The Macedonian Express and the Best-So-Far Awards

Posted July 26, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

Today was the first day of the WITS Creative Writing Camp in Tetova on the border of Bosnia.  The camp was huge with 25 students here this afternoon and four “Best-So-Far” Awards for each group — the morning kids and the afternoon kids.  I am not really sure how these “Best-So-Far” Awards got started, but they have come to have a life of their own.  They all culminate on the Fridays of the Camp with a “Best of the Best” Award in nine different categories, most of which are actually related to our writing, as in Best Haiku, Best Extended Poem, Best Play, Best Vignette, Best Short Story, Best Piece of Descriptive Realism, but also including Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director of the plays that are presented the last day, usually in front of a representative sent by the embassy in Skopje.

Every afternoon, after hours with the kids, sit down together and review the writing that went on in the camp and select the best pieces “so far.”  It is an interesting experience, but what is equally fun is to see the campers come in the next morning and the smiles on their faces when they have won one of the awards and they know exactly what they won it for.  Then, the third day of the camp, we begin awarding campers for the “Best Body of Work So Far.”

I guess life doesn’t really give such awards, but it would be convenient to get a kind of check-up like this from time to time in life itself.  It also let’s the teachers know, if there is no award for example, that we may need to see what we are doing and make changes.  That has never happened, but it is possible.  Hope that you are having a “Best-So-Far” Day yourself.

From Tetova, this is WITS Writer Merrilee Cunningham having a good day.

More from Macedonia

Posted July 22, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

We just finished doing four plays this morning with the younger kids and two plays this afternoon, including a Vampire Summer Vacation, featuring a trip to the Castle of  Dracula.  Rather than start on my rant about Twilight, the novel, I will tell you that the plays were wonderful, even the Vampire play as we are close enough to Romania and the sources of the Vampire that the students have many original as well as historical ideas about Vlad.  Indeed the student who played Vlad was named Vlad.  (What are the odds,  even  this close to Bulgaria?)   The plays were wonderful.  The children and their parents were justifiably proud of the great work  that they have done, the anthologies are almost ready, and there was general agreement that Creative Writing Camp was a fabulous experience for all.  Now there may be a couple of librarians who have to work this weekend who may need to put their feet up on Sunday morning and even call for breakfast in bed.  I intend to sleep in  tomorrow morning and then walk up the hill is Stip to the 6th century Byzantine Church that I have been looking at every morning from my hotel room and wondering when and if I would be able to rise early enough to beat the heat and take a trek up the hill to see it, water bottle and picnic lunch in hand. But tomorrow  is my day as Sunday morning  early I take off to Skopje and then to Tetova and my friends at the American Corners there.

So I move away from Eastern Macedonia and its Roman and Byzantine ruins to the hills of Tetova where I can see the mountains of Bosnia.  Remember, Balkans is  just a word for “Mountains.”

Merrilee Cunningham,

Writers in the Schools (WITS)

The Play is the Thing (Times 7!)

Posted July 14, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

Shakespeare said, “The Play’s the Thing,”  and it was!  Here in Skopje we just finished producing seven plays —  4 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon.  They included such titles as “The Nutty Granny,” “Revenge is a Dish Best Served up Cold,” The Magic Umbrella,” and “The Hero and the Dragon,”  just to name a few.  They were absolutely wonderful.  The young actress who played the title role in “The Nutty Granny” also helped write the play as did most of the actors.  It is very interesting how serious the students get about the plays.  All this has caused a Children’s Drama Festival in Bitola so when I get to Bitola, I will finish the first week with a second week where we do nothing but plays. I have always wanted to direct a children’s theater, and, what luck, it is happening!

It is very exciting to visit with my wonderful old friends in Skopje, but it is also exciting to be going to a brand new corner and a new place.  It has been a while since I have been to a new place.  Last year I went to Croatia with my daughter Susannah, and we had an amazing time going to Diocletian’s palace and looking at the stone symbols on all the ruins in Split. This time I haven’t really thought about going anyplace. Tomorrow I am off to Stip and new places and new friends.

Merrilee Cunningham

Writers in the Schools (WITS)

More from Macedonia: Haiku House and the Tower of Love

Posted July 13, 2010 & filed under Notebook.


