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nature & nurture

From Nature to Nurture

Ecology and Pedagogy Inform Two Long-running Writing & Poetics Courses

By Brenda Gillen and Owen Johnson

In the Jack Kerouac School, students learn that writing can be a force for social change. While they experiment with their own creative expressions, they also delve deeply into literary studies. Additionally, the curriculum provides opportunities for students to learn how to teach others. In 2009, Naropa Magazine highlighted the twentieth anniversary of the Eco-Lit course, which today continues to challenge Writing and Poetics MFA students to address ecological issues in their work. Adjunct Professor Jack Collom teaches Eco-Lit, as well as Project Outreach, in which undergraduate and graduate students lead creative writing sessions in community settings.

Twenty Years of Eco-Lit

"A hallmark for the class," says Writing & Poetics instructor Jack Collom, "is variety. I feel, with Darwin, that variety is the main generative force in life."

For twenty years, Collom has tried to dispel the notion that ecological literature is an easily pigeon-holed genre by mixing the essays of Thoreau, the nonfiction of Rachel Carson and the poetry of Gary Snyder with everything from scientific jargon to tribal songs and bumper stickers. "I try to create," he continues, "the idea in students' minds that all kinds of disparate writing can be eco-lit. I once asked a student to write on 'what is ecology?' and he said it is 'the topic that's larger than all others that includes all others.' It is the relationship of the world to itself."

From Call of the Wild to Into the Wild, nature has long proven a powerful muse for writers, and when Collom was invited to create a class three years after his arrival at Naropa in 1986, the lifelong bird watcher remembered playing in the woods around his small Illinois hometown. "I felt, and events have born out, that eco-lit was really an upcoming topic for the world," he says. "I was motivated by the cause of ecology—saving nature and ourselves from our own foolish extinction through pollution and overuse of resources—and the fact that it's an art with admirable philosophical achievements. But also for the fun of it. Humor is an important part of the class, and we can go from discussing the most tragic thing to cracking jokes. I'm for that kind of juxtaposition, which sometimes goes against expectations because people want to look upon nature very solemnly due to its beauty or endangered status. But I think humor is as deep as anything."

Fittingly, Collom identifies the Walden and Sawhill Ponds of northeastern Boulder as favorite field trip destinations. There, he says, students can write surrounded by ponds, fields, woods, plains, and mountain views all converging in one place. Class assignments, too, extend the Darwinian metaphors of diversity and interrelationships. "Sometimes students think it's a pure literature survey class, and they're in for a bit of a shock," he says. "I like to present a mix of activities: out-of-class writings, readings, some creative writing, some essay writing, discussions....

"A couple years ago, I had some very bright students who were skeptical about the 'ecological orthodoxy'—warnings about peak oil and similar things. They wrote some of their response papers as critical satires, describing the horrors of public transportation and such. And while I was, personally, a little astonished, I welcomed this and asked them to read their pieces. The rest of us wrote responses on the spot and, next meeting, those responses were read. We continued to trade opinions until it all dissolved into a workable soup."

With no plans to slow down, Collom continues to evolve his class, proud of its paradoxical role as a Naropa fixture that evades classification with slippery ease.

Eighteen Years of Project Outreach

Project Outreach brings the variety Collom so values by taking students from the classroom, where they are learners, into the larger community as instructors. For eighteen years, Project Outreach students have led weekly creative writing sessions in schools, health organizations, women's groups, and facilities for elders.

Kirstin Wagner, a second-year MFA Student in Writing & Poetics, was enrolled in Project Outreach in fall 2010. She taught at Columbine Elementary School's Family Resource after-school program, where she led a creative writing workshop for eight students in grades three through five, and at Whittier International Elementary, where she led a "Poetry Café" for a fifth-grade class of 33 students.

"I learned early on that teaching elementary school students is not conducive to specific to-the-minute lesson planning," Wagner says, noting that she had to be flexible and constantly reassess and adjust her approach to meet individual students' needs. At Columbine, her students sometimes spoke to each other in Spanish, which she didn't understand. "Having a language barrier to deal with was challenging, but also helped me learn how to communicate more clearly, and required me to become not just a creative writing teacher, but also an English teacher, challenges for which I was grateful."

Wagner has taught in the Columbine program for three semesters. "Teaching writing to young children has been very beneficial to my growth as an educator. I worked with many students who tested my patience, required constant disciplining, and forced me to get creative in order to inspire them to write creatively and appropriately." Back at Naropa, Wagner says Collom invited students to discuss their creative writing sessions. "These class sessions were extremely helpful, because not only did they provide a space in which to discuss our own experiences, but it was also very enriching to hear about my peers' approaches to teaching," she says. She credits the Writing Pedagogy Seminar and Project Outreach for helping prepare her to enter the workforce as a writer and a teacher.

Luke Davison, a second-year MFA student in Writing & Poetics, leads classes at Chinook Clubhouse, a community house for individuals dealing with mental illness. Davison says sessions often feature a writing exercise derived from Collom's book, Poetry Everywhere.

"The group has met each new exercise with enthusiasm and creative confidence. Observing and being a part of the interesting work that has been generated every week at Chinook has been restorative in that I've been more playful in my work," Davison says. He thinks the group's eagerness to write and share their work may be indicative of a cathartic, or perhaps even therapeutic, function.

Davison describes Collom's approach as "guiding us not merely in the conventional classroom student/teacher dynamic, but in the formulation of our individual approaches to working in the community." Davison says he's glad he's focused on more than his own development as a writer. "Seeing firsthand how writing can work outside the graduate community has made me more appreciative of my role as a scripter for the endlessly interesting and redemptive creative gift in other people, who often do not consider themselves writers at all," he says.

Over the years, Collom has seen the outreach efforts profoundly inform students' writing and strengthen their academic experience. "From the minds of children and others, using creative writing ideas, terrific varieties of poetic inspiration emerge," Collom explains. "Also, the process of teaching writing can open up important understandings for one's own work."