5 Writers Tell Us How WITS Teaching Transformed Them: Stacy Parker Le Melle

Posted March 21, 2013 & filed under Notebook.

stacy-plmFormer WITS writer Stacy Parker Le Melle, author of Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House (Ecco/HarperCollins) and founder of The Katrina Experience: An Oral History Project, describes what she learned in the WITS classroom and how it translates to her current work as workshop director at the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Her essay is the first in a series of five installments where former WITS teachers tell how their WITS teaching taught them valuable life lessons.

On the Struggle to Truly Be Present

by Stacy Parker Le Melle

Be present, we’re told.  I’ve always accepted this wisdom.  However, acceptance is one thing, implementation another. As a Writers in the Schools teacher, I learned that on any given day in the classroom, if I could just be present, for a few students at least, I could call my day successful.

I don’t just mean being present as an instructor, leading my class through that day’s lesson.  That is crucial, of course.  What I really mean is being present for the one-to-one interaction, those moments spent crouched next to a desk, really trying to listen.

I think of the classrooms, the rows and rows of kids.  It takes hard work to deliver the lesson, all the while making sure there’s enough order in the room that everyone can participate.  My mind wants me in five places at once, tending to ten kids at the same time.

But split attention is weak attention.  When it’s time to write, and students have questions, or don’t know to begin, I learned that I couldn’t just repeat the directions and hope to be understood (though I often did that). I needed to really listen.  Zero in.  Focus.  Not rushing to the next raised hand, not trying to quiet the back row.  At least, not for the time it took to think through the question and respond with a thoughtful answer.

The time spent paying attention yielded results: increased trust, better developed work, more enthusiasm the next time around.

I bring the problem of presence to my current role as workshop director of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP).   I work for a nonprofit organization that connects American writers and teachers to Afghan women writers via secure online workshops.  Nearly 95% of my work is done via email.  When I feel overwhelmed, the desire is to scan emails.

But scanning is not reading.  Scanning is hoping that you’ll learn by osmosis.  I have yet to learn by osmosis. Maybe I get a feel for what is happening, but I don’t process content.  Just like in the classroom, when you must take the moment to pause, to truly listen to the one child and not the several, I now find that if I can consistently be present as I read emails then my understanding of issues facing our work deepens, as do, hopefully, my relationships with all those involved.

I reread this and my advice feels painfully obvious.  But I find it is advice I work to implement on a daily basis.

For writing teachers, there is one last benefit to presence that I wish to share: that moment you discover one of the students wrote something extraordinary.  At AWWP, we are working a Fetzer Institute-sponsored “Love and Forgiveness” project.  Many of our writers are writing on these two themes.  I will never forget how I felt when I opened Massoma’s email.  Here is a portion of her poem:

I’ve Forgiven All

My head was exploding

It was full of their talking

They talked and talked and sold me

They were happy and laughing

I was sad and crying

I had no ability to do anything

I played and was playing

But I had to go towards life

My head was exploding

It was full of new talking

They talked and talked and talked

I was not a good bride

I was not a perfect woman

Because I was thirteen

My head was exploding

It was full of their talking

They talked and talked and beat me

My head was exploding

It was full of hurts and their talking

I was a mother but with nothing

I’ve forgiven all I love my life

I move towards the future

I am happy

My head was exploding

For the moments I read and imagined Massoma, visualized what she went through, sat mesmerized by the power of her love and forgiveness, I didn’t need to push myself to focus.  The rest of the world had already fallen away.

*For more about the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, please go here: www.awwproject.org.

Disorientation & Creativity

Posted June 17, 2011 & filed under Notebook.

You have to systematically create confusion; it sets creativity free. -Salvador Dali

A study published in Psychological Science by Dr. Proulx of the University of California, Santa Barbara and Prof. Heine of the University of British Columbia suggests that exposure to something illogical can prime the brain for finding new patterns.  The study has been used to prove that “disorientation begets creative thinking.”

So, to prep your brain for a summer full of creativity, jump on a merry-go-round.  After you are thoroughly disoriented, take a peek at the painting “Personal Values” by Rene Magritte or read Gertrude Stein’s essay on “Roastbeef.”  You are guaranteed a creative spike.

Word A Day Project

Posted June 16, 2011 & filed under Notebook.

Psychometrician Johnson O’Connor studies factors leading to career achievement.  His studies cover a wide range of areas, including age and level of education.  Every time he analyzed the data, he got the same results: the better a person’s vocabulary, the better correlation with success.

Scientists think that that a bigger vocabulary is connected to the ability to think in more complex ways.  O’Connor suggests four ways to increase your vocabulary:

  1. Be aware of words
  2. Read
  3. Use a dictionary (circle the words and make a note of them)
  4. Study and review regularly
If you’re looking for a fun summer activity to do with your kids, consider the Word a Day project.  Each morning pick a word that is unfamiliar to your children.  Look it up in the dictionary, discuss or act out its meaning, draw a picture or symbol to help remember it, and then try to use it several times throughout the day.   Post the new words on index cards.  Try to use them in a story or poem.  By the end of the summer, your children will be at least 60 steps–or words– closer to success.
by Marcia Chamberlain, Writers in the Schools