Today each of the Skopje students built a Haiku House out of small lego-like sticks and blocks, clay and beads.  The windows and roof were made of colored wooden ice-cream spoons and the walls were of cashier’s tape to make sure that the 5-7-5 syllable lines looked right on the narrow paper.  One group refused to make single houses and created “The Tower of Love.”  There were 12 haiku in the three stories of the “Tower of Love” and, of course, the students wrote out “Tower of Love” in beads in front of the tower.  I have to admit that many of the Haiku Houses were wonderful, but the romanticism of the “Tower of Love” was almost more than I could bear.  It was beautifully decorated with wonderful haiku that fulfilled the discipline of having each wall have a haiku that represented a different season — summer, fall, winter, spring.  I was told that there is no tradition of haiku in  Macedonian and that I was very lucky that my fellow teachers could help me at the library because they had been trained by various Scots who had been on their faculty and trained them in the form.


The students did a wonderful job, translated the word “syllable” for me into “slog,” and I didn’t laugh.  I saw many young people counting like mad as they attempted to follow the more rigorous rules of the classical haiku and as they prepared their houses for the experience.  They seemed almost relieved when we went on to “Found Poetry,” and they were asked to select five words from the colored paper on the walls and bookcases and write a poem using all the words.  Compared with the busy fingers counting as we sounded out the syllables, this was easy for them and they took to it.

Several students were selected to read from their notebooks based on having a red piece of paper under their charge that said “Hot Seat.”  Even the shy ones seem to accept this as their destiny and read from the six words that they have begun in the portfolios.  All in all it was a great day.  I got to play in the wood glue, which is always exciting and now the teachers are deciding the “Best so far Day Two” awards and putting in the “My Personal Best so Far Away” so that the students can at least consider revisions as well as visions.  We have already set up the tables for tomorrow’s “Life Clock” and its follow-up work and then we are off to wherever we go after Creative Writing Camp.

I will be off for my walk toward my hotel passed some wonderful Soviet-Era sculptors and some amazing glamour girl statues and their dog, one without arms. Several of the students wrote essays saying that they would like to see fewer statues in the park and more hungry folks fed. I have to admit to being very impressed with the seriousness of thought and social consciousness of my Macedonian students. While I hate to leave my world to anyone and don’t plan on going just now, I am convinced that my beloved planet will be in pretty good shape if these Macedonians are typical.

Merilee Cunningham

WITS Writer to the Balkans

WITS and the Macedonian Express: Year 3

Posted July 12, 2010 & filed under Notebook.

Beginnings are exciting, thrilling really, particularly when you know that they are filled with fun, energy, learning, reading, writing, and happy children.  This is my third year of WITS in Macedonia and the beginning of the third year on the Macedonian Express, and that express has more stops than it used to.  When we started, there were only three American Corner (AC) Libraries in Macedonian and now there are four. Next year there will be five. That’s pretty good for a country with only 4 million people in it, but what those Macedonians don’t have in quantity, they make up in quality.

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This is a nation of readers, poets, writers, artists, and their enthusiasm for the Creative Writing Workshops is so great that we have more students this year than ever before.  In Skopje this year we have two completely filled workshops and have only new students in the workshops.  That means that tomorrow morning there will be 20 kids in the morning and 20 kids in the afternoon in the AC. The younger kids come in the morning with all their energy, delight and excitement.  If it is like last year, they come with their parents, the youngest not really sure that we can be trusted to take care of them until the middle of the first day.  Then the second day they are so excited, so thrilled to see their new friends, to get started on their work from yesterday, and to do the warm-ups, probably starting with two truths and a “fiction” where they tell their new friends two things that are true about them and one fiction that they made up.  You would be surprised how often that fiction or even “lie” get used in one of their stories.  It also lets you know about their vivid imaginations.  Trust the bright lights to tell you their favorite color is blue, place their blue folder on top of their desk so that you believe them, all the while knowing perfectly well that their favorite color is green.  I know this is true because Emma tricked me with this at the WITS Creative Writing Camp “two truths and a lie” warm-up at Bellaire High School last month. She got me over and over again, and I fancy myself an excellent judge in this department!

I had a wonderful flight here.  I had just finished a Common Ground Seminar for the University of Houston’s Honor’s College when I boarded a United Airlines plane for Washington Dulles and then Austrian Airlines to Vienna and Skopje (pronounced Skop-e-ah).  I never seem to get over my love of flying.  When I was a teenager my friend Russ Heil and I used to go to the airport just to watch the planes that would have liked to be on and I haven’t changed.  I still am thrilled just to see a plane take off, and if I am on it is just where I want to be. I never had any desire to pilot a plane, but I do want a window seat, and a window seat to life is just what I got…all the way to Macedonia. Watching movies all night long, the second night without sleep, I was ready to sleep when I got to the hotel and that is just what I did.

