Professors, teaching artists, graduate teaching fellows and community supporters connected with 98 students for the third Writing Our Lives conference held Nov. 3 at Nottingham High School.
Students were led into 16 writing sessions ranging in topics from political-writing and academic writing to poetry, self-reflection and graphic novels.
“What a great opportunity to have [the students] here to just write for a purpose,” said volunteer and Syracuse University graduate student Cailey Underhill.
The conference is coordinated by Dr. Marcelle Haddix from SU’s School of Education as a response to parents whoa re concerned about their students’ reading and writing abilities.
Haddix, by connecting volunteers, artists and students, began the writing conference in 2009. The conference has grown to about twice this year’s attendance in the past. Volunteers and students at the university stepped in to fill workshops and taught how academic writing and free writing were equally important.
“The pressures put on me are over-whelming. I have a lot of people behind me, but I haven’t seen my soon-to-be success yet,” recited Jaleel, a student in the “Boys, Beats, Rhymes and Self-Reflection” workshop.
Facilitators Tanaya Thomas Edwards and Ernest Daily played progressive Hip Hop music in the background while they used Hip Hop literature to instruct students about writing their personal narratives in rhythm and rhyme.
“Write about your stories and what’s going on in your world,” Edwards said.
Sharon Dotger, a professor from SU’s Teaching and Leadership program, spoke with other student-facilitators and said as an academic writer, she once struggled with listening to her inner voice and found that others did as well.
Students in A. Wendy Nastasi’s community activism writing session merged both personal narratives and academic writing for the purpose of activism through group letter-writing projects.
Nastasi encouraged one student, Nahja Mathis, ninth-grader at Nottingham, to not be afraid to “own it” when describing the exclusion of white students from cultural clubs at her group-mates school of Jamesville Dewitt.
“It’s important to ‘own it,’” she said as students ruminated over how to describe and resolve difficult and controversial topics like racial inequality in schools and lack of choice in new healthy meal plans.
Dahabo Farah, 15, from Nottingham High School participated in a memorization and performance workshop with regional slam poet Michael Gaut.
“I already used to go to poetry slams and write, but I learned about emotions when you’re up there. Emotions are really what help people feel you,” she said.
Poets from Verbal Blend and Nu Rho Poetic Society from SU and The Underground Poetry Spot, an open mic venue in Syracuse, also echoed the value and theme of writing to change or strengthen communities and youth.
Students ended their sessions with a free lunch, notebooks and poetry performances.
“I enjoyed hearing everyone here,” said Tulpen Hansen-Schwoebel, 15, from Fayetteville-Manlius High School, who enjoyed discovering the writing conference through her mother. “We wrote and talked about issues I never really thought about. It’s different — the community and the people. I wish we could have had more time.”
— Article and photos by Ruthnie Angrand