Opinion
Curriculum Opinion

Learning That Resonates

By Melissa Hart — May 02, 2006 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The 12-year-old with the red ponytail turns to me as the orchestra tunes up in the pit far below us. “I play flute and piccolo in our school band,” she says, her excitement at attending the symphony on a Friday night overcoming any concerns she might have about confiding in a stranger. “My mom and I got vouchers to come here tonight. It was free!”

BRIC ARCHIVE

“Here” is the Silva Concert Hall in Eugene, Ore. Almost all 2,500 seats are filled. Little boys in suits and little girls in velvet dresses bounce on their chairs in anticipation as the first violinist walks across the stage and takes her bow. A young boy behind me whispers to his father. “Dad! There’s the cello player who came to my school.”

The girl beside me nods wisely. “A bunch of the musicians down there came to my junior high last week. They played Mozart with our band. It sounded …” Her smooth face wrinkles, searching for just the right word. “Incredible.”

Her delight takes me back to Lake Arrowhead, in the spring of 1986. Two decades ago, at the age of 16, I attended the University of California, Los Angeles’ Young Writers’ Retreat over a long weekend in March. On a break between workshops, I climbed a snowy hillside in solitude with my pen and a cheap spiral notebook. I gazed out over the pines and firs, the landscape vastly different from my suburban tract home with its one scraggly willow. Incredible, I thought and began to write.

The Young Writers’ Retreat began in 1983, created by directors of the UCLA Writing Project, a professional-development network for teachers of writing from kindergarten to university. For the last 23 years, high school English teachers across Southern California have watched for students who demonstrate a clever turn of phrase, an innovative plot, then offered them an application for the retreat.

“I think you should attend this,” my own English teacher at Hawthorne High School, Anna Mae Labbe, said to me my sophomore year.

I studied the application and shook my head. “My family can’t afford it.”

Approached by Ms. Labbe, the local Rotary Club stepped in. They nobly supplemented my babysitting savings, enabling me to head up to the UCLA Conference Center at Lake Arrowhead with two classmates.

Did Ms. Labbe guess that someday, the shy teenager clutching her notebook and pen would become a professional writer, teaching the craft to high school and university students? It’s easy for a teacher to look out at the inscrutable faces and doodling pens during class and assume that nothing she has offered will resonate among her students.

But I know better.

Those three days at Lake Arrowhead in 1986, I hung on to every workshop teacher’s words as a lifeline out of a bewildering adolescence. My peers had abandoned creative endeavors for the more fashionable pursuits of athletics and student government. They regarded my penchant for story-writing as eccentric at best. But here at the Young Writers’ Retreat, teenagers and teachers alike revered the written word. I learned how to craft a sonnet, how to bring a story to life with sensory details, how to believe in myself as a writer in spite of my father’s assertion that pursuing a passion for literature was just too risky.

There were other students at the camp whose parents actually guided them toward such a career. One couple went so far as to saddle their daughter with the name Keats Elliot. But Keats, with her literary birthright, needed the haven in the trees as much as I did—needed the camaraderie of other writers, the hilarious after-hours games of hide-and-seek, the sober revelation of revision, and the anthology sent to our respective schools a month later that gave us our first bylines and our first stories and poems in print.

Over the years, we’ve watched creative-writing, music, art, and theater classes lose school funding while sports programs thrive. The trend sends a clear message to students that creative endeavors are just too risky to fund. “It’s really sad,” says the young girl beside me at the symphony, her ponytail switching with indignation. “I’m going to play in the band when I get to high school, but my friends are leaving band to play sports.”

Cutting funding for the arts while ramping up money for science and athletics makes for lopsided human beings.

Young bodies need physical education. I balanced creative writing, theater, track, and cross-country in high school, and came out the better for the workout of both mind and body. But high school and university students struggle to make do with outdated photography equipment, impossibly tight budgets, inadequate studio and performance spaces—all in the shadow of million-dollar sports complexes and the latest technological offerings. President Bush’s State of the Union Address in January emphasized the need for an increased focus on math and science—but how are these subjects of help to people if they lack literacy and creativity?

As teachers, shouldn’t we cultivate balanced minds? In high school calculus, I learned to reason through solving complex equations. Biology taught me to test and prove a hypothesis. Creative writing gave me the ability to put these revelations into words. Cutting funding for the arts while ramping up money for science and athletics makes for lopsided human beings.

Dedicated teachers like those at the Young Writers’ Retreat continue to guard the arts fiercely, ensuring that students learn the power of the pen, the paintbrush, an impassioned monologue, a Mozart symphony. At times, these educators may look out at the sea of faces and wonder if anything they’ve offered actually resonates among their students.

But trust me. Someone out there is listening. … I know.

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2006 edition of Education Week as Learning That Resonates

Events

School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Curriculum How the Overturning of 'Roe v. Wade' Will Reverberate Through Classrooms
Some teachers are looking for ways to address with students the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn the abortion rights precedent.
8 min read
Thousands of people attend a protest for abortion access after the Supreme Court reversed the federal right to abortion decided in Roe v. Wade. The legal basis for the decision could be used in the future as precendent to overturn other rights not explicitly stated in the Constitution (e.g., same-sex marriage). With the exception of Thomas, all of the conservative justices in the majority testified under oath in their confirmation hearings that they consider abortion access 'settled law.'
Thousands of people attend a protest for abortion access after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned <i>Roe v. Wade,</i> which guaranteed the right to an abortion.
Allison Bailey/NurPhoto via AP
Curriculum Miami School Board Reverses Itself, Approves Sex Ed. Textbook
The board reversed itself again to accept the text but to maintain a block on access on the more controversial chapters.
3 min read
Image of books on a library shelf.
iStock/Getty
Curriculum Florida School Board Rejects Sex Ed. Textbook Under Pressure
Critics said the material was not age appropriate for students in middle and high school.
2 min read
Image of books.
iStock/Getty
Curriculum 4 Ways States Are Exerting More Control Over Classroom Materials
States have limited power over what materials teachers use—but some are wielding influence anyway.
7 min read