Teacher to Teacher

Curry student and mentor teacher both inspired by Young Writers Workshop
Abbey Harris and Carly Nicholson
Abbey Harris and Carly Nicholson

It’s not unusual for Curry teacher education students to be assigned to work with Curry alumni for their field placements. Graduates who are teaching locally often sign up as clinical instructors and mentors, because they know firsthand the value of classroom experience for polishing the instructional skills learned in Curry coursework.

Abbey Harris has found herself in an especially advantageous fourth-year field placement. She is spending the academic year at Charlottesville High School working with Carly Nicholson, a Curry alumna who also shares with Harris a history with the Young Writers Workshop.

Harris was 16 when she participated in YWW, an experience which she says helped her find her own unique voice.

YWW is a residential summer program that provides a supportive, non-competitive environment where teenage writers can live and work together as artists. It was founded in 1982 by Margo Figgins, Curry School professor of English education, a former high school English teacher and a Curry School alumna herself.

“One of the most valuable aspects of the YWW experience,” Harris says, “was the fact that I got to work with experienced writers who helped me see poetry in new and interesting ways and take my own writing to the next level.”

Their energy and enthusiasm for teaching adolescents has certainly worn off on me.

The instructors at YWW also influenced her decision to pursue a teaching career because they made learning both engaging and fun. “Their energy and enthusiasm for teaching adolescents has certainly worn off on me,” Harris says.

Carly Nicholson (M.T. ’05 English Ed) was not able to attend YWW as a teenager, although she wishes she could have. Instead, she connected with YWW during her teacher education program, when Figgins was her professor and adviser. She participated as a residential counselor in 2004, 2005, and the summer Harris was there, 2007. She returned in 2009 as an assistant summer director.

“YWW taught me the power of collaboration, as an educator and as a writer,” she says. “The staff and students I met—and continue to run into—remind me how to listen, share, build, and perform with and for those around me. I take that spirit with me in every facet of my life.”

All of these aspects were goals Figgins had in mind when she founded YWW. Her own teaching experience had led her to three critical observations:  Teens were most alive to themselves and to each other when they were being creative; their most powerful work occurred in collaboration with each other; and they would spend endless after-school hours absorbed in artistic expression—whether that be creative writing, theater, dance, or music—when their work was being taken seriously.

These observations gave rise to YWW, a creative writing program now in its third decade that involves not just classes in writing and the related arts, but living as a writer for two or three weeks in a community of writers and artists.

Nicholson says she learned some things about teenagers while working with YWW that have helped her as a teacher.

Teenagers are the best at giving valuable feedback to each other and to instructors.

“Teenagers are the best at giving valuable feedback to each other and to instructors,” she says. “I learned how to create a community for feedback, and I use that workshop model in all of my classes.”

She taught at the Tarsus American College in Turkey her first two years after graduating from Curry and has been at CHS for the past six years, where she is now the English Department chair.

Harris is grateful for the opportunity to learn from a teacher who was prepared at the Curry School and also influenced by the YWW experience.

“One of the most significant lessons I am learning from my field experience is that good teachers are patient—a quality which Ms. Nicholson certainly has,” Harris says. “She always seems very calm and comfortable in front of her students, even during the times when things were not going so smoothly.  It was clear to me that she has established a relationship based on trust and respect with her students.”

Harris is progressing well, according to her mentor. “Abbey taught a lesson to my creative writing class, and she was able to hook my students in by providing for them a poetry experience,” Nicholson says. “She brought to life a poem by Kwesi Johnson, ‘New Crass Massakre,’ frontloading them with the background to the poem and playing the audio for them. She didn’t have them read the poem, she had them live it.”

Thanks to YWW, Harris wants to give all her students opportunities to have a voice by experimenting with their writing and finding ways to express themselves.

“I also want my students to walk away with the same message that I received at YWW, as well as here in the Curry program,” Harris says. “It is OK to make mistakes in their writing, and no essay, poem, narrative, etcetera, is ever a finished piece. Writing is an ongoing and often rewarding process.”

She is hoping to join the YWW residential staff this summer, where she can help recreate the YWW experience for this year’s young writers.

Read the Write It blog post by Carly on “Humor Writing: Getting Students Started in Creating Their Own Laughs.”

Learn more about Young Writers Workshop.