In most L.A. public schools, it's unlikely that Jaime Lee Webb would be reading aloud an eloquent meditation on her big toe. But that's just what the Palisades High student is doing, much to the amusement of her peers, many of whom are sharing their own written reflections on subjects ranging from young love to alienation to childhood memories.
This miniature wordfest is the culmination of PEN in the Classroom. Sponsored by the West Coast chapter of PEN, an international literary organization, the program helps students tap their inner scribe by placing local writers in L.A. high schools. Since debuting in 1995, PEN in the Classroom has brought its 10-week sessions to nearly 20 campuses, offering the talents of such writers as Pulitzer Prize nominee Michael C. Ford, acclaimed poet and author Michelle Serros and detective novelist Gary Phillipe, among others. Today, noted playwright Jose Rivera begins leading a course at Marshall High.
To spark students' interest, many of the participating writers read excerpts from their work and that of famous authors and poets. But the emphasis of the program is getting kids to express their own thoughts on the page.
"I want them to leave with a sense of the accessibility of writing as a creative tool that's available to them," says essayist and short story writer Sarah Jacobus, who led the Palisades High session this year. "I grew up being taught that writing isn't much fun. I want them to get some joy in writing."
At the same time, Jacobus also strives to teach students that writing is a craft that develops over time, and that certain techniques can help them overcome obstacles. "Whenever I couldn't think of anything, she would make us write about experiences we had in life," says Brian Verdun, whose PEN in the Classroom experience has encouraged him to compose original raps. "I never wrote in that much detail before. She always pushes you."
Thrown into an environment where reading and writing skills are affected by complex social and economic factors, PEN's writer-instructors not surprisingly report varying results. Screenwriter-novelist Diana Wagman, for example, who led the session at Manual Arts High, watched the focus of her multimedia project shift from writing to the visual component. Ford, on the other hand, found that his Santa Monica High students had a natural affinity for written expression.
"I never had the slightest feeling that they were operating with some kind of a handicap," he says. "They seemed to be really free and really open."
In the case of poet Jeffrey McDaniel's class at Electronic Information Magnet, students felt so confident that they took on a group of published writers in a poetry slam at Beyond Baroque, a literary venue in Venice. This was followed by a road trip to Albuquerque, where they competed in a national poetry slam.
Lili Barshaw, coordinator of PEN in the Classroom, doesn't expect the program to inspire such enthusiasm in every student. But part of the goal, she says, is to show teenagers that writing is something within their grasp.
"[The writers] are providing role models. I know that's a catchy phrase right now, but if you're a student who has never gone beyond your neighborhood and someone steps into the classroom who's a professional writer, it's a way to say, 'Someone who looks like me is able to make a career as a writer,' whereas that might not be evident."
Ultimately, PEN in the Classroom may or may not play a role in nurturing the next Alice Walker. But that's not the point, Rivera says.
"Whether or not they are gifted as writers is irrelevant. It's sort of like the barest drop of water will make a plant better. I think the barest amount of attention will unlock a child's creativity."