Monday, October 11, 2010
49. Great teaching and great learning: The Lake Cullulleraine Writers' Camp, 1995-201?
It’s been going since 1995 – the annual Irymple Secondary College Writers’ Camp. Irymple is a 7 – 10 secondary college, with around 600 students. The Writers’ Camp began, all those years ago, as an attempt to lift the profile of writing in the school. It’s now an “institution”. For 16 years, groups of kids from Irymple SC have participated. In the first year, there were just 25 kids. For ten years, the numbers were pretty stable – around 35 – 40. In the past few years, the numbers have sky rocketed. In 2008 more than 90 attended; in fact, over the past 5 years, the numbers around 60- or more.
Bill Sauer has taught English at the school for 20 or more years, and has been the ‘school-end’ organiser of the camp for 15 of its 16 years. He participates in every workshop, and writes stories and poems and songs himself throughout each camp.
Many of the students who attend the Writers’ Camp come back year after year. For me, as a teacher and writer, it is a site of ‘great teaching and great learning’.
Erin Wookey is one attended for 4 years consecutive years. She says of the experience that ‘ ... the energy and passion of the staff’ were in part what kept bringing her back. But it was more than that: ‘… for me it meant finding a place where being ‘bright’, slightly hyperactive and creative was applauded by staff and fellow students rather than being something that had to be contained to fit in with the rest of the class!’
What is the Writers Camp like?
Ten thirty, a.m., on a warm day in May.2007. A bus pulls up in front of the RSL Camp at Lake Cullulleraine. Sixty students are soon off the bus, collecting their sleeping bags and paraphernalia, and then establishing their territory in one of the spacious dorms.
The Camp is not exactly ‘five star’. There are two large dorms on either side of a large mess hall. Each dorm – one for boys, the other for girls - can hold up to about 60 students; they sleep on double bunks. The floor rises and falls, and creaks when you walk on it, and the carpet has seen better days. The old piano in the corner of the Mess Hall is seriously out of tune.
In no time flat, it seems, the dorms resemble what they in fact will be for the next three days: the bedrooms of adolescents. There are mobile phones, guitars, CD players, I-pods, clothes, dressing gowns, towels, toiletries …
There are some familiar faces, kids who were at the Writers’ Camp in the previous year. For us – the workshop presenters – there’s the inevitable feeling of excitement and of apprehension: first day jitters, all the stronger because neither Lena nor Phong have run workshops before. Both are ex-students of mine, from a TAFE Writing course in which I used to teach. (Lena is an emerging writer, a mature-age student in a Writing and Editing course a terrific writer, and she has teenagers of her own. Phong is 26. He’s a graphic artist and animator, and is also a student in the writing course, where he’s wanting to develop his writing skills to complement his outstanding artistic skills; but he’s very quiet and shy – almost withdrawn. He’s nervous about running workshops with teenagers.)
The other two workshop leaders know their stuff. For Sarah, this is her fifth Lake Cullulleraine Writers’ Camp, and she and I have run dozens of song writing workshops, both together and separately. For Myron Lysenko, a professional poet since 1989, this is his tenth Irymple Writers’ Camp. He’s run more poetry workshop than he’s had hot dinners.
At 11a.m. they’re seated in the Mess hall. I introduce myself.
‘Good morning. I’m Barry. It’s great to see so many of you here. How many of you were here last year?’ I ask.
Hands go up; I count 24. We had 36 kids at the camp last year; 24 of them are back – that’s a great return rate, considering that last year’s 36 included quite a few year 10 students who will now be at the Senior College. And we have 25 Year 7 kids. A couple of the students are at their fourth Writers’ Camp – they’ve attended each year, from year 7 till year 10. When I first began to run the camp the participants were almost exclusively girls; this year 14 boys are taking part.
‘Welcome to the 16th Annual Irymple SC Writers’ Camp. You are now part of a unique tradition. This is the 16th year that this school has conducted this camp – and I’m proud to have attended every one of them. Many of you weren’t even born when the first Writers’ Camp took place. I don’t think there’s another school in Victoria that has established and maintained an annual writers’ camp over so many years. There may not be another school in Australia that has such a long-running and successful writers’ camp. Indeed, it may be unique in the world.
