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ON THE PODCAST: Writing as Healing with Willie Carver

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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  Willie Carver, a poet, and the 2021 Kentucky Teacher of the Year to talk about writing as a way to unravel your personal truth and as a mechanism to clear your heart and head. This episode begins with Willie reading one of his poems.


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 does writing help students connect to their lives and develop vulnerability in order to bravely show up and speak their truth? How does writing create advocacy for students? This week, I'm joined by Willie, a poet, and the 2021 Kentucky Teacher of the Year to talk about writing as a way to unravel your personal truth and as a mechanism to clear your heart and head. This episode begins with Willie reading one of his poems.



“Scientist” [ not included in written transcript]



I want to welcome Willie today to the podcast. Full disclosure, Willie and I taught together in Montgomery County, Kentucky, where we both still live. I just want to say, right up front, I'm a total fan girl of Willie, and one of the reasons I was always so impressed when we talked together that I would walk into his classroom, and there would be these two things happening simultaneously: There would be this level of academic and intellectual depth that was going on, but also, there was such a great energy and such great joy in his classroom. I know a lot about your life as a teacher, but I do not know a whole lot about your life as a writer. Let's start out by just tell me a little bit about your writing life.


When I was a kid, I don't think that I had the depth of understanding to know what I was doing other than I enjoyed it, but I loved writing, wrote lots of poetry. I wrote a couple of novels in high school, little sci-fi adventures, and then college happened and then work happened. And so when I write, as a general rule, I'm trying to clear my head, I'm trying to clear my heart, and for that 15 years, I was trying to clear my students' heads, and I was trying to clear their hearts. And so every single piece of writing that I did was geared towards them. They were my audience. I would try to write down to where they are and lift them up with what I was doing. I would look at their needs and one of those needs was joy. How do I get them to write for joy?

And I think after leaving, that desire, that need to write was still there, but the context shifted, and suddenly it was about, again, clearing out my heart and my mind, and I left under difficult circumstances. And so I jumped head first into doing it. My husband is a certified career counselor, and he does a lot with personality types. And he says, "Extroverts need a second person to help them know what they're feeling." He has an uncanny ability to name his emotions, and I always start with "bad", or pictures like, "I feel like cloud."

So I think writing for me is giving myself the opportunity to speak to myself. And so I get to say two things that hold different meanings at the same time. It's sort of an unraveling, in terms of what it looks like. So I actually set, every single morning, an hour and a half, into my schedule and say, "I'm going to write." Some mornings I do, but most mornings instead I go, "Hmm, I'll feel so much better if I do all this work first." And it never, ever, ever is true. So I write in spurts.


Are you one of those superstitious writers who will not talk about their current projects, or could you give us just a little peek, a little window into what you're working on?


No superstition at all. I think the biggest part of my life has been trying to break away from rules. So superstitions almost feel like those to me, although I definitely salt my kitchen and do all the witchy things. So it's called [inaudible 00:07:01] Pieces. It started as a single poem, and most of my poetry tends to get in the feels, I guess. This one really doesn't. It's a pastoral poem about my cousin and me riding bikes to the top of Cow Creek.

And it was a really pretty day, I remember this so vividly. I actually walked to the top of Mont Royal, which is the mountain in Montréal, and all these people were riding bikes up the mountain. And I kept thinking, "There is no point in my life when I could have ridden a bike up the mountain."

And I remembered this feeling of being nine years old and having to push the bike. So anyway, this little girl in real life watched my cousin and me, who were both too chubby to push our bikes up Cow Creek. And she goes, "Well, them bikes work better if you sit on them." My cousin hated this little girl the rest of their lives over that one little sentence. And so I wrote this poem about it.


Of course.


So this little girl starts haunting me, and I keep thinking about how she's presented in the poem, and who she must be. And a friend says, "I would love to know her story." And then, it just poured forth. And so I have this 25-page short story about this little girl, and I realized both of these things are true. This poem is true, her story is true in the world that it's in, and I can present what happened in two very different ways, and they're both true. And so I really have been thinking a lot about that, I think especially in terms of how fragmented our country is. And so it's a collection in which I introduce a person, or a topic, or a poem, or a moment, or an idea with a poem, and then I follow it with fiction.


