ASU summer program allows youth to explore the craft of writing

June 5, 2015

Tasmin Hurlbut felt like royalty.

That’s what the eight-year-old read after she wrote about standing atop University Bridge during a rare summer rain in Tempe. young children sitting and writing Eight-year-old Tamsin Hurlbut, with others, writes her thoughts after walking over the University Bridge on ASU's Tempe campus. Photo by: Charlie Leight Download Full Image

Chances are she also felt like a writer.

The fourth grader was one of several children in rl txt ­– or “real text” – a two-week summer youth writing camp sponsored by the Central Arizona Writing Project within the Department of English at Arizona State University. The course aims to help students of varied ages feel more comfortable about their writing skills.

On Friday, June 5, rl txt students across ASU’s Polytechnic, Tempe and West campuses joined together in a “writing marathon.” Groups of students stopped at various monuments and points of interest and spent time writing there, allowing the physical spaces to inspire their words.

Before heading out on the tour, class instructors encouraged students to think about the question: “Where does writing hide?”

For Hurlbut, it was on that bridge.

“This is a very big bridge. It was raining when I crossed it,” she read aloud. “I felt like I was the emperor of the world.”

Encouraging students to feel like writers

The mission of rl txt isn’t just to get young people to track their prose. It’s also to instill the confidence of writing onto future generations of educators.

Dawn Lambson, clinical assistant professor of English at ASU, is just one of several instructional team members, who are writers themselves, overseeing a class of rl txt students.

“I’ve taught for 30 years, and the last 10 years with university students who are thinking of becoming teachers. I find very few of them who are comfortable teaching writing because they don’t see themselves as writers,” she said.

Lambson says she conducts an exercise at the start of each semester. She asks the students to raise their hands if they are “readers.” Nearly every one of them raises their hands. Then she asks the class how many of them are “writers.” Maybe one or two students will raise their hands. She says that’s indicative of how students think.

“We need to start instilling in kids and teaching them when they are young and creative that they’re writers,” Lambson says. “Once they get that into their heads, there’s no stopping them and it makes all the difference in the world. We need to start changing the idea of what a writer is.”

ASU's Central Arizona Writing Project is an affiliate of the National Writing Project, where teachers are trained in leadership and best practices in writing pedagogy.

“Each place we go to is an invitation to write,” Lambson said to the students before they departed. “Write about the space or how it inspires you.”

Caitlin Vasko, who will be entering eighth grade at Copperwood Elementary in Glendale this fall, had no trouble finding inspiration on the lawn outside West campus’ Fletcher Library.

The 13-year-old, who signed up for rl txt after her language arts teacher expressed enthusiasm for one of her short stories, wrote about the beauty of nature around her – the wind in the tree branches, the swaying blades of grass and how they contrasted with the solid, immovable brick buildings.

Both students and instructors responded to the writing with a polite “thank you.” No other comments were permitted in order to discourage students from thinking of one another’s writing as “good” or “bad,” and to teach them that there is no right or wrong way to express one’s self.

Rohan Nishtala, 14, who is about to start his freshman year at Basis Chandler, wore a brown T-shirt that read: “I’m Not Lazy, Just Energy Efficient.” He says he was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s 1954 short story, “All Summer in a Day,” when writing in the stairwell of Santan Hall at the Polytechnic campus. His writing had more of an apocalyptic, sci-fi take.

“I wanted to write about my own little world, and so I created it in my head,” Nishtala said.

Returning as writers

Upon returning to their classrooms for a de-briefing after the tour, instructors were first to share about their experiences with students.

Debra LaPlante, a librarian at SS. Simon & Jude Cathedral School in Phoenix, told her students how she “went to Paris in her mind” while she was writing around West campus.

Eight-year-old Azael Anchondo, replied, “I know how! Because when you’re writing about it, your mind’s in Paris.”

LaPlante smiled and nodded approvingly.

“I love to watch the kids grow in confidence as writers, to see them go from writing being a mandatory thing to them wanting to have a chance to grow in creativity.”

Marshall Terrill and Charlie Leight contributed to this story.

Emma Greguska

Editor, ASU News

(480) 965-9657

Collection of quick Lincoln essays includes ASU professor

June 8, 2015

The Gettsyburg Address was just 272 words and about two minutes long. Yet Abraham Lincoln’s efficient speech about the gravity of battle and the importance of preserving freedom remains one of the president’s most endearing moments.

More than 150 years after he delivered the address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, we have a fresh collection of responses in “Gettysburg Replies: The World Responds to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.” Gettysburg Replies “Gettysburg Replies: The World Responds to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address,” in which an essay by ASU professor Brooks Simpson appears. Photo by: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Download Full Image

The book was published this past April after the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library challenged luminaries and historians to write essays of 272 words about Lincoln, his famous address or related areas of interest.

Among the book’s 100 notable essayists ­– from presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush to filmmaker Steven Spielberg to retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Arizona native Sandra Day O’Connor ­– is Arizona State University Professor Brooks Simpson.

Simpson, an honors faculty member at Barrett, the Honors College and ASU Foundation Professor of History in the the College of Letters and Sciences, penned “The Unfinished Work Before Us,” an essay that examines how some problems of Lincoln’s time still exist today.

In honor of his inclusion in the collection, we spoke with Simpson about sharing a book with presidents and celebrities and the challenges of writing to a 272-word count.

Question: How did you become involved in this project? How was your essay chosen for publication?

Answer: In 2013 Carla Knorowski, the CEO of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, invited a number of people, including me, to contribute essays inspired in some way by the Gettysburg Address as a way to commemorate the 150th anniversary of its delivery on Nov. 19, 1863. There was only one rule: whatever we wrote would have to be 272 words in length – the length of the address itself – no more and no less. Contributors submitted a printed version as well as a handwritten version, which would be put on display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Out of the rather large number of contributions, some 100 were selected for inclusion in a volume entitled “Gettysburg Replies,” and I was fortunate enough to be included. That book appeared on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865.

Q: How challenging was it to write an essay of just 272 words? Without giving too much away, as ideally people should purchase the book to read the essays, can you say what your essay is about?

A: For me the economy of language was simply one of the challenges presented by this project. One tinkered with various drafts to get just the right turn of phrase in the required number of words. More daunting was thinking about what to write. How would one respond to what Lincoln had said? Moreover, as someone who has visited Gettysburg frequently and who had two ancestors present at the battle in 1863, this was as much a personal and philosophical matter as it was a professional opportunity.

Lincoln reminded people that unfinished business remained, and that only by addressing the great task before them could they ensure that those soldiers who had given the last full measure of devotion in bloody battle had not died in vain … and that my ancestors’ service would mean something. What was a great task remaining before them remains one for us as well.

I found my inspiration in the 16th president’s reminder that the cornerstone of the American experiment was the proposition that all men were created equal. Even today we have a great distance to go to turn the promise of equality into reality. After all, what does “created equal” mean? Equal before the law? Equal opportunity for all? The phrase conceals as much as it reveals.

But just as Lincoln called on his fellow Americans to persist, I wanted to remind people today that the same struggle continues, and that it is now left to us to continue that effort and meet Lincoln’s challenge. As for how I went about that, you’ll have to read the book.

Q: How does it feel to have your essay published with those of such well-known people as Steven Spielberg, Jimmy Carter, the presidents Bush, Bill Clinton and others?

A: It is an honor and a privilege to join with such distinguished people from all walks of life as we together considered Lincoln’s legacy. It’s amazing to see how different people responded in such different ways, each in its own way rather telling. Given that the essays appear by alphabetical order of surname, I’m just ahead of Steven Spielberg, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

Q: You are a presidential and Civil War historian and scholar. How did you become interested in this? Why is it important to study the past, particularly the areas in which you specialize?

A: Growing up during the Civil War centennial, I quickly gravitated to having an interest in history, one that my grandmother and parents fostered in various ways, from buying books to going on trips to historic sites.

However, it was not until I was at prep school (Exeter) that I learned the difference between liking history, being interested in it, and being a historian. Working with documents and weaving together evidence to offer an account of what happened, how it happened, and why it happened draws upon so many qualities, including creativity and imagination, as well as the reasoning and analysis usually associated with the discipline.

We can’t argue that history is important to our understanding of who we are and what we want to be unless we show people how learning about the past informs our lives. Moreover, many of the issues debated during the time of the Civil War and Reconstruction are still with us. How do we push for change while maintaining stability and unity? What role do leaders play in identifying and addressing problems?

I recall that in the 1980s someone once observed that my area of study – the Civil War and Reconstruction – held no real relevance for today’s world. Since then, I’ve seen a presidential impeachment, a disputed presidential election, the challenges of war and occupation, and debates over the federal government’s role in economic matters – all issues of as much importance a century and a half ago as they have been in our recent past – demonstrate the need for informed commentary and analysis. I’m pleased that people call on me to draw on my understanding of the past to help us comprehend our present.

Nicole Greason

Director of Marketing and Public Relations , Barrett, The Honors College