”

Among the comments beneath Kinsley’s post: a question about the reliability of memory from a science teacher at her school, an appreciation from a classmate, a comment from one of the English teachers in Black Mountain, and this praise from Pat Hoppe, my own high school English teacher:

Kinsley: This is so beautiful and so specific. You cause me to have so many different emotions when I read what you write. You have a gift. I hope you continue to write and to cause people to FEEL because that is a powerful talent to possess. I want to read more that you have written; appreciate yourself and continue to grow your talent by writing. Thank you for sharing who you are.

And from Brooklyn, a comment from a fellow student she’s never met:

This poem is great! Some parts were funny because it made me think of similar things that happened to me.

They are reading your comments, too. I can say from experience that there are places online, as a writer, where you read the comments, and there are places where you look away. For all the debate that may happen over particular environmental issues and solutions, Orion is one of those publications that fosters community, discussion, and respect in its online comments, which is one reason I wanted to highlight my student projects here.

Please take a moment to stop by and read some of the newer posts. Just as a start, I can recommend “Fatima’s Brooklyn,” Ashanti R.’s “I Am a Brooklyn from Guatemala,” and “The Roots” by Rachel Laurin P.

P.S. Last week, when Kayla (from Brooklyn’s Gotham Academy) learned that her work had been highlighted on the Orion blog, she immediately shared it with her friends. She says, in fact, that her friend Raymond has been exploring Orion‘s website and loving it.

Belle Boggs is the author of the story collection Mattaponi Queen. She lives and teaches in North Carolina. Her essay “The Art of Waiting” was published in the March/April 2012 issue of Orion. Photo by Hayden T., featuring Holly H.


  1. How about inviting the kids to pen Place Where You Live posts?


    Top submissions are published in Orion, other favorites are read aloud on the national “Living on Earth” radio show by the authors (two of the 6 they’ve recorded so far this year were by youths).


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