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SOA Writing Division Program Brings Artist/Teachers into Community Classrooms

By Michael Larkin

Dustin Smith, right, works with students taking the non-credit writing workshop, Introduction to Creative Writing.

Many writers view teaching as a natural extension of their craft, and subsequently turn to education as a primary or secondary profession. Graduate students in the writing division of the School of the Arts created the Columbia Artist/Teachers (CA/T) writing program to better prepare themselves for a possible career in education.

"One of the best things that writers can do, in terms of jobs, is teach," said Stephen Johnson, CA/T director and third-year MFA student. "And we wanted to provide all of the writing students with a chance to teach -- specifically to teach writing."

Now entering its second year, the program provides teaching opportunities to MFA writing students through relationships with organizations throughout the city. Last year the program placed students with teaching positions at nine organizations, in settings ranging from elementary school classrooms to senior citizen recreation rooms.

Getting Started

The concept for the program was hatched in the spring of 2002 when several students approached Alan Ziegler, chair of the writing division, about the lack of teaching opportunities available to graduate writing students at Columbia. Little did they know, but Ziegler already had been considering the idea of creating a student teacher program for graduate students.

The idea was rooted in a rewarding experience he had while teaching as a graduate student in the early 1970's, and he felt now was the ideal time to offer today's students the same opportunity. Unfortunately, he feared that by the time the program was in place it would be too late for the students who had petitioned him to act. So, he met with Joanne Straley, Stephen Johnson, Ryan Bartelmay and Animesh Sabnis during the following summer and structured a student teacher program that began in the 2002 fall semester.

"It became clear very early on that they had the skills and desire to really work with me closely in getting this off the ground," said Ziegler, who has published two books on teaching writing and is working on a third.

When the program was launched, the same students who had petitioned for its existence and labored through the summer months were at the forefront as its directors.

During the program's first year, they were able to fill more than 50 teaching positions in a variety of teaching environments. Relationships were born with elementary schools like the John A. Reisenbach Charter School in Harlem and the Manhattan Country School on the Upper East Side. CA/T writing instructors also worked with Teachers & Writers Collaborative, Columbia's Double Discovery Center, The Royal Shakespeare Company, Amsterdam House (senior home), Community Impact, The Program in Narrative Medicine and the New York Public Library.

The program also developed Introduction to Creative Writing (INTRO), a non-credit writing program for undergraduate students from Columbia College, Barnard College, and The School of General Studies. The program offers four-week workshops in poetry, fiction, nonfiction and dramatic writing.

Cynthia Rogers, the director of grades 5 thru 8 at Manhattan Country School, raved about the program. A participant in the program taught a writing workshop to 6th, 7th and 8th grade students at the school last year and is returning this year. "I felt it was an amazing collaboration between our school and Columbia. They were so willing and so able to really get kids excited about writing."

"The first year was far more productive than I ever would have imagined it would be," said Ziegler, who also acts as the program's faculty advisor. "We accomplished everything that we wanted to in terms of experiencing a broad range of programs."

A recent open house received an enthusiastic response from the new class of MFA students. "It was a great feeling to have our organizational structure already in place. It made the hard work of last year really pay off," said Joanne Straley, CA/T director and third year MFA student. "The incoming class is very excited to work with our programs and begin their own. We are off to a great start!"

Animesh Sabnis tutors New York City high school students in conjunction with Columbia's production of 'Midnight's Children.'

Hopes and Challenges

Expectations are admittedly higher this year. Straley, Johnson and Bartelmay have set out to create more teaching opportunities and to expand the program to include the other divisions of the School of the Arts: Theatre, Visual Arts and Film. But ultimately, they want to make the program a fixture at the School of the Arts and in the greater Columbia community.

"I would like for us [CA/T] to become very established in the New York community, so that schools can contact us for our teachers instead of us going out to find opportunities," said Johnson. "We want them to rely on us ... so when these schools and organizations need teachers they know they can come to Columbia and get them."

With these aspirations come great challenges, as the program faces several obstacles in the coming years. Funding will undoubtedly become a focal point. Some of the student teachers are being paid through the America Reads Federal Work Study Program, but many are volunteers.

For Ziegler, the main challenge will present itself when his current student directors graduate. "The challenge will be training three or so people who can seamlessly take over," said Ziegler. "That is a major challenge that we will always have; to give the students a greater sense of ownership of the organization so it can be self-sustaining."

From Student to Teacher

The distinction between a teacher and a student is obvious to most, but the conversion a student experiences when becoming an educator is not as distinguishable. The transformation builds over time, rather than through one definitive event.

To prepare the students for their teaching experience they are offered extensive assistance. Coinciding with the launch of the CA/T program, Ziegler began teaching a graduate level seminar called The Writer as Teacher, which also has fueled interest in the program. CA/T participants are also advised by CA/T mentors, master teachers who have experience with such organizations as Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and by Columbia alumni who have extensive teaching experience.

According to Ziegler, there comes a time in every educator's career where they eventually can walk in front of a class and command the room. He compares this feeling to that of a writer finding his or her inner voice.

"We cannot merely say that you must have a voice and this is what you do to get it, but something happens through natural talent, through osmosis, through discussion, through experience, and at a certain point even though you are nervous going into a classroom you feel that you belong there," said Ziegler.

Morgan Beatty, now a third year MFA student and who taught in the program last year, said he gained a new and deepened interest in teaching "as it opened my eyes as to my own abilities as a teacher."

Published: Dec 05, 2003
Last modified: Dec 04, 2003

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