Roots and Blossoms: Independent Study in Writing, 1997-2009

Posted on October 11, 2015

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A crate from The Archive, and Moe, my grand-dog.

Because the high school where I teach doesn’t offer any writing courses, for a number of years, whenever a student writer asked me about it or expressed interest in taking a writing class, I would offer to do an Independent Study with him or her–for free–during my planning period. Like most teachers do daily, I put my student’s needs before my own, and I took on extra work without pay, because I am a writer, and I understand the need to write, to learn, and to grow as a writer. I wanted to meet the needs of students whose needs were unmet. In return, I got to plant seeds that would grow beyond imagination. In recent years, our school has become an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School, and I teach 2 IB courses; the increased demands on my time from IB and other, district, mandates don’t allow me the time to do Independent Studies anymore, but I want to take a moment to reflect on the experiences I had when I was able to mentor individual writers in Independent Studies. I go to The Archive, where I have a portfolio from each Independent Study student I have mentored, and ask, “What happens when I mentor a writer in an Independent Study?”

25 students did an Independent Study (IS) in Writing between 1997 and 2009. Their reasons for doing so varied. Some were writers with no audience and no place to develop their skills. Many discovered a passion for writing in the multi-genre composition in ELA11 (a student-centered, place-based, project-based, workshop course).

Some were struggling academically or personally and used the IS to strengthen their writing and thinking skills for college and career. Writing is thinking. Because of the unique nature of the ELA11 class, students were allowed to select the topics and genres they wrote about, and many chose to practice the kinds of thinking they’d need in their desired college programs or careers, so some students wanted to continue on that path in the IS, writing genres and practicing the thinking required by that subject.

The requirements for the IS were the same for all students: select genres to study, read and analyze multiple examples of the genre, write the genre, create a portfolio, and reflect on the work. From simplicity came astounding complexity. From this tiny seed, the idea that students can learn and grow by pursuing their passions, a forest of deeply-rooted, broad-branched trees has grown and abides, bearing fruit in publications and classrooms, and nurturing new generations of writers.

As students moved on to college and career, their portfolios continued to grow. They’d send me poems, articles, novel chapters, college portfolios, literary magazines,

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Literary Magazine publications by Aimee Lewis, while an undergrad at CMUAs the years go by, student portfolios continue to grow; writers send me their publications, and I put them in their file: poems, articles, essays, non-fiction…

news articles, technical articles thesis projects…DSCN6663

personal statements for graduate school applications, poetry collections, novels, and college course syllabi.

Now there is The Digital Archive, where I store links to their publications, their websites, their videos, and their blogs. When I look at the body of work and the teachers and mentors who have come from this group of writers, I am breathless. A lump grows in my throat, and tears well up in my eyes. To see the fruits of my labor of mentoring writers fills my heart with joy and a deep, satisfying, sense of accomplishment–especially since it was done out of love: love of humanity and love of writing, and it was done for free.

“What happens when I mentor a writer in an Independent Study?”

First, we wrote up a syllabus. The writer decided which genres to study and we created a timeline of research, writing, and publishing. DSCN6654

Then, the writer read, wrote, conferred with me and other writers, revised, published, and reflected. I introduced writers to mentors: poets I knew from the Ann Arbor Poetry Slam scene, former students, college interns, members of the community who wrote and published–whoever I can convince to share their expertise with my budding writers–for free, since I had no budget for this project.

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Some writers wrote primarily for an audience of one, themselves, in an effort to improve their skills or sort out an issue.

by Erin Davis, 2005

by Erin Davis, 2005

Others wanted their voices heard and wrote for publication.

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David Kress, 1999

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Anne Henningfeld, 1997

One writer wanted to develop the ideas that had sprouted in my World Mythology course.

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Chelsey Hofflander, 2009

All of the writers created powerful and memorable pieces, far beyond the skill level and complexity of anything they’d ever written before. All the writers grew tremendously from the experience.They all made important discoveries about themselves, about what it means to be a writer, about what it means to be in a community of writers, and about what it means to be human.

Christine Hutchinson, 2006

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David Kress, 1999

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Caitlin Popa, 2006

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S.S. 2003

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All of our lives were changed by an experience that we will never forget.

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Lia Greenwell, 2007

For many of these writers, the Independent Study became the first step on the path of college and career. Among those writers who studied with me, there are poets, novelists, non-fiction writers, bloggers, and teachers. As they’ve journeyed, many of them continue to contribute to my understanding of writing, learning, and teaching.

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have worked with all of the IS writers I mentored when they were in high school, and I appreciate the ways that their work continues to inform my thinking about teaching writing. In addition, to those who continue to share their writing with me and who return to the classroom to share their expertise and mentor my current students, I can say only a deeply sincere, heart-felt THANK YOU. The gifts you give to the students who sit in the desks where you once sat are priceless treasures, seeds that may one day grow into a beautiful, blooming forest.

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