In 2013, when I started my English teaching career at Deltona High School in Deltona, Florida, it didn’t surprise me that many of my students didn’t like to write. The vast majority of writing done in school—and thus, in students’ lives—is in an academic format such as essays with clear introductions, supporting paragraphs with cited evidence, and summary conclusions. The writing is graded on technical aspects which are ineffectively assessed on standardized tests, rather than on creativity which allows students to express their unique voices in ways that showcase their individual strengths and views.
Why would there be such a strong emphasis on reading and writing in school, and yet such a widespread and pervasive neglect of honing a student’s individuality and unique perspective through self-expression? Perhaps we have become so caught up with standardized testing, common rubrics, prescribed curricula, and formulaic learning that we have forgotten one major factor in learning how to read and write: motivation!
In my class, there was an ignored population of the student body. These students were capable of growing, they actually wanted to learn how to write better, and they wanted to fully appreciate the literary nuances and skills of the writers they loved…while discovering new writers they didn’t even know existed. This, I soon discovered, was common throughout the school.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Given my background in the field (a B.A. in Creative Writing, stints with various literary magazines, editor-in-chief of my own literary magazine, Splash of Red, and a published poet and writer), I decided to extend my educational reach into the extracurricular. As a result, the student-led, teacher-guided, administration-supported literary magazine, Howl, was born.
It started when I discovered that my students wanted to express themselves in their writing and feel like real members of a literary community. This led to teachers wanting their students to write and edit more. With standardized testing and college-ready essays to write, teachers were desperate to get their students to buy-in to reading and writing for fun. This, in turn, got administrators excited about promoting and supporting the abilities and skills of their students and faculty. The administrators wanted to shift the narrative from “look at these statistics” to “look at what we offer our students, and what they are capable of doing.” This sudden shift was organic as a byproduct of what was happening at the grassroots level in the classroom.
As an initial step, students formed the after-school literary magazine club, Howl, which met every Thursday. I was their adviser, and that’s exactly what I did: advise. The students led with what they wanted to do. They could brainstorm, write, share, and edit their work in a close, safe, community of like-minded student-writers. With this zeal and dedication mounting in the second year, the school asked me to teach Creative Writing, an actual elective offered in the curriculum for credit.
The local readership and work became virtual when the website, DeltonaHowl.com, was born in 2014. It was cost-effective, easily accessed anywhere, and allowed us to do fun and creative things not possible through print alone. Not only did the students publish their work on the website, but they also created a print version of the website’s publications at the end of each school year. Then, to take their editing skills one giant step forward, they began accepting submissions in poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and art from around the world…and the submissions came pouring in. The students got to critique and publish work from the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Asia.
And then there were the interviews! I wanted to use my creativity and expertise to support my students by reaching out to writers my students were interested in interviewing or writers I thought they could learn from. To date, my students have interviewed 19 Pulitzer Prize winners, six former U.S. Poets Laureate, and one Nobel Laureate in Literature. They conducted Maya Angelou’s last recorded interview which is now in the permanent archives of the Library of Congress. Students began giving me names of writers they admired, I’d find them, and they’d interview them.
But we also needed to garner local support. Cue: the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. The ACA agreed to host creative writing field trips twice a year for my students on Saturdays of our choosing. Located on acres of beautiful nature preserve along a marshy bay, these architecturally unique facilities jutting out of the landscape served as the perfect backdrop to inspire the students’ muses. Poetry reflecting the natural setting with metaphors and imagery bled from the students’ pens. The silence that enveloped them allowed my students to converse with their inner voices.
The ACA also puts together an annual 2-week summer residency for students from around the country called Your Word. Three master writers are flown in to teach the students about the art of writing fiction and poetry. The students live on-site and are totally immersed in the experience. Because I was able to create an event called the Writer’s Roundtable, in which the students Skype with writers from around the world, the ACA agreed to form a scholarship so that one Deltona High student could attend the residency. The students, who normally wouldn’t be able to afford such an opportunity, compete in a writing competition to earn the scholarship. As of now, four Deltona High students have attended Your Word during the past few summers.
Also, my students have participated for two years in live poetry readings at The Casements in Ormond Beach, FL—former home of John D. Rockefeller. This is the site of the annual National Poetry Month Festival. My students stand before an audience and read their own original work. For some, this is the first time publicly reading their work. It builds a new sense of pride and confidence in them
Some of the parents have shared with me that it was the first time they had heard their children read their own poems. It’s a heartwarming experience, and time slots are reserved for my students each year. While on stage, they never forget to promote the great work they’re doing for Howl.
My students have been written up numerous times in local newspapers such as The Hometown News for their creative passion and amazing feats.
But the students were also committed to giving back. They created the Pay It Forward Campaign where they raised money to fund literary arts projects in Florida elementary and middle schools. The fundraisers included selling autographed books donated by acclaimed writers and selling copies of the print edition of Howl.
The funded projects included:
Starke Elementary in DeLand, FL needed money to purchase “The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom” by Christopher Healy for their students. Not only did my students raise and donate the money to the school, but they also managed to arrange for the author, Mr. Healy, to Skype in and speak with the students about writing, reading, and creating your own worlds through story-telling and literature.
The students raised money for Flamingo Elementary School’s Poetry For Passion Project. One of the teachers wanted to teach her students to love poetry, and she also wanted to use kid-friendly books to encourage her students to read. Of course, in typical Howl fashion, the students not only purchased and donated requested books, but they also arranged for one of the authors to visit the school to talk with the students.
Silver Sands Middle School students wanted to create their own student literary magazine similar to ours. My students raised the money they needed to start up the project, and then they offered advice to the future writers and editors. It was wonderful for them to teach and encourage a whole new generation to love the literary arts.
When the Florida Literary Arts Coalition reached out and wanted to work with Howl, my students jumped at the opportunity and created a free, public event in Saint Augustine, FL where the film Big Fish by Tim Burton was showing, followed by a live Skype with the author of the novel, Daniel Wallace. It was a very unique and memorable evening. Guests felt the literature come alive and noted how wonderful it felt to not only speak with an acclaimed author, but also be heard by one through their questions and comments.
Howl even became the first and only high school literary magazine accepted for official membership in the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses. It has been an amazing ride for my students and me. Each year, there are more students participating, ready and excited to stamp their own unique personality on the club.
At the beginning of last school year, there was a Kick-Off with workshops for all secondary English teachers in the district. I was asked to give a keynote speech for my 400+ colleagues, after teaching for only two years at the high school level. The theme of this speech was not to be a teacher with the goal of being altruistic and selfless because you’ll burn out; rather, teach your passion—heart and soul—and the altruism and selflessness will come naturally as a byproduct. If you love math because it surrounds us in our everyday lives, have your students embrace the geometry of their own homes. If you love science because of its ability to affect social change, ask your students how climate change might impact childhood education in sub-Saharan Africa.
My passion: the literary arts and how it can move me, change me, and direct me like a leaf on the current of a stream. And so I made my passion my reason for coming to school, and it spread to my students. It motivates me, it gets me excited for tomorrow, and it pushes me as an educator. And it’s contagious. I saw it spread to my colleagues and administrators. There’s something palpable and real in genuine curiosity and fervor. When others see someone doing what he loves because he loves it, it reminds them to do the same.