As readers of this blog know, I have long been a faculty member at Middlebury College’s famed Bread Loaf School of English, a MA program in English (language, literature, writing, rhetoric) aimed primarily at high school teachers. Over the decades, it’s been a huge privilege to work with teachers from all over the country (and some from beyond our shores), and especially to be associated with the Bread Loaf Teachers’ Network (BLTN), launched 25 years ago by the inimitable Dixie Goswami. I believe this is the first electronic teacher network, and it works to support teachers and their students, to provide resources, to encourage research and publication, and to hold meetings at the state and local level.
In turn, BLTN helped to launch the Next Generation Leadership Network, made up of middle and high school students at various sites around the country (I wrote about this exciting initiative in The Next Generation Leadership Network). One of these sites is on the Navajo Nation, and in late March, with funding from the Ford Foundation, Rex Lee Jim, Ceci Lewis, and their colleagues hosted the Hazhó’ó Hólne’ writing conference in Window Rock, AZ. (As Rex explained to me, the Navajo title translates to something like careful, purposeful, intentional, and beautifully crafted talk.) The conference’s subtitle, “Food for the Body, Mind, and Spirit: Creative Juices for Creative Expressions,” described the conference well: for two and a half days, we wrote, talked, sang, chanted, and performed. I came away exhilarated, instructed, and humbled (as I so often am) by the wisdom and grace of these young people.
In addition to the Navajo Nation group, students (and teachers) came from Atlanta, Georgia; Middlebury, Vermont; Louisville, Kentucky; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and Aiken, South Carolina. All were fiercely and passionately engaged; all were articulate; all were highly aware of the needs of their own communities—and all had plans for how to meet those needs. During our time together, we did workshops on graphic design, on writing effective op-ed pieces, on poetry, on blogging, on food metaphors and their meanings, on the crucial importance of water, on nature writing, on performance, and on the “lost art” of letter writing (students brainstormed about very important letters, including MLK’s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Phyllis Wheatley’s letter to George Washington, Paul’s Epistles, the Declaration of Independence, and the human letter of Henry “Box” Brown, who literally mailed himself to freedom in a wooden crate). We also listened to and explored traditional Navajo stories, songs, and prayers, presented by Rex Lee Jim.
Outside of our sessions, we talked together about environmental and social issues, such as the need to substitute water for sugary sodas, the need to plant and maintain gardens of fresh vegetables and fruit, and the need to act locally to elect officials responsive to such needs. As we concluded, everyone wrote a brief paragraph about what each had gained/learned during the weekend. Reading these when I got home not only brought the conference back to the center of my attention; it also electrified me, filled me with hope for a future led by these brilliant, engaged, and wise young people.
And that’s really the greatest gift of teaching in general and teaching writing in particular: working with and learning from brilliant, engaged, and wise young people.
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