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Dedicated to Teachers


ON THE PODCAST: Writing as Healing with Willeena Booker

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How can classroom teachers invite their students to speak back to the world in this current moment? How does writing allow students to be seen and heard?

Welcome to Writing as Healing, a Heinemann podcast series focused on writing as a tool to increase healing in students and educators. We know that academic learning doesn’t happen without social and emotional support, and writing, as a key literacy, is uniquely positioned in every classroom to do both.

This week Liz is joined by Willeena Booker, a poet and Pennsylvania third grade teacher, to talk about the power of writing about current events, public grief and social justice.


 


Below is a full transcript of the episode:

Liz Prather:

Hi, this is Liz. Welcome to Writing as Healing, a Heinemann podcast series focused on writing as a tool to increase healing in students and teachers. We know that academic learning doesn't happen without social and emotional support. And writing as a key literacy is uniquely positioned in every classroom to do both. How can classroom teachers invite their students to speak back to the world in this current moment? How does writing allow students to be seen and heard? This week, I'm joined by Willeena, a poet and Pennsylvania third grade teacher, to talk about the power of writing about current events, public grief and social justice.

Did you bring a sample of some of your work today?

Willeena Booker:

Yes, I did.

I brought a poem that I wrote in 2020. It's a pretty serious poem, but it really started a healing journey for me. It's called The Power of 46.

We were the same age, George and I. 46 years young, 46 years of life, love, lost. Cut short by the crushing weight of racism's knee. You ever watch a man die helplessly hopelessly? I watched. Really. Here in America, I watched. Frightened, aching, grieved, enraged. Black children watched. Black mamas watched. Black daddies watched. Even White folks watched the gavel hit the pavement just proximal to the thigh, the knee.

The crime? Being born a Black man. The evidence? Sun kissed coffee-colored skin. The punishment? Death by homicide. Such a gut-wrenching scene to behold. George was in awful anguish. George was tortured. George was mocked. George pleaded for help. George beckoned to the heavens, to his mother, to me, begging for air. Wailing, lamenting, crying, sobbing for air. The bluebird is blessed to breathe air. The eagle is gifted to soar against blue skies, and yet George paid with his life. In a desperate pursuit to breathe nearly 30 times, pleading to humanity, hiding behind Blue Shields, George bellowed, "I can't breathe."

And somehow seeing his death made us stronger. In his passing, social justice has risen as the Phoenix. In death, George is more powerful than hate. We were the same age, George and I. He brought racism to its knees. In verse, in memoriam, in love. The Power of 46.

Liz:

Thank you so much.

Willeena:

Thank you.

Liz:

I wanted our listeners to hear your work. I think it's so powerful and so necessary. You have characterized your work as a catalyst for change. And how does writing maybe transform not only you, but the culture, the society, and what you're hoping to bring about?

Willeena:

Writing is just that tool where you can be honest with yourself. Poet Nikki Giovanni says, "You have to be unintimidated by your own feelings." And so with writing, you just put it all out on the page. And when you're honest with yourself about where you are in the given moment and what you're responding to and what you're feeling, and just allow those emotions to come out and lead you on this journey. A healing journey, there'll be some surprises, but there'll also be some points where you challenge yourself to grow and to heal. And in that growing and healing is where the change really comes into play.

Liz:

That's a lot of bravery there. I mean, that's a lot of strength to do that, to just face that head on. Tell me a little bit about your writing life. When did you start writing and how long have you written? What's your process like? Tell me a little bit about that.

Willeena:

Well, I am a proud, passionate poet, and I really write in the moment whenever, wherever inspiration strikes. I keep a lot of journals with me. Some by my bedside, in my backpack, in my car. And when I can't get to my journals, I get paper wherever I am because inspiration just comes and can come in so many different ways. But my mind is always calculating and shaping a poem and a poetic phrase, a response in a poetic line. And poetry is my passion. And this leads to more and more writing. I enjoy writing when all else around me is silent. So I love writing on Saturday mornings when the house is still asleep and everyone's still cozy in their beds, and I just have the space.

And so I really started writing as a sixth grader, elementary school. In sixth grade, I actually was what most would call a failing student or struggling student up until sixth grade. And it was during a lesson on prepositions that my head kind of turned and the wheels were spinning. I was really just loving the words and the wordplay and their meaning.

