…To Change the World
Taught by Tang fellows Lou Bernieri and Monique Cueto-Potts, Writing and Teaching to Change the World is a new senior elective that gives Andover students the opportunity to serve as writing mentors to 150 second-graders in Lawrence, Mass. The following article about the course originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Andover magazine.
New Seminar Combines Writing, Community Engagement, and Inspiration
by Alessandra Bianchi
There’s snow on the ground and the temperature hovers in the 20s, but the atmosphere inside Room 109 couldn’t be warmer this January afternoon. Sunshine streams through the windows lighting up the 25 elementary school students sitting snugly in a circle, clasping clipboards, and at alternating decibels, sharing their thoughts.
“I feel frozen and joyful.”
“I feel amazed.”
“I feel wind in my face.”
“I hear at night some grasshoppers and my baby sister sing a song.”
With each statement, a fluttering of congratulatory finger-snapping ricochets around the room—an act that makes the students smile, for the gesture feels more genuine and pleasingly illicit than standard applause.
The students in Room 109, who are cheerfully writing, sharing, and snapping, are second-graders at South Lawrence East, where Andover students work each week as writing mentors with 150 children. The high school students are part of English 501AB Writing and Teaching to Change the World, a new senior elective taught by Tang fellows Louis Bernieri, longtime PA English instructor and Andover Bread Loaf outreach program founder, and Monique Cueto-Potts, Office of Community Engagement (OCE) director. Novel in format, the course is a collaboration among PA’s Department of English, OCE, the Lawrence Public Schools, and other Lawrence community organizations.
Precisely 12 minutes earlier, as he does each week, Bernieri had given the young Lawrence students a writing prompt. Today’s was, “In the winter time in Lawrence, I see ____ and I see________. I hear ___ and I hear _____. I feel ______.” The PA students in the room knew this prompt was inspired by Walt Whitman, the “grandfather of spoken poetry.” Just a few days prior, in Bulfinch Hall, they had completed a similar shadow writing exercise imitating Whitman’s style:
“I hear the mad scratching of graphite on the thin lined paper.”
“I see the spare look of the farmer as he hopes to keep his crops alive.”
“I see banana pancakes in my near future.”
PA students have found Writing and Teaching to Change the World to be an exciting and challenging departure from their typical classes.
“On the first day of class, we participated in a writing workshop,” recalls Lily Augus ’16. “I’ve learned the importance of sharing work, of getting feedback from peers, and of embracing my raw written work, knowing that there is always room for improvement. Mr. Bernieri and Ms. Cueto-Potts have high expectations but without high pressure.”
The logistics of meeting weekly in Lawrence brings its own challenges such as bus transportation and photo releases for each youngster. However, the purpose of the course—to build an educational bridge between these two communities—far outweighs the difficulties and brings numerous benefits to kids in Lawrence and Andover alike. PA students hone their writing skills, learn about educational theory and practice, and have the opportunity to share this knowledge—in an age-appropriate manner—with the second graders in Lawrence.
“There’s an educational and environmental divide in America now,” says Bernieri “This course enables both the Phillips and Lawrence kids to see that deep down, they are not much different from one another.”
Bernieri attributes his lifelong interest in urban education to growing up in an immigrant community in Brooklyn, N.Y. Similarly, Cueto-Potts has focused her professional life on issues of educational equity and social justice. A former public school teacher in New York City and Lynn, Mass., she now relishes helping PA students figure out the roles that community engagement and activism will play throughout their lives.
Lawrence second-grade veteran teacher Kathleen Loughlin, who has collaborated on community writing programs with Bernieri for more than 25 years, says this class allows her students “to use their own ideas, to have a voice in their writing and to not be afraid. The benefits carry over to their other work. They’re much more ready and confident,” she says.
On this January afternoon, as if on cue, one of the second-graders illustrates the teacher’s point magnificently. Dressed in a silver glittery T-shirt, navy skirt, and a bright lavender sweater cinched at her waist, 8-year-old Arianni boldly reads aloud her writing for the day. Her last line concludes: “I feel free to be unique.”
Alessandra Bianchi is a lifelong learner and writer based in Marblehead, Mass. Photo credits: Gil Talbot.