I love it. Well, thank you for giving us a preview of that. So the theme of the podcast today is about writing as healing. And I know you've done a lot of work as a teacher to assist and invite healing for your students. How has writing been healing for you? And I'm thinking in particular about Gay Poems for Red States. I read some early drafts of those poems and they were incredibly real, and raw, and from the gut, and I was stunned by the bravery of these poems. But sometimes, bravery also leaves you exposed. Did you feel that way, or do you feel as though this was a healing journey for you?


I would say I feel exposed and it's a healing journey. The vulnerability, and I can't take credit for this concept, because I feel like drag queens have taught me this, vulnerability is the biggest strength you can have, because it says, "I'm so not afraid of you, I will take off my armor right now." And when I first started this particular project, I didn't know I was doing it. I was so angry, because in a very short sentence, my students, my queer students were being targeted by outside forces. And these rose to the level of threats, and these students actually had to be moved out of their households. And the school district refused to acknowledge that it was happening, refused to speak to the kids, refused to defend them, and I wanted to write an email to my superintendent. And in the to box of this email, I suddenly start needing to write a poem.

And it felt unlike anything, even to this day, has ever felt, that first one, like a supernatural experience. And so I started writing and the first poem came out, which was a memory of being five years old, four years old maybe, and wanting a toy that I couldn't get without being shamed. And what I learned, because this kid inside of me was very much there and he wanted to talk every day about these things, and to the extent that there was a moment, I was sort of letting him speak. And then, I started to realize like, "I'm writing a collection of something here." One of the poems, he says something really unabashedly bright and emotional, heart-wrenching. And I remember thinking, "That line is too much." So I go to erase it, and literally, my finger was over the backspace button, and I could hear this little boy inside of me going, "Please don't erase me, everyone erased me."

So I wouldn't. And I said, "Okay, I honor whatever you want to say." And I think, for me, this healing has been about advocacy. I've been thinking a lot about what advocacy means, and, I mean, at its root, "ad" means "to" or "with" and "vocal" is "the voice". And I think there are those who don't have voices. And advocacy isn't about going and doing work. It's about staying with them and making sure that their voice gets heard by someone else. It's about being something else that is able to carry that voice. And so the healing for me has been I might have the lived experience, and memory, and soul that I share with a six-year-old boy who was terrified of the world and mistreated by the world, but I'm a big, strong man, and so I can carry his voice, and share it, and sit with him while he tells me what's happening. That's been the healing aspect of this.


What an invitation to allow that young Willie to speak. As teachers, allowing the voices of all, 100% of our students to speak, and to nurture those voices, and invite those voices to speak in our classrooms can sometimes get us in trouble. Do you remember an assignment that you used every year that you notice produced a kind of healing in students that allowed them to step into that vulnerable place and speak their truth?


I think I'll answer it two different ways, one is more writerly and the other is completely not. So in terms of writing, I realized to bounce right off that idea that sometimes we get in trouble for doing that. I approached my last five years in the classroom from a legalistic perspective. I took everything that I knew about public school law and applied it to how I would move forward, because I knew we're not reading Ada Limón in this class, it's going to get banned. We're not reading Toni Morrison, it's going to get banned. We were really only easily able to read straight, white men writing from a Christian perspective. Anything else would be banned. And so I said, "There's one voice in here they can't ban, and that's my students." So I have this belief that if you show your vulnerable self to people, most people who are good will respond with vulnerability. And so I shared vulnerable poems with my students.


Your own poems?


Yeah, as a matter of fact, every piece of writing I ever asked my students to do, I did with them. Poems about loving someone who doesn't love you back, nothing too dramatic. But I then invited them to write their own poems, and then we published them in a class anthology, and then those became what we would read as our classroom reading for [inaudible 00:14:03]-


Yeah, so they became the textbook?