That year, I met a wonderful teacher. She was my teacher. She's still my biggest fan. She reads all my work and she just cheers me on, Ms. Joanne Moore Hartsoorn. She showed me love and she showed me just the joy of writing. She actually was the first person to notice my writing. I wrote a small piece in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and it caught her attention. And she said, "Willeena, come here. I want to talk to you about this piece of writing, and tell me some of your thoughts. What made you write this?" We talked a little bit, and after that, she actually gave me the opportunity to read that piece of writing on the intercom of the school for the entire school. But it was my teacher who really started my writing journey and recognized my voice and noticed it, and helped me to really touch base with my voice as a writer.

Liz:

That's so powerful. So I heard two things. One, the power of questions. She approached you as one writer to another. Where did you get this idea? And tell me more about this. So that's what each of us as writers, we come to one another and we say, "Tell us more about this." But then offering to allow your voice and your words to go out to the entire school, that's an incredible validation for a young writer. Thank you for those thoughts because I'm sure all of that had to do with you becoming a teacher, all of those things, that relationship you had with her.

So when you think about a piece of writing, and I know that someone like you who is as prolific as you and who writes as much as you do. I don't know if you can narrow this down to maybe one single piece of writing, but maybe a time in your life when you were writing that was especially transformative for you in terms of healing.

Willeena:

Yes, there's so many pieces, but I will settle on the piece that I read for you today in the opening of The Power of 46. Because my process in writing that was first, I had to give myself permission to watch the video of George Floyd and then had to settle those emotions and feelings that I was feeling and then write. The world was responding, the world was grieving, there were protests, there was a movement to really say that racism is wrong and this is wrong in this moment.

And so I wrote the poem, and then I kind of felt like, well, I want to stand up to racism. I want to speak back to it. I kind of want to get in its face and tell racism what I feel and what I thought. And that then led me to write another poem stemming off of The Power of 46, and it was called Never a Friend. And this poem, I actually took and posted to my high school page where everyone could see and read this poem. And in the poem I spoke back to racism that I experienced as a youth attending an all-white school. And to some of those students that had just created some very hurtful and uncomfortable and painful experiences for me.

But then I posted it for everyone, and I felt like, yes, I'm ready to address this. And so from there, I actually had classmates from my graduating year reach back out to me privately and say, "I had no idea, but I too experienced racism and this is what I went through and this is why I felt left out or other." So I would really say The Power of 46 helped me find a voice to speak back to racism. But not only that, it gave me a voice to speak up for Black identity. That is good, blackness is good. You are good. I am good. Writing that piece was transformative.

Liz:

And also by standing up and posting that it was transformative for others that they then had the opportunity to contact you. And it's so interesting and it's powerful, and that is the power of writing. You and I are both writing project teachers, so we know the power of writing to create community because it creates vulnerability. Because when you're vulnerable in those summer institutes and in those classes, that's what really makes us as writers and as teachers, I think connected. I'm wondering, did have you read The Power of 46 to your students?

Willeena:

I've not read this poem to my students, but I have read this poem globally in the virtual poetry rooms. That year in 2020, I was reading this poem over and over. Every time I got an opportunity for an open mic call, I would read and gained a little more strength, a little more healing every time I read.

Liz:

I'm interested, do you have, and I know you've taught multiple grades in elementary grades, but is there one assignment that you use every year that you've noticed over the years has produced healing for students? And I'm interested in hearing about that assignment, but also I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on why that assignment maybe helps students deal with pain and trauma.

Willeena:

One assignment that I've used is starting with reading the book by Doreen Rappaport, Martin's Big Words. Once I read that story with the students, well, I challenge the students, what are your big words? What do you think the world needs now? And how do you want to speak back to the world in this moment? And so each year the students find within themselves things that they feel deeply about, causes that are important to them. A lot of it is kindness and speaking to bullying and unkind interactions at school. But also, I've had students talk about racism and talk about the need for people, white and Black, to respect each other and get along.

And I feel like this assignment allows the students to be seen and to remind them you have a voice, and what do you want to use that voice to speak back to in this moment? And each year, I take all of their responses. We create a book. I celebrate them as authors and poets, and they love picking up a book, an actual book, and seeing their work in print.