‘I know that all of you are here because you enjoy writing. Writers’ Camp gives you the chance to really focus on your writing. For the next three days you’ll be given the chance to write poems, stories, songs and sketches for performance.’
We distribute copies of the program, and a 64 page exercise book to each participant. The workshop leaders then strut their stuff. Sarah sings one of her award-winning songs: ‘Men’. Phong shows the kids some of his art work. They gasp when he holds up his portrait of Yoda. ‘Wow!’ I hear from several places around the room. ‘Cool!’ Lena reads a short story, an autobiographical piece, drawn from her childhood. She reads beautifully; the kids are utterly silent, and their applause when she finishes is strong: they like the piece immensely - they identify with it. Myron reads a quirky rap poem about being a writer, and then sings his song ‘Beauty Spots:
Some people are beautiful
and some have beauty spots.
Most people are handsome
but I am one who’s not!
I round off the introductory performances, singing ‘At Lake Cullulleraine’, a song I composed the day before the camp:
At Lake Cullulleraine
At Lake Cullulleraine, everybody’s busy writing stories
At Lake Cullulleraine, everybody’s busy writing songs
Down by the lake Myron’s teaching people to write haiku
And in the hall people are exploring ways of drawing well with Phong
At Lake Cullulleraine, everybody’s playing ukulele
At Lake Cullulleraine, we have formed a ukulele band
It’s such a thrill to listen as they practice playing daily
You seem to hear the sound of lapping water upon Polynesian sand
At Lake Cullulleraine, they’re driving me insane
I’m going of my brain, at Lake Cullulleraine
Oh they make us suffer pain, at Lake Cullulleraine
Getting down to work
We divide the kids into working groups: six groups, ten students per group. Each group contains a mix of kids from year 7 to year 10, with boys and girls in each group. Each group has 5 minutes to come up with its own name; each year I’m surprised at their comedic ingenuity: Ya Mum, Nothing, The Popes, SBS (which I discover means ‘Slap Barry Senseless’).
Then it’s straight into workshops. The workshop groups consist of 20 kids. They cycle through the four workshops: song writing, drawing, poetry and autobiographical writing. Each workshop is around 90 – 120 minutes. It’s intensive, but engaging. There’s a break of 15 – 20 minutes between workshops.
There are electives, too. These give the kids the opportunity to follow through on the activities that really interest them: Song writing, Drawing, Poetry, Life writing, Learning Ukulele, Lake Cullulleraine Not So Big Band …
During free time, the kids mainly sit on the grass at the lake-side. Most of them work on revising a poem, a story, a song; some rehearse for the concert. The workshop leaders are available during this free time to give feedback to the kids, either encouraging their efforts or pushing them to improve on their work. Lena roams from student to student giving advice: “Show, don’t tell.” … “Good writing often comes from using vivid details, not overt expressions of feelings.” …Myron does the same: “This poem can be about everybody, and so it’s not really about anyone.”
On the first night we have a literary quiz. This year it’s called the The Great Myron Lesmurrayenko Poetry Challenge Cup.
After camp – driving home and reading the evaluations
It’s Friday afternoon, and we’re driving home. We have the kids’ evaluations of the camp. As we drive, Sarah reads aloud what the kids have written. We laugh, we draw breath, we are excited.
Lena’s workshop was fantastic. I think I wrote a really good autobiography… Before Lena’s workshop I didn’t even know what autobiography meant…
I liked this because it let us all express our feelings. Lena’s stories were really inspirational.
Overall this workshop was my favourite. I thought that Lena really brought out the story in me, and helped me put it on paper.
The writing workshop was brilliant. She taught me a lot about writing great work.
I loved it x 50!
It’s the same for all of the workshops – and electives. One boy writes that the camp was ‘Good’. It’s the least enthusiastic response in the whole group. The others write things like:
The Drawing class was awesome. Phong is a master at drawing. He taught me how to draw from simple shapes. Phong’s Yoda picture was awesome!
I loved the drawing class. He is a great drawer, and some of the work his students produced was just amazing.
I will always remember just how much fun it is to write all of your thoughts, feelings, past experiences – anything – just writing down by the lake…
I loved the song writing … I never really thought that you could just grab words and make them into a song. I thought it was pretty cool and I’d love to do it again.
