Inviting Writers by Brett Vogelsinger
It’s no great revelation to readers of this blog that contact with writers — be it via Twitter, Skype or an author’s visit — inspires our students. When writer’s “break through” the barrier of the pages they write and become living, breathing people to our kids, suddenly it’s easier for our students to see themselves as writers and understand the beautiful and human connection words can form between a writer and each individual reader who turns the pages.
What I have learned more recently, and more personally, is that contact with writers can add to my own energy and enthusiasm and wanderlust as a reader and writer. I am a better teacher because of the writers I have invited into my classroom life.
When I first read Elizabeth LaBan’s book The Tragedy Paper several years ago, I was thrilled to see on the jacket that she lives in Philadelphia, less than an hour from my school, and in short order we corresponded via email and arranged an author’s visit. Elizabeth is a gracious and generous author, and the kids enjoyed her book so much that by the next year it was on our list of recommended summer reading novels.
But lightning really struck a year later when I reached out to Elizabeth via a friendly email to find out what project she was working on next. She sent me a confidential first draft of the opening chapter to her next book along with a second draft, drastically different. She didn’t explain much about her process, other than to say that she needed to get the ideas in the first draft out before writing the second more action-heavy opener for the novel.
This was a lesson I was excited to bring to my students! “Let’s look at an unpublished manuscript from a writer — with numbered copies that can’t leave the classroom since this book is still in the works — and investigate what changes occurred in her revision and why they may have changed.” While this intrigued my students, it intrigued me.
Since this glimpse behind the curtain, I read openings of books differently, imagining, in the end, where the author may have teased the opening images from and what the first draft could have sounded like. When Harper Lee released Go Set a Watchman last year, this experience with Elizabeth LaBan informed my reading of Atticus Finch’s character. Of course he was different than he was in Mockingbird, for I was reading a fictional character in a first draft. Authors are allowed to, and often do, scrap big elements of their narrative in the quest for a better revision. I saw it for myself in LaBan’s manuscript. As a reader, I am grateful authors do this, and as a writer I am fascinated with insights I can get into that process.
I have written on other blogs about my daily poetry routine — “The Poem of the Day.” I never let my list of poems stagnate, and I have often found that when we read contemporary poems, the poets who write them are incredibly genial and easy to contact via email or Twitter. When we encounter a cryptic poem, it is often fun to share our varied interpretations and see whether the poet cares to confirm, deny, or challenge any of our idea as readers.
One poet from Ireland, Sean Hewitt, has become a correspondent with my classes. He was cryptic and hesitant when it came to interpreting his own work, but he shared more of his poems with us, emailing us a few poems published days earlier in the UK but unavailable in the USA. Of course I hyped this with the kids — “We are the first readers of these two poems on this continent! What a treat!” — but as a reader, no hype was required. It was genuinely exciting to be handed poetry that fresh, all because we had communicated with a friendly poet who was kind to our class. We ended up recording several students’ oral interpretations of the poems to email back by the end of the day, and Sean replied with accolades for the students.
The writers that have entered the world of my school — Todd Strasser, Josh Berk, Rick Riordan, Tiffany Schmidt — create a mosaic of methods and insights about writing that help me to teach better. More than that, they inspire me to be a more avid and curious reader, and when I can bring more of that into my life, I have even more to give my students.
Brett Vogelsinger teaches ninth-grade English at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. He also serves as literary magazine advisor and enthusiastic advocate for classroom libraries, giving students time to read, and “Poem of the Day” in English class.