By the time that I got to the American Corner library this morning I was ready to get rid of the 120 pounds of luggage that had the supplies that I had been buying for the past year…and they are wonderful.  I have inherited from my father the importance that I place on having the best supplies for a Writing Workshop.  When I got here the AC staff showed me t he great tee-shirts that they produced.  The design is fabulous. I will send you a copy of it asap.

This afternoon we are interviewing the kids that will be camp counselors and then meeting with representatives from all the American Corners so that they can pick up a copy of the master plan, modify that plan to their liking and be ready for the camps when I get there. That means creating a word wall, an bulletin board with local historical buildings and ruins, and other uses of walls and blackboards as we prepare for the arrival of the workshop campers.  But today it also means dividing the loot, the pencil sharpeners, the pens, the notebooks, the stick-on letters, the colorful wooden blocks on which they will hang their haiku, the satin ribbons that they will wrap around the box with their secret writings in it, the plain white paper plates that they will put their life clock on, the little brown bags that they will place something that they would love to “drown in the deep blue sea.”

I am so glad that I have the information that I got from participating in the SCWW camp adventures with Jennifer Aguirre and Pat Green.  Those two amazing teachers taught me new stuff that I am not going to drop in “the deep blue sea” but that I have carried with me across that sea to implement here.  Even the “two truths and a lie” warm-up was something that I had never done before until I did it in June with Jennifer and Pat.

A teacher must constantly be trained and WITS is the best there is about training.  There is on-going training for teachers before and during the Workshops…and I believe in training. Training makes us different from what we would be without it.  Training offers us  more choices.  Training makes us good at what we do.  As Malcolm Gladwell says in his wonderful book Outliers, training makes us extreme variables of folks who do something, because we have worked those thousands of hours to become the statistical outliers on a graph of how well we can do something if we get training and practice, work intensely on getting better at something. And that is just what these young people in Macedonia are going to do…they are going to write brilliantly in a language that was not their first, but a language that they are going to become very good writers in like Joseph Conrad and others who learned a language in which they became great writers.

Tomorrow is a new beginning and I will tell you all about it just after it happens. Welcome to the first day of the third year of the Macedonian Express. Come with us to Macedonia and the Creative Writing Camps as the centers are filled with young, talented children from the land of Phillip and Alexander.

Merilee Cunningham

WITS Writer to the Balkans

Skopje Celebrates Young Writers

Posted August 11, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

You are reading the blog of a woman who has been through five small earthquakes and did not feel a thing, yet when the American Corners was full of both the early morning kids and the afternoon kids, doing the plays that they themselves wrote, it seemed chaotic.  The U.S. Embassy sent its best and its brightest to award the children their certificates of completion for the program and to congratulate the winners of “Best Play,” “Best Long Poem,” “Best Lyric Poem.” “Best Short Story.”  The competition was fierce, and I got up early this morning to arrive in front of the library where we had to make tough decisions about who go which awards with my co-teachers and translators.  We had our differences of opinions, but the disputes were friendly, and everyone played by the rules. We had stayed up all night typing the anthology entries, as Bitola and Skopje had full-blown anthologies, complete with videos of the plays and 200 pictures of the camp. Still, there was no tee-shirt, though the embassy promises a tee-shirt if we will just come back and do this again next year.  This is a bribe that will work on my 1960’s soul.

The librarians are very excited about the program and have allowed us to take our dramatic chaos throughout the library, all the while these committed guardians of learning are actively attempting to carry on their regular programs, check out books, check in books, and do all the other things that help allow for people to get the kind of information that they need in order to make wise decisions about their lives, their votes, and their families.

After the plays this morning, we continued the tradition of ending the program with a proclamation of the rights of children. The right to go to the dentist was perhaps the most interesting. One has to wonder about the story behind an eight year old child understanding the importance of dental hygiene.  But the right to clean water, clean air, life with a temperature that was livable (Macedonia has been very hot this summer) were also important. When the children read their table of contents on their journal, they were very happy with themselves and saw how very much they had been able to write.  Then I asked them which works still needed more revisiting, and they slowly were able to tell me which works they would be working on and revising. It was great. Click here to see a 3:30 video of a news story about the project.

Tonight my youngest daughter arrives from Cairo, and we have dinner with a friend from the embassy and then we are off to Kosovo and Bulgaria as my daughter continues on to Istanbul.  So the Macedonian Express will be traveling West away from Skopje and into Kosovo and Bulgaria.  I hope that you will be coming with us, because after that, I need to revisit my syllabi for World Literature I and World Mythologies, and Renaissance Drama and Roman History Independent Study at the University of Houston Downtown so that my university gets its fair share of what talents I possess.

posted by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)

Young Poets of Skopje, Macedonia

Posted August 7, 2009 & filed under Notebook.