Yes, they were the textbook, and you can't ban that textbook. And they were allowed to submit anonymously, if they wanted. And the beautiful thing is that a good half of them would start out wanting to, and then inevitably... And I did not prescribe what they had to write about. I just said, "Anything that shows who you are, I don't care what that looks like." And it was beautiful to see what they would do. Students writing about boxing, and the feeling of standing back up when someone hits you. I read so many essays about sports that I hated, but it was in poetry that I could read these kids talking about what sports meant to them and I could feel something.


That's amazing.


And so every year, I would see students take risks unlike I ever imagined that they could have, and I could see the depth of them in ways I didn't think was possible. And they were so much stronger after that. The other activity, so this gets to, for me, questioning what writing really is and means. So in French we would learn clothing words. We would learn how to say, "I'm wearing, you're wearing, he's wearing." But I really made sure they knew all the vocab, how to say "plaid", how to say "you made out of wool". But I would bring in a random assortment of things that I collected from Goodwill, clothing pieces, over the last 10 years. And then they put on a fashion show. And so they had to walk a runway, I played music, and then they would stop and they would have to... They could sort of plan it, but they had to describe what someone else was wearing.

And my only goal was "walk with confidence". And it was so hard to do. I think it would be easier to get a student to talk about their most emotional feeling-




... than to say... Because teenagers are waiting for the world to reject them, starting with a place of confidence and saying, "I'm worth this runway, I'm worth your eyes," it's something that it takes years and some people never get. So seeing these... I mean, some of them will cry beforehand, and I would inevitably have to say, "If you really don't want to, but I really think this would be good for you." Seeing them choose to do it, sometimes literally over tears, and I know that sounds dramatic, but asking a sixteen-year-old to walk a runway, even dressed goofily, is a lot.

One of the ways that I talk about why foreign language learning is so hard is it's the most vulnerable thing ever. You're asking someone to become an infant again, but compare a three-year-old. If you have a three-year-old who is hot and thirsty, and you're holding water, and that three-year-old speaks English, and you look at the three-year-old and say, "[foreign language 00:16:39]?" holding the bottle, they will believe that they're smart enough to understand your intention and take the water bottle. You can look at a sixteen-year-old about to die of thirst and say, "[foreign language 00:16:50]?" and they won't take the water, because they're afraid that they're going to make a mistake and you're going to laugh at them.


What was, then, the composition of the classroom after that activity? Did the vulnerability create a community? Did that vulnerability... That's our theory, right, is that when one person is vulnerable, it allows everyone to be vulnerable and it creates a community there? Did that actually happen and that was part of the healing that you saw?


Absolutely. There is a reason that I had a French 101 in a tiny school in rural Kentucky that had 29 people in it, you know, in a school that it shouldn't have made sense. But those students, I think, felt grounded in French class, and I've heard them talk in various spaces. When I was on Good Morning America, they actually reached out to some of the students and I got to hear what they said, but they talked a lot about this feeling that they were in that room, they weren't even in the school anymore. They were in the French room. And it wasn't me necessarily making that happen. It was them allowing each other to be vulnerable. Jackson Campbell said this, he said it was a brave space. Maybe that's something that people say a lot, but I had never heard it before him. So it wasn't about a safe space.

It was about finding a way to be brave together. And were they brave? You could see it by the end, when we had the world language fair at the end of the year. I don't know if you ever got to go to one, but I just said, "Impress everyone." The instructions were, "Learn something, make or do something with what you learned, and then let us see what it is in a way that is dynamic." And these kids would build Joan of Arc's funeral pyre. They built the Eiffel Tower. One kid built a flowing river and built a bridge over it, and you could stand on the bridge and put a lock on it, because they believed that if they tried something big, they would be supported. And I think that's a major issue in our education system. We accept the bare minimum as passing, and we now call passing an A. So students really don't have any emphasis to try something big, and they have lots of reasons not to as well.


That's high praise indeed that Jackson said that and so many of your students said that. So you use a lot of different entry points into the student's world, really. And I know that writing obviously is not a replacement for clinical therapy if students need that, obviously, and they should avail themselves to that, but it serves as a major tool, along with other things like community, and humor, and music, and poetry, and everything else, I feel like that if outside of the basic "get me into college" skills that we teach kids, what do you think the social/emotional level, why is writing so important there?


