Over the past ten years Heather and I have collaborated on many projects together. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have a colleague and best friend who shares my educational philosophy. We try to bring opportunities to our students that we would have loved to experience in high school. We both believe it is important to empower our students to find their voices and we are always trying to find ways to publish and celebrate our students’ insight and wisdom.
This year at Gwinn High School we have been blessed with AmeriCorps volunteer extraordinaire Matt Maki who made our dream of having a student writing retreat come to life. Not only did he orchestrate an amazing calendar fundraiser that features the writing and artwork of my creative writing students but he also organized an overnight writing retreat. On May 6, 2011 we were able to bring a talented group of young writers to the Joy Center in Ishpeming, Michigan to dream, reflect and create. Heather’s student teacher Christy Sener joined us and helped chaperone the event.
It was a magical experience to watch the students delight in creativity and to write outside of the confines of a classroom. Matt led us in a dancing workshop he leads weekly at the Joy Center called eMotion and the activity helped us connect with our inner artist. After eMotion I gave everyone a stone that my mom and I had collected this fall at the Mackinac Bridge. This stone became an anchor for the retreat as we each wrote a word on our rock’s surface.
In the next twenty-four hours we feasted on both words and food. A vast taco bar fueled our creativity and after dinner Matt demonstrated to us how to make beautiful handmade chapbooks to house our writing. For this activity he provided us with gorgeous papers and an abundance of collage materials and we laughed and worked on until early morning hours. In the morning the students made us French toast while I blended up green smoothies out of spinach, bananas, strawberries and pineapple for everyone to sample. We spent the morning experimenting with different poetry forms and the afternoon consisted of a collaborative writing activity. In spite of our exhaustion, we didn’t want the retreat to end. We are hoping to hold another creative writing retreat in June. I can hardly wait!
I thought that the best way to encapsulate the spirit of the experience was to share student reflections. Here are two pieces that were composed by senior Amber LaFavre and sophomore Alex Pastor:
“Is this really it?”
They were the first words out of my mouth as I swung my car into the looping driveway of the Joy Center. For a few precious moments, I and some students I had carpooled with simply sat there and stared, jaws slack. I had been expecting a building with cold concrete walls, not a warm little house framed by a sea of trees just birthed by spring.
Abandoning my shoes at the door, I was given a tour of the house, each room stealing more of my breath. In a building with no furniture, I still managed to feel relaxed. I dipped onto the chilly back porch and with the Joy Center inviting at my back, I felt poetry in my chest. It’s weird, trying to describe that sensation, especially since before the start of this school year, I never considered myself a poet. But in a place like this oasis of peace tucked into a chaotic world, I find it hard not to express thoughts into soft, fragile poems.
Mr. Maki told us as we gathered into the big room on the first floor that we couldn’t speak for an hour – and we had to dance. The whole time. He told us to feel the elements, to listen to the way our body wanted to move and obey it. Water was awkward, earth was beaten, fire made my tired muscles burn with satisfaction, air suddenly tasted so different in my lungs, and spirit almost made me cry.
The words that flooded out of my fingers came strangely easily. There was no homework
to worry about here, or tests to study for, a room to clean, chores to do – it was just a room full of souls yearning to be heard on paper. It’s strange how we think of walls as barriers, but the sunset streaked walls of the Joy Center were more like backs to lean on as we wept words. The house never complained.
I don’t know if I can accurately capture the experience yet. For me, it hasn’t ended, not until I drive reluctantly away from an unlikely home. Even when it’s over, and the trees shield the Joy Center from my rear view mirror, it won’t keep me from reflecting. I’ll roll my hand outside my window and dance with the elements again.
Maybe I was expecting something refined or “business like,” but I never, in my wildest dreams thought I’d pull up to the secluded Joy Center and immediately have my breath taken away. The silk sheets hanging from the Heaven bound ceilings were
mesmerizing. Heads upturned to take in the changing colours, laughter, open space, it all made you feel very at peace and, in a sense, silly. We all hugged and explored the beautiful home. The artwork strung from the walls gave the place a very mystical feeling. You wanted to be creative, make art, write gorgeous words on ugly paper. But here, nothing was ugly. Most of us gandered downstairs where a fire was burning, like the powerful ideas we all had waiting inside. As we began the eMotion activity a lot of us were nervous; “No talking for a whole hour?” But as we started and music filled the room our bodies broke free of our minds. We didn’t think of what others were doing, we only thought of Water, Earth, Fire, Air and Spirit. Laughs again jumped from mouths, arms flowed with water, legs pounded the Earth, hair shook like fire, lungs housed air and souls took in spirit. By the end I felt like I had just climbed Mount Everest.
We got in a circle on the floor and I thought of the Knights of the Round Table. A basket of lake kissed rocks made its way around and we were told to write a word take described our week on it. Words such as fly, whole, chaos, and strong were scribbled into stone and we wrote poetry about our word. Everyone scattered and made stunning art with words.
Collages began filling homemade journals as the night led on and students and teachers made their own adventures throughout the joyous Joy Center. We all belonged to this secret memory box; we all felt close and happy. The fire lulled some to sleep while others stayed up and tore images and words from National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines.
Eventually all of us writers made our way upstairs to lay on our makeshift beds. Sleeping minds soared as I laid awake listening to the silence. But soon I was breathing with everyone else, dreams making their way through the gypsy wallpaper and falling into vases of hope.
As puffy eyes opened I swear I could see a dream slipping through the air and then it was gone. Food and green smoothies filled our stomachs and again, we wrote. Letters fell out of mouths as us knights share our pieces. And now as I’m sitting here writing I can hear pages being turned, paper tearing, glue sticks hitting artwork, and my paintbrush pen jotting down my reflection of this glorious weekend. Maybe it wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was so much more than what I could have hoped for.