Writers Teach, Teachers Write
Over 15 days, I traveled throughout the southern part of Nepal (“I went down,” I tell my friends in the United States, who expect to hear stories of the Himalayas), working with teachers and students – writers – who were looking for ways to incorporate creative writing into their English language classrooms. At the invitation of the U.S. Embassy, and hosted throughout by NELTA representatives in Kathmandu, Birgunj, and Kawasoti, my short trip will stay with me well after my return.
Before every workshop I ran, before the talk I gave in Birgunj, I asked participants a simple question: “How many of you are writers?” Sometimes, nobody raised a hand; occasionally, some raised a tentative hand, nervous about claiming the title of writer but unwilling to say that they weren’t. That question introduced the simple idea at the heart of all the workshops and conversations I had in Nepal: If you are not a writer, you are not qualified to teach writing. How can you teach guitar, if you can’t play guitar? How can you teach volleyball, if you don’t play volleyball? Of course you cannot, or at least you cannot do it very well.
And so, in all the places I traveled, we wrote. We wrote stories, and memoirs, and poems, haikus and slam poetry and fables. I heard stories about family members who sacrificed for their children, poems full of frustration at the current politics of Nepal, diatribes against the bandh. The writings were by turns funny, beautiful, sweet, angry. And we shared the writing, reading aloud, sometimes laughing, sometimes tearing up, sometimes feeling the anger and frustration, always supportive and always curious about what each participant had to say and wanted to explore.
In the process, I hope that the participants began to understand how to think like a writer. Writers know a few things about writing that non-writers don’t usually understand. Perhaps most importantly, writers understand that the rules provided in textbooks and in official curricula are usually too simple and often are just wrong. Some writers use an outline when they write, but most don’t. Some writers create texts with only five paragraphs, but most don’t. Some writers have a topic sentence at the front of every paragraph, but most don’t. Teachers who write as well as teach writing are better able to help other writers find things to write about and support them as they create a text, not by giving them strict rules, but by offering knowledgeable support.
All writers know that writing is hard, that becoming a more proficient writer requires regular practice, that even people who write for a living struggle with openings and agonize through several drafts to reach a level of satisfaction with their work. All writers know that at some point, they have to share their work with an audience, that their main job is to connect with that audience, and that all the questions they have about style and structure matter not because they are “rules for writing” but because style and structure are the ways the ideas of a writer become accessible for that audience. All writers know that the work of learning to write never stops, that a piece of writing can always improve, that writers need support and encouragement as much as they need criticism and commentary.
By the end of the workshops I ran, by the end of my trip, more people raised their hands when I asked “Who here is a writer?” I hope that even more would raise their hands now. Being a writer, identifying as a writer, requires only that a person write, commit on a regular basis to the work of sitting with a piece of paper or in front of a computer screen and filling it with words, with language. I hope that these newly identified writers in Nepal experience the joy of discovery, of writing something they didn’t know they thought, of surprising themselves with a beautiful image or important idea or funny description. And I hope they share their writing with other writers and inspire them as well with their ideas.
Mostly, I hope these new writers – these writers who teach writing – use their experiences as writers to help their students engage with the task of writing and reading. I hope all the writers who are also teachers of the English language in Nepal will harness the creative power of their students to inspire each other and embrace the joy of creation, to write texts they care deeply about and want to share with other students.
Like teachers all over the world, teachers in Nepal must follow official curricula, must prepare students for tests required by the government. Like teachers everywhere, teachers in Nepal sometimes become frustrated by these requirements because they do not allow enough freedom for teachers. I hope that by joining with other teachers, by learning the power of creative writing, of helping students learn language – any language – by helping them become excited about what they have to say, teachers in Nepal can start to have more voice in shaping a curriculum they are excited to teach!
I end this piece with a poem I wrote during a workshop at the NELTA headquarters in Kathmandu, with a group of teachers and students who walked as much as 12 kilometers over the course of a 2-day bandh, to participate. I dedicate this poem to them, and to all the other participants I met in Birgunj and Kawasoti, who inspired and excited me to do my best teaching, who took my challenge to become writers, who I hope I will see again. It’s dedicated to all the people at NELTA who made my trip so wonderful and engaging. I hope I have a chance to meet some of you again. I promise I will never forget you!
Whose language is this, English?
Can I call it mine,
this language of my childhood stories,
my mother’s soothing,
my father’s rebukes,
my brothers’ tauntings,
my teacher’s lessons,
my lover’s caresses?
Yes, it is my language!
Does that mean I own it?
Do you own the water you hold in your hands?
Do you own the air you breathe into your lungs?
Do you own the spirit that animates your soul?