The children in the Creative Writing workshop in Skopje were ready to select their images for the Ekphrasis assignment and one of the masks that the teachers put on the board looked, from far away, like the famous Mask of Agamemnon, so, gold mask macedonianever the one to stand back timidly, I said, “Oh, the mask of Agamemnon.”  At that point both my Macedonian teachers (one married to an archeologist), fell upon me and gave me the what-for!  “Oh no. Many golden masks have been found in Macedonia.” One, found in 1934, is in the museum in Belgrade with its fellow. Others have been found recently in 17 graves from the 6th. century B.C.  in a village near Lake Ohrid. There is much excitement about the discovery of the bronze age graves near Ohrid. But there is also much pride about the beautiful mask that is in Belgrade. I was amazed by its beauty, the face surrounded by the ancient image for enigma and questioning.

Which brings me to the constant questions that the kids in the workshop are asking. “Do you go to NASA often?” How many computer languages do you know?”  “Do you know Obama?”  “Have you seen AC/DC?”  “Do you have a hamster?”  What do you do with questions like that asked by students who have learned their English by playing video games or whose goal in the workshop is to write an epic poem?

The answer, of course, is provide them with challenges, and that is exactly what I am best at, so tomorrow they have to perform the play that they are writing today, but only after they create their life clock on a large white paper plate, starting, at 12 o’clock with they day, month, and year that they were born.  Did you want a brother?  Did you want a baby sister? Did you want to learn computer languages?  Did you want a hamster?  Did you want to make good grades?  Did you want to have a bird?  Did you want to fly? Did you want to work with E.A. Blizzard or Krytech?  Did you want to meet Miley Cyrus?   Did you want to be a teacher? Did you want two new cousins?  I know I did. Did you want someone to love you all your life?

I feel like the Art Linklater of Creative Writing Teachers.  Kids say the funniest things.  They also say the wisest.

posted by Merrilee Cunningham, Writers in the Schools (WITS)

A Party at the Embassy

Posted June 29, 2008 & filed under Notebook.

After both classes of creative writing students and our adventure up to the Kale or fortification and discussions with the archeologists, I returned to Skopje yesterday evening for an embassy party.  There I met many senior embassy officials and rode into town with the director of the Tetova Theatre.  We had such interesting conversations about his early years starting the Tetova Theatre immediately after the political conflicts in this country and his continuing work both at the theatre and at the university. Tetova is becoming an international university town, and he discussed how exciting it has been to see this take place.

At the party there were many professors on Fulbrights, a second year law student who had originally been scheduled to go to Burma (Myanmar) and Macedonian intellectuals who were scheduled to come to the United States for cultural exchanges. The level of cultural exchange was very impressive, and I had to think about what a huge amount of work went into the programs that were sponsored by the United States Embassy.

The party honored a senior diplomat who was fresh from a meeting with the president of Macedonia.  This diplomat had very impressive scholarly and diplomatic credentials, and it occurred to me that some people select both the contemplative and the active life. That choice can make a huge difference in both your own life and the lives and welfare of others. Her career also made me realize how much we need to work on language acquisition and second language acquisition in our country if we are to continue to function diplomatically in this global village of ours.

Tomorrow is a travel day for me. The embassy will send a car for me, and I will leave this beautiful mountain city and head for Bitola and my final four-day workshops in the Balkans. I will miss Tetova in a way that I have only experienced missing Sicily.  Its mountains and children and intellectuals somehow enter your heart, as you see how hard they work to further their culture, how earnestly the children attempt to succeed at the assignments, and how committed the staff at the American Corner in Tetova is to the programs they provide. It was also good, as an old Peace Corp volunteer myself, to see Melissa, the hardworking Peace Corp volunteer who did so much for our project with her amazing experience in teaching. Finally, we put together a great team here in Tetova, just as we had done in Skopje.

Now let’s see how the Macedonian Express does in Bitola, just a half an hour’s walk from Philip of Macedonian’s Heracula. Wherever Hercules was worshipped in the ancient world in classical times, difficult physical tasks were admired such as agricultural feats so I look forward to discovering if Philip named this city because of the flourishing agricultural community to be found around there.  Much of Heracula has not yet been archeologically uncovered, I have been told, but I will still take the hike out there the first chance I get and report on the city of the father of Alexander the Great.

Until Monday then, this is the Macedonian Express, on the way out of my beloved Tetova and on southward towards Bitola.

More Anon,  Merrilee, WITS Writer in the Balkans