Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A celebration of words: Sharing the stage to read and listen to stories and ideas

I read from Calvin Trillin's The Tummy Trilogy
during the fifth annual WriterCoach Connection's
Read-and-Write-a-thon at Longfellow Middle School.

Last Saturday morning, I participated in the fifth annual WriterCoach Connection Read-and-Write-a-thon at Longfellow Middle School Library in Berkeley.

I had never participated in a read-a-thon and, honestly, didn't really know what to expect. Would I be nervous? Would I be confident? Would my voice project adequately? Would the audience warm to my literary selection?

During the 75 minutes I spent at the WriterCoach Connection Read-and-Write-a-thon, which began my activity-filled Saturday (and, later, would include stops at two busy grocery stores, plus an evening birthday/bowling party on the other side of the Bay), I was both humbled and amazed. There was much generosity from the dozen-or-so supporters in the library at the time I read, who focused on my every spoken word for the 15 minutes in which I commanded their attentiveness.

For those who were inspired and dropped in at the Longfellow Middle School Library-cum-literary café between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., they were greeted with a comfortable and inviting setting as well as a nice selection of good, healthy eats in which to enjoy an assortment of non-stop poetry (lots of Emily Dickinson), prose (Henry David Thoreau and David Halberstam), children's literature (Dr. Seuss) and fiction (Téa Obreht and Flann O'Brien, among many) ~ even a reading of Abraham Lincoln's famous speech "The Gettysburg Address." The Read-and-Write-a-Thon was spread over 10 consecutive hours as an ever-changing cast of writing coaches and students shared center stage (actually, it was a comfy sofa) to read and listen to stories and ideas that give life and light to our world.

When it was my turn to read at 9 a.m., I calmly walked up to the front of the spacious reading room, immediately made eye contact with the audience, and enthusiastically read about food and travel from The Tummy Trilogy by the American humorist Calvin Trillin, who through his books American Fried; Alice, Let's Eat; and Third Helpings, established himself as, in Craig Claiborne's phrase, "the Walt Whitman of American eats."

In the opening chapter from American Fried, "The Traveling Man's Burden," I read aloud Trillin's written words and tried to inject some of his wry humor with just the right amount of wit, sarcasm, and the occasional pause for dramatic effect:

"The best restaurants in the world are, of course, in Kansas City. (pause) Not all of them; (pause) only the top four or five."

The opening paragraph drew nice laughter from the audience. Immediately, I realized I had made a good literary choice, and the polite-but-hearty applause I received at the end of my reading made me feel good inside.  I flashed a big smile as I returned to the table my wife and I shared, and enjoyed some fresh strawberries and cheddar cheese. Afterwards, I learned that Trillin had been a past donor to the WCC Read-and-Write-a-thon.

Indeed, my first read-a-thon experience was a positive one.

That night, on the WCC website, there was high praise to go along with an impressive list of donors who contributed to the Read-and-Write-a-thon. "Everyone who attended agreed that this was the best Read-and-Write-a-thon ever! In addition to inspired 15-minute individual readings, highlights included a large group of student readings, a spirited game of team Literary Jeopardy, and a moving group reading of "The Laramie Project."

This year, I have been volunteering with the WriterCoach Connection (WCC) -- a program of the non-profit Community Alliance for Learning -- that helps students become more competent and confident writers. WCC does this by matching middle- and high-school kids with community volunteers -- like me -- for one-on-one coaching during their English classes.

The WCC now has more than 600 volunteer coaches, from all cultures and backgrounds -- parents, grandparents, working and retired people, and recent college graduates -- working in 10 San Francisco Bay Area public schools. I have been a volunteer at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley, where this year we've already held more than 2,200 individual coaching sessions.

My goal as a writing coach is simple and straight-forward, yet heartfelt: To help strengthen a student's writing skills and help them develop their ideas. And, through the use of positive encouragement and showing care, I believe I am making a difference in these students.

Some of my students have been easy to connect with while others have been shy and reserve in their demeanor. They include boys and girls, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, blacks and whites -- a microcosm of Berkeley's population. Sometimes, I sense discouragement when I sit down with a student. However, I try to convey hope and enthusiasm and, I always ask: "What can I help you with today?"

Volunteering as a writer coach has been a uniquely rewarding experience for me. I've enjoyed seeing my students become more critical thinkers and confident writers, and there's the satisfaction of giving them a quiet and positive space in their busy school day to thrive in. Of course, too, there's witnessing the gratitude of dedicated teachers whom we serve. It's an experience I look forward to repeating next school year.

As the current school term winds down, I sense that my students are becoming more confident in their abilities not to mention more competent in their writing and thinking skills.

After all, inside every student there is a writer.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to Volunteers like you it's what make a difference in our childrens education. Keep up the good work :) ~A.S ~