A regular Source feature, Undercurrents slips below the surface of Virgin Islands daily routines and assumptions to explore in greater depth the beauty, the mystery, the murky and the disregarded familiar. It is our bid to get to know the community more deeply.
Heads bowed over desks, pens in hand, they write. The room is so quiet you can almost hear thoughts moving through minds, pushing themselves out onto paper.
Ten minutes and it’s time to share. One by one the authors read their work, some in shy voices, some with confidence, some adding humorous asides, all in earnest.
The “quickwrite” exercise is familiar to many teachers who have used it to get students to focus on an idea or an emotion or an event. What’s a little different this summer day is that the writers sitting in the classroom and striving to create memorable prose are teachers.
Nine of them (plus three facilitators) have gathered on the St. Thomas campus of the University of the Virgin Islands for a four-week summer institute called the Virgin Islands Writing Project. Another 17 are meeting on the St. Croix campus.
This is the 10th year that the territory’s Education Department has coordinated with UVI to present the institute, in affiliation with the National Writing Project. It’s an intense program aimed at improving and expanding the classroom teacher’s ability to teach writing – not just in English classes, but in all types of courses, and at all grade levels, from first grade through high school.
The premise is that writing is not only a communication tool; it is also a way to develop critical thinking.
Teachers applying to join the program must submit recommendations from their supervisors and go through an interview process. Generally anyone who is interested is accepted, said Dr. Valerie Combie, Writing Project director. There is no charge.
Some participants have come because they like to write. Some have come because they don’t like to write – but they see the value in knowing how.
Improving his writing skills is liberating for Laughton Brandy, who teaches economics and finance. “I’m looking for freedom because I’m intimidated by writing,” he said.
“I can’t write,” said Sergio Calderon, who teaches algebra and geometry and is attending the St. Thomas sessions. “Math teachers aren’t exposed to writing,” he said, so “having students write about math is an issue.”
But Calderon has got some ideas about coping with that issue. He can ask his students to take on the role of being a mathematical symbol or a geometric shape, and then describe what it means to be a variable, or a square or a rectangle.
To illustrate, he pointed to another participant, and said “You may say, ‘I’m a square and I have four sides and four angles,’ but I’m a rectangle, and I have four sides and four angles, so the students have to explain the difference. They have to express it in writing.”
Rose-Clare Charles-King has found a way to get her social studies students to write, to stretch their imaginations and to deepen their understanding of history all at the same time. She plans to give them famous quotes from historical figures and ask them to respond to the quotes in a “quickwrite” exercise.
Gerda Morales, who teaches speech, described herself as a “talker” and a “reader” but not a writer. She said she recognizes that her students need to be able to write. “I need them to be able to switch” from talking to writing.
It’s never too early to start, according to Eugenie Fontaine, who teaches first grade. “If we develop the joy of writing at an early age, they will grow with that,” she said.
Carol Liles, a retired teacher who now works with first-graders as a grandparent volunteer, concurs. “They need to know they can express themselves and that what they say matters,” she said. “Creative writing is an important tool for them to express themselves and become thinkers.”
Annette Yimbia, who teachers French, said she signed up for the institute because a friend attended it last summer and recommended it.
Gerda Morales joked that she joined because “Ms. Cooper wouldn’t leave me alone.” That’s Fenella Cooper, the co-director and the primary facilitator for the St. Thomas group.
“I fought it for years,” said Mary Langley Edwards, who likes to use her time away from teaching for her own creative writing and questioned the loss of precious time. “My summer doing this?” she said she asked herself. But finally she gave in, and she found that she did more writing that summer than she ever had before. So this year she’s back as a facilitator.
“Everybody in here has come up with some beautiful things,” Langley Edwards said.
Cooper said the group started off with its members a bit unsure of one another but gradually they began to open up. “They are relaxed with each other now.”
Cooper attended her first institute in 2002. She’s penned a theme song that ends: “Participate in the VIWP. It made a writer out of me.”