I think there are so many ways to answer this, and I think about the fact that our thoughts are built of words probably. We know that human thinking is made of stories and stories are made of words. And I think one of the issues is when we reduce everything to these objectives and "I can" statements, we often forget the purpose of all of this, which is to expand what people are capable of, and to take someone who is something right now, and to imagine something much greater or better, to let them imagine something much greater.

And we're not going to do that without storytelling. You can't do it. You have to tell yourself a story. So I think writing allows them to create stories for the first time, and they're amusing stories in all the ways that you can say. When I think about English 100, for example, we would write these argumentative essays, and good Lord, I think the approach that we often see is controversial topic.

I don't know, "Should we continue teaching Spanish in the schools or not?" And we effectively tell students, "Pick your side, come up with three reasons. You've got your essay." And so I worked with Abby Thomas, because we were really concerned about how divisive everything was coming around 2016, 2017. And so we started, even for the argumentative topics, with really personal stuff. And so wee would talk about, let's say, coal mines.

So rather than say to someone, "Do you think we should still have coal mining or not?" we would say, "What is your connection to coal mining? When you think about coal mining, what does it mean?" And you would get them to start articulating these really personal things. "Well, my grandfather was a coal miner, my uncle." Then, we would introduce the bare bones argument that was afoot, and we would say, "Okay, your goal is to go find the absolute best arguments that exist that are counter to what you believe."

And so we would force all the students to look at those arguments and agree that if they were based upon sound science, that they could not disregard them. So they had to include them in their arguments. So they had to learn to accommodate them, or they had to figure out why they were wrong. And so what you would end up getting, especially when you start taking... So we would remove the training wheels and then give them really abstract concepts, like gender, morality.

This is a moment that sticks with me: So I had a student who was on the spectrum, and who used that phrase for herself, and for whom talking about emotions was sometimes a little more difficult than for other people. And this student had chosen to talk about sports teams and gender, and was terrified to write about it. But I love that she was entering into this terror. She said, "I really want to write about this."

So she came to me and said, "Okay, I feel like if I say that we should only let cis girls play sports, then I'm just being a terrible person, but I feel like there are some things that we can think about." And so I said, "Here's what you have to do: You have to boldly look for the truth, and you have to do it kindly." I said, "If you can do whatever you're saying kindly, then I think you can do a lot without feeling like a bad person." And I reminded her, "I'm the only one reading this, we're not publish..." But I could already see that she was taking ownership of whatever thought she was putting down.

And so she comes to me later and says, "Okay, this is why I've written." And I look at it and I start crying in the first paragraph, because she begins by saying that she plays basketball. And she said, "Before I pick up this basketball, there are 987 rules," something like that, "that I have to know about what I'm allowed to and not do with it. If we can be this specific about how a basketball is used, why are we asking this question as if there are only two possibilities?" And so she answers it by saying, "There's obviously a reason for this concern to exist, and so here are some ways we can talk about it."

And so instead of even answering who should or shouldn't, she instead flipped the script entirely and said, "I challenge you to come up with the language to talk about this, and I challenge you to figure out exactly where these lines might need to be negotiated," as opposed to assuming..." Anyway, it was brilliant and beautiful, and she learned so much about how to see the world as opposed to what the world was.


And that's a more sophisticated writing piece. A lot of writers, professional writers, have a difficulty striking that tone and that balance, so that's wonderful. And I think the entry points that you and Abby allowed your students to come to the topics, and the arguments, and the stances that they eventually assumed, that was all part of that, right? That's the social/emotional piece.


Yeah, we have to acknowledge that there is no way to divorce ourselves from these arguments. And I think what's beautiful about the history of the American approach is that I think we come to things believing that there's a goodness and we're trying to seek it. And so we've invented this idea of neutrality, and that somehow it's good if we can just be neutral and focus on the facts, but it's literally impossible. Something I've always admired about the way the French approach op eds is they always start by saying, "Here are all the things about me that position me in this argument. No upfront, here's what I think." And we don't do that at all in the US, but something about it is so much more trustworthy. And I think it's good for the writing as it is for the soul, because I've had these things.