The concert was the best part of writers’ camp. It lets everyone hear your work … there’s songs, dances, poems, stories and more …
I loved the concert. I got to learn more about each person. And it was great how everybody co-operated with each other. I’m glad I presented my poem.
I think the concert is a great idea. We got to produce poetry and songs and boost our confidence in writing and reading them. I loved having a concert.
Myron’s poetry class really gets me going. He explains so clearly what we have to do, and because I’m into poetry more than anything, it’s what I look forward to …
For one student, the highlight of the camp was … the two poems I wrote and read out at the concert. I wrote them from the deepest inside of me …
So what is going on? Why such a positive response? Why do kids keep coming back, year after year in some cases?
The reasons are hinted at in the evaluations. Lake Cullulleraine is a place of calm; many of the kids love – dare I write it – the serenity - just writing down by the lake…
Others value the chance to express their confusions and fears and loves and hates – the chance to write… from the deepest inside of me …
In many schools, writing isn’t seen as being all that ‘cool’. Not every kid is like the one who liked Myron’s class because … he explains so clearly what we have to do, and because I’m into poetry more than anything, it’s what I look forward to …
The Writers’ Camp provides a place of safety, a place where kids who enjoy writing and self expression can write and express themselves without fear of being teased or put down or regarded as nerds.
The Writers’ Camp is a part of the Irymple SC culture. The logistics are invariably difficult. The school’s program is dynamic, and very full; the demands on teachers are great; it’s not always easy to find enough staff to provide the required levels of supervision. But each year the school does it.
Last year, Jess and Erin came back for a visit. Erin is now in the third year of her degree in Medicine at Monash. She attended 4 Writers’ camps. Each of her sisters – Stacey, Chelsea and Cassie also attended 4 camps. There was a ten year period during which there was at least one of that family of girls at Writers’ Camp.
This year – and last year - Dan and Ryan came back. They’d first come when they were in Year 9. At that time, they were into rap. Ryan is currently doing year 12 while Dan is studying at TAFE and they are into song-writing and poetry. Both had to get special permission from the senior college to attend last year; it took quite a bit of negotiation on their part, but their persistence won out.
Toward the end of the 2006 camp, Myron and I were chatting to Dan and Ryan about the future, and we mentioned that we’d been thinking about ending our involvement in the camp.
‘After all,’ I explained. ‘I’ll be turning 64 next year … And Myron’s not getting any younger.’
A few days later, Daniel wrote to Myron; what follows are excerpts from his email:
Yet another exciting and highly successful Writer's Camp! There is certainly a lot of new blood in the creative arts world, young kids with lots of talent...
Every Writer's Camp makes memories that are still entertaining to talk about until the next one rolls around.
When other people hear my concert performances from Writer's, I realize they hear dodgy sound, ordinary singing and sluggish timing, but when I hear them... I realise that with focus, practice, and passion, I can achieve what I have wanted ever since I started writing, to bring my songs to life. I have the Writer's Camp to thank for this. All it took for this kid to realise he's not as far away from his goals as he thought is a few modern-day magicians like yourselves. I realise the Writer's Camp won't last forever... But it will live on forever inside my heart.
If I'm ever famous enough for people to care about my life, I'll write an autobiography and dedicate the biggest chapter to you guys... This event has been the turning point and motivation in my life 3 years in a row now. It seems to come along just as I fall into a rut and the whole thing pulls me right out and sets me back on track.
The following year Dan and Ryan came back as workshop leaders, and offered an alternative music workshop at next year’s camp.
So we return each year. After their first Writers’ Camp, Lena Pasqua and Phong Lam are on a high, buoyed up and surging on the wave of positive responses to their workshops. Sarah Cowan is still in awe of the powerful emotions that the camp generates, the commitment and enthusiasm of the kids, and their willingness to have a go.
I’ll let a student have the all-but-final word:
The most satisfying piece of work was the ‘I Remember’ piece I did with Lena … I got to write about something I have never told about or explained to anyone. And that just felt like a huge relief to write it down.
For many kids, the Writers’ Camp is good fun, and they get to try their hands at song writing, drawing, writing poetry and stories. For some, it is deeply moving, and they write from the deepest inside of me. For some, it’s a source of motivation – can even be a turning point in their lives. To be part of all of that is very special: a privilege.
It is great teaching and great learning.