Last summer, Donna Shrum, eighth grade English teacher at North Fork Middle School, drove to New Orleans to participate in the week-long writing marathon sponsored by the local branch of the National Writing Project. On the drive home, she detoured by Monroeville, Alabama, the hometown of Harper Lee and the setting of her novel To Kill a Mockingbird. From her participation in the marathon and teaching Lee’s novel every year, she imagined combining several related projects with a common focus on writing and local and global communities. ]Photo: NFMS students write inside the Museum of the Civil War (New Market, VA.), one stop on their day-long writing marathon.]
The writing marathon in New Orleans followed a simple format. Small groups of participants, many of whom were teachers, visited spots in the French Quarter, Ms. Shrum explained, perhaps a cafe or a historic home or building, such as the house where William Faulkner lived and the apartment where Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire. Writers found a spot to sit and then wrote in the silence. Though they could write about anything, the location itself often served as inspiration. After writing, each person shared, followed not by critique, but just, “Thank you.” One or two other locations were visited for more writing before the day ended with an evening sharing session. The highlights of those sessions were recently shared on KSLU (“2016 Writing Marathon” under “Awards and Recognitions” http://www.kslu.org/awards_recognition/index.html).
The writing marathon was an exciting opportunity for Mrs. Shrum, who is not only an English teacher and chair of the English department, but also a Teacher Consultant for the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and associate director of the local College-Ready Writers Program, as well as a freelance writer for several journals and magazines. Inspired by other teachers in New Orleans who took their students on marathons on their campuses and towns, Mrs. Shrum wanted to offer to her students the same experience. When school began, Ms. Shrum applied for an iCHIP Grant, which is awarded for innovative instructional projects and a Moore Grant, which offers funding for special opportunities. (Photo of Donna Shrum by Nancy Shrum)
While waiting for possible funding, Mrs. Shrum held two cost-free, on-campus marathons. On December 21, courtesy of an iCHIP Grant, North Fork eighth graders boarded a bus for the first off-campus writing marathon to historical sites in New Market and in Mt. Jackson. In the days prior, Mrs. Shrum immersed her students in local history related to the locations they visited, including the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, Meems Bottom Covered Bridge, the African-American Graveyard in Mt. Jackson, the Confederate Monument in Our Soldiers’ Cemetery, and the Mt. Jackson Food Lion. At each location, students wrote for 10-20 minutes and then shared what they had written.
Students contemplate the Stained Glass Mural Wall inside the Museum of
the Civil War in New Market, VA. Artist Ami Shamir (New York) intended
for his wall to represent "the turmoil of the Shenandoah Valley" during
the war. VMI Cadets were only a few years older than these students
who paused here to write.
Students found a seat atop the stone foundation of the Covered Bridge at
Meems Bottom. With background music of the Shenandoah River and
the songs of birds, they wrote.
The Massanutten Mountain behind them, Lily Nesbitt (front)
and Rebecca Diehl posed in a cornfield near the Covered Bridge.
Just being outdoors may spark the imagination of students.
Students visited the Colored Cemetery and Our Soldiers Cemetery. Both are located across from