I've had moments where, I will be completely blunt, I can't write about drug abuse easily, because there are those things I can look at and hear people say that seem to me logically true, like, "We need to treat addiction as a disease and we need to approach this with empathy." And I agree entirely. But then, I also look at the people in my life who have been so hurt by people who are addicted to drugs. And so by acknowledging where I'm coming from emotionally, I'm better able in the long run to say, "I'm not ready to have this conversation," as opposed to believing that I have to. I could have a conversation from where I'm standing that is much more interesting than a "should we or shouldn't we have Narcan?" argument.


You may not be able to write about addiction, but you have absolutely captured so much of the feeling of the mountain experience. And you recently published a poem, I don't think it was in your collection, Requiem for a Dollar Store Christmas Bear. That's not in your collection, is it?


It wasn't. There's a story about why, too.


Yeah, so tell me the story of the poem and then what has happened since the publication of that poem, because I thought this was, A, the most universal thing, but it was so beautifully couched in your life, and your place, and your geography.


So Toni Morrison talks about this idea of the flood, that human beings look at something and say, "That's a flood," but it's rarely actually a flood. We take a river that knows where it's supposed to be, and we try to push it somewhere else, but water knows where it comes from, and water knows where it's supposed to be, and the water finds its way back, and it's inconvenient when it does. And so we call it a flood. And so she says, "This is what the writer does, we flood back to that origin point. We feel it run across our skin and we can't escape it." And I think she's totally right.

And my primal flood was this experience in my life of us being so poor that we had to leave our trailer and go live with an aunt and uncle, an abusive uncle who threw away the one gift I was able to get for Christmas. And I feel like 90% of the time that I'm writing, I'm trying to process what happened in that moment, that moment of being so totally powerless. And I tried to write this poem. I actually, once I knew I was writing a collection, said, "Okay, this has to be in there." And I couldn't write it at all.


Wow, interesting.


So I ended up sending this whole collection that was meant to be about that poem, without it being in there. So Ada Limón came to Mount Sterling, and I was in the audience, and I asked her this question, "What do you do when your flood wants to go there and you can't touch it?" Her answer was very, very nuanced. But one of the things that she said was, "Maybe the flood's too dangerous to stand in, sort of, can you stand nearby? Can you pick something that was in that moment with you and write about it instead?" And so I had tried to write this from my perspective, and I'm not saying that I wrote it from this bear's perspective, but I thought, "I'm just going to write about the bear itself." That was the way that I could do this.


Right, what an incredible writing assignment for a student who is struggling with a trauma or a pain. You don't have to stand in the flood and face the oncoming waters. You can just stand on the bank, if that's where you can stand, and just describe. And so you found yourself able to focus on the bear, right, in that poem?


Yes, and of course, she's so beautiful, everything about her. The straightest I've ever felt was listening to her read, because I thought, "I just want to put my head in your lap and have you read to me. Is that what straight is?" But, yeah, she said, "Maybe you can create an entire world where this is happening, and you can write about something happening on the other side of that world, and you can tiptoe your way to it." Something I have noticed, I think if you are vulnerable, people will be vulnerable back.

It would not be a stretch to say I have had 40 queer Appalachian people in the last six months send me poems, who read Gay Poems for Red States and suddenly felt competent enough to be vulnerable. One guy, his biggest dream was to be brave enough to go to Eastern Kentucky again. And so he actually shared with me some poetry about why he didn't think he could ever go back. And then he actually did go to his high school reunion, and he was sending me these updates as he was making it down. There's so much healing potential in writing.


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




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




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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.


Willie Carver_DxO

Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr. is a student support specialist, educator, public speaker, and author, but mainly just a guy who wants to help make the world better. He happens to be a Kentucky Colonel and Kentucky Teacher of the Year too.

He is the author of the collection Gay Poems for Red States, a collection of narrative poetry about growing up queer in eastern Kentucky. He serves as a board member of the Kentucky Youth Law Project (which helps LGBTQ youth in Kentucky with legal needs) and is a re-occurring cohost and contributing board member of Progress Kentucky.

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

Date Published: 04/18/24

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