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  • Take heed, teachers

    By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
    Saturday, May 23rd, 2015
    Philippine Daily Inquirer

    It’s that time of the year when teachers are for the most part eager to start a new school year, hopefully all renewed and refreshed, building on and learning from the previous year’s successes and setbacks.

    Listening in on two authors mentoring young writers aged 7-10 and 11-17 at a recent “Wonder of Words” summer workshop in Fully Booked at BGC, organized by Where the Write Things Are, I came away inspired and with a list of teaching tips to pass on to the corps of 2015-16 classroom teachers. The two authors were tasked to explore new genres for the students to experiment with in their writing. The teaching techniques that they demonstrated were too valuable not to comment on, even if they were neither regular classroom teachers nor education graduates, and were not GURU-certified.

    Dean Francis Alfar is a fictionist, editor, and mad genius. He espouses speculative fiction and runs regular writing workshops on the genre for LitCritters. Saying that it is French in origin (which impressed the young writers), Dean introduced the word “genre” even to the 7- and 10-year-olds, so that it became a breeze for them to make it part of their vocabulary. He made them mimic his exaggerated pronunciation, urging them to say the word with a scratchy sensation in their throat—the correct way to say it.

    And how did he ever get them engaged with speculative fiction in a short two-hour span? The seasoned teacher that he is, with a bag of tricks, Dean made them do bite-size fiction—first with a mere three sentences and then a generous two more. They initially complained, especially realizing that it is harder to write briefly. That the students were laughing and writing was evidence that Dean had them in the palm of his hand. And because they trusted this teacher-figure standing before them, they allowed him to read their pieces out loud. Because Dean knows how important it is to “perform” as a teacher in order to make lessons more memorable, he read with flair and drama. In one instance, having been carried away, he read a piece in the wrong mood and tone; he quickly apologized and read it again, to do it justice.

    Another facilitator the classes were privileged to work with was Mabi David, poet, writer and editor of the High Chair group of poets. Mabi introduced the genre so painlessly that the young writers forgot how initially uncomfortable they were at the mere thought of trying to write it (no thanks to their literature teachers who must neither like nor understand poetry themselves because of the torturous way they teach it). And how could Mabi have failed when she used the foolproof way of introducing classic poetry to children, as outlined in Kenneth Koch’s 1973 classic, “Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?” She simply asked them to imagine talking to an animal, referring to William Blake’s “The Tyger,” or an inanimate object. You can ask it anything or tell it something it does not know, even using its special secret language, she said.

    Pushing the idea further, Mabi gave William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just to Say” as an example for the young writers to savor and to use as a model. They were asked to write lines of apologies, and to end with final lines saying they were really glad they did what they were supposedly apologizing for, to add a bit of irony.

    Poetry was truly demystified because as a young boy said when Mabi asked him to illustrate the verses he had written, “It is easier for me to write more poems than to do that.” And he quickly wrote six more.

    Mabi has conducted writing classes for public school students because she believes poetry should be more widely appreciated. Her only “formal” teaching was a semester at Ateneo de Manila, where she taught poetry in tandem with fellow poet Allan Popa. To her and to Dean, an ongoing conversation between teacher and students needs to be part of the learning environment. Mabi explained that the conversation must also be continuing among the students themselves, “so that the exchange of ideas is not stifled by the fear of making mistakes or saying the wrong things.” She added: “I think a great teacher acknowledges the fact that each student has his/her own way of thinking, and must willingly accommodate the different ways of thinking or points of view, so that each student is allowed to flourish.”

    Many winning factors were apparent in these two separate sessions: The two authors came with the intention to make each of the students (14 in one class, 19 in the other) succeed; they clearly enjoyed what they were doing; they knew exactly what they were going to teach and how they would achieve their goals; they gave specific directions.

    Dean Alfar and Mabi David have no classroom-teacher credentials on paper, but both were brimming with the passion (and the good humor) to pass on their love for words. And isn’t that what makes all the difference?

    Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( nenisrcruz@gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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