Liz:

You've used the word change so much in talking about writing and students, and I think that's incredibly informative to the transformation and the healing that occurs with writing, because moving from one place to another, or one mindset to another, or one unexamined belief to another, all those changes, and when you have third-graders, I mean, they just must be changing every day. Tell me why you think writing then is so necessary and essential for that social emotional piece.

Willeena:

Absolutely. I think at this point, I see writing almost as my therapeutic practice. Meaning, when I see a student that is upset, angry, distraught, confused, withdrawn, isolated, showing anxiety, my go-to is writing, let's write about it. And sometimes the kids can't write it, they're just not ready to pick up a pencil in that moment, but they will speak their words and then I'll start typing and I'll start putting their words on paper while they're standing right next to me, and then they can see that their words are going on the page. It is really a powerful thing.

I remember last year I had a student who was very, just had a lot of emotions around family and what a family meant to him and to others. For him, he's in a family without his dad present. And so it was a sensitive topic anytime we talked about families in that way.

Liz:

Yeah, yeah.

Willeena:

So we started writing one day about the joy of one parent and all the beauty and love and amazing things that one parent can do. And so I would write a line, he'd give me a couple words and "What else do you think?" And so we ended up writing this beautiful piece, and he was so proud to share it with his family. And that's the power of writing to just a student, a person, anyone from where they are, and really help them work through those emotions.

Just yesterday, there was a student, I got a phone call, "Hey, this student may be a little upset. There's a lot going on at home. You just need to be aware." "Okay." I didn't know the details. That was just a little bit that I got, just to be heads up. You might need some extra TLC with this student today. So I called the student over and just said, "Go grab your poetry book." And so they came back. I said, I gave a couple options. "Do you want to write about a couple stems?" And the students said, "No." And I said, "Okay, well, what would you like to write about?" And the student said, "I just need to write." I said, "Okay, I'll give you... You can take your book. Go and do your writing."

And the piece that the student created, I need love. I need joy. And then I love the ending. She says, "Have a thanky Thursday." Because we talked about alliteration and she wanted to put in that alliteration. Then I said, "Oh, did you mean thankful?" And she said, "No, thanky. I like it." I said, "Okay. You're the poet."

Liz:

That's right.

Willeena:

And we laughed. And that shift was enough to get out of the moment of whatever had happened the day before, and to get into now and where I am and feel love and to write about what I need and write from a place of hurt, but yet transition, like go through that moment through the writing and really come out on the other side of it.

Liz:

Yeah. Well, and you are offering them a platform by which they can reframe a negative day, or even with the student with the single parent, reframing that from gratitude into the posture of gratitude and joy. Giving them new eyes to look at and then write about. I say all the time to my students, writing is not a replacement for clinical therapy. And if you need therapy and you need support, you need to access it. But it's the first step. It is the first tool. It's available to every teacher in America. It's available to every parent, to a lot of their children to express themselves. And there's a release there, I think.

Tell me, you're a volunteer for WriteGirl LA I don't know anything about that. Tell me a little bit about that.

Willeena:

I've been with WriteGirl LA now for, this is going into my second year, my second season with the group. But the group is based physically in L.A. But with 2020, like many other industries, they had to shift how they do what they do. And so with the pandemic, they shifted to a hundred percent virtual mentors, mentoring girls in writing. And so I, at the time was looking for any opportunity to connect because 2020 brought us inward and we couldn't reach others. And I was also looking for a way to volunteer outside of my MLK day, one day of service that I do each year.

And so Karen Taylor is the founder and CEO of WriteGirl LA. They host a workshop for teens and non-binary youth. Anyone that identifies as a teen female or that's their demographic. But with the workshop, the mentors are then put into breakout, and then the girls get an opportunity to share their writing, and we are there as the coach to say, "Love what you did with your word choice and share any writing that you feel comfortable with." I've had the opportunity and the honor and the pleasure of leading a couple of the workshops, and that's just incredible. Ms. Taylor has a way of making everyone feel valued and important and needed in the moment. I love that about the group.

