Writing Workshop: Get to Know the Students We Serve

As the students entered the classroom and I observed their social interaction, I couldn’t help but recall my own high school days and the crazy social dynamic of those years. Some students carrying on, some in their own world, others talking with me, some setting up their place in the back of the room, some in the front, and some wondering who these visitors in the room were.

This past Monday, May 2, I had the opportunity to visit Glencliff High School with two other Be About Change Board Members – my mom, Alicia Hernandez and James Floyd, my good friend and mentor, to conduct a writing workshop for a class of Juniors in English III. I’d like to thank our other Board Member and Vice President, Krista Bolen, for helping us get the ball rolling with the initial referrals and introductions to key personnel at Metro Nashville Public Schools.

As we started talking with the students in Ms. Copas’ English class, I could quickly tell some were going to be engaged the entire time, while with others, keeping their attention was going to be more challenging. I was eager to introduce James, who led Monday’s workshop – in part to take the pressure off myself, and because as a student of his, I knew they would benefit from what he would be sharing and teaching. When I asked what the the students liked to write about, one proudly shouted “Myself!” That answer made my smile, as I could identify with it.

After introducing James, he started with the poem, “Poets Are Crazy” (here is a preview) and then assigned the students a writing exercise, wherein they could write a short story – fiction or nonfiction. Then it was time for lunch…

…I wandered down to the cafeteria, not knowing what to expect, wondering – ironically as I did in my own high school years – if I could “fit in.” But I had on my two-tone, shiny brown shoes to match my dark brown, glen plaid suit, so even if I didn’t say a word (which is usually for the best), surely I could make some new friends. I sat with a small group, who proceeded to complain about the cafeteria food. I remarked, “Well, it seems not much has changed in the last 18 or so years.” Turkey “burgers” and piping hot “french fries,” half frozen on the inside. Yum! One girl quickly said “Oh, you’re 36!” To which I said, “and you favor your math classes.”

We all talked some more, and the students were vocal about having disdain for the cell phone policy and the need to follow rules. I offered my perspective that rules never go away even beyond school, but if you want to make a habit of breaking them, you must first learn to function within them. Spoken like an artist, don’t you think? One student wanted to be an actress, one a pediatrician, and one didn’t know. We talked about MTSU, medical school, and Los Angeles. It was great to get a perspective from our younger generation on life in general.

The cafeteria monitor (or teacher or admin) jumped on the megaphone as the bell – which is more of a long electronic beep – rang, ushering us all on to the next class. As we walked back into class, my mom looked at me, kind of like I was crazy for going to lunch, and asked if I ate the food. “Of course not,” I said.

As the students made their way to their seats, James began with a lesson that discussed how over time, different ideas are introduced into society that seem crazy. Attempting to disallow the students’ fatigue from lunch to set in, he polled the class as to why this is. Ultimately, he talked about how society’s views on what is acceptable expands to accept and adopt these new, “crazy” ideas.


James then read a short story, emphasizing words that were descriptive and appealing to the five senses, and calling students’ attention to this. As I observed from the back, I was impressed by the level attention they gave him, which was obvious by their reactions to his reading. Then came the second writing exercise where he asked them to implement these new concepts.


Finally, three students shared what they had written – and here is where the value of this day became apparent – by leading this workshop, James facilitated giving these students a voice, and not only was this voice powerful, it was raw and honest. One student talked about the anguish of lost love, another read a fictional depiction about a situation that was personal to her, and another student wrote poetically about the confusion and bittersweet moments in life.

As we concluded, I invited students to continue writing, and acknowledged the vulnerability in the stories we heard from students, stressing the importance of that vulnerability and of being honest to oneself in one’s art. At the end of the class, one of the students that read aloud handed us a handwritten note. I read it later when I got home (pictured below).

Thank you, Glencliff Colts, for your time, for an incredible experience, for sharing your writing with us, and for teaching us about ourselves.

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Marcel Hernandez

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