I've also had the honor of being a part of the WriteGirl LA workshops in Uganda. Once a month, I'll get the email that, "Here's the date, are you available? Can you join the WriteGirl team?" And it has been absolutely astounding and amazing. And just working with the teens and the girls from Uganda.

Liz:

Yes. Yeah.

Willeena:

My last workshop with them was in December of 2023, and I had just lost my mom. December 4th, my mom passed, and I got the request that could I actually lead this workshop? Absolutely. I wrote with the girls in real time, in the moment.

Liz:

In pain.

Willeena:

We were writing about, there were different segments to the workshop, but one particular segment was write about an experience you have with water. Just describe what was going on. Well, I had been sobbing for weeks, so in that moment I wrote about fleeing grief, and I am running far away from it. I am a river moving away from grief.

Liz:

It sounds like it's a gift to the girls, but it's also a gift to the volunteers that you're getting as much as you are giving to the participants.

Willeena:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Because you learn and you grow as a writer, especially with the special guests that come in, and everyone teaches from their passion. So there's workshops on fiction writing, non-fiction, writing, songwriting. The songwriting workshop is amazing. She actually brings in musicians and vocalists who will sing the girl's music and put it to a song in the moment and then sing it.

Liz:

Wow. I have a little lightning round series of sentence stems, and I would like for you to fill in the blank. Are you ready?

Willeena:

I'm ready.

Liz:

Writing is...

Willeena:

My life.

Liz:

Teaching is...

Willeena:

My breath.

Liz:

I wish every teacher in America had...

Willeena:

The passion for celebrating poetry with every student at least once in their teaching year.

Liz:

I wish every child in America had...

Willeena:

I wish every child in America had a loving adult, a loving adult to really see them and embrace them and their writing and their voice. I had my mom and my teacher, who in many ways was like a mother in the moment, and she didn't even know that I viewed her in that way until later. That's what I wish every child should have that opportunity to be loved, to feel that love, to be seen, and to be celebrated.

Liz:

Thank you so much for tuning in today. For more information and to read a full transcript, visit blog.heinemann.com.


Prather_ConfidenceToWrite_cover_sm

 

Liz is the author of several Heinemann books, including her newest title The Confidence to Write.

 

 

 


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Author_Circle_Headshot_Prather-Liz

Liz Prather is a writing teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, a gifted arts program at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A classroom teacher with 21years of experience teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level, Liz is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin.

Liz is the author of The Confidence to Write, Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, and Story Matters: Teaching Teens to Use the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform.

 

willeena-booker-new-headshot___16125248138

Willeena Booker is an inspiring educator, powerful poet, and passionate advocate of social justice.  Willeena's poetry celebrates Black Identity, diversity, and equality. Willeena currently serves on The NCTE Poetry Awards Committee for Children’s Literature. Willeena also served on the National Writing Project Write Out Leadership Team in 2023. Willeena is a volunteer with WriteGirl LA providing writing mentorship globally for girls.Willeena writes poetry for adults as well as young readers. Her children’s poetry is included in the Things We Feel, Things We Wear, What is a Friend? And What is a Family? Poetry Anthologies by Pomelo Books, 2022. Her poem, I Matter, appears on the Poetry Project's BIPOC page, 2021.  Willena’s Poems appear in FoodWays and Social Justice available at www.PoetryXHunger.org Willeena’s poems also appear in Haiku Poetry 2023, 2022, and 2021, Moonstone Press, Oprelle Publications, Rise Up Anthology 2021 as well as being named as a finalist in Coming Home to Hope, 2021.  Willeena's Poem, One Voice, was composed to music by world renowned composer Rollo Dilworth in 2022, and sung by the High School chorus of Hatboro-Horsham School District in Horsham, Pennsylvania. Willeena’s poem Longing for More, was selected to open the Global Leadership in Agriculture (GLAG) 2022 Virtual Conference as well as the Hunger Action Month Poetry Fundraiser for Seed Programs International, School Garden Program in Uganda. Willeena loves using her poetry as a catalyst for change. Willeena lives in Blue Bell, PA with her family, and her piles of poetry books.

Topics: Podcast, Writing, Heinemann Podcast, Liz Prather, Poetry, Healing, podcasts, Writing as Healing

Date Published: 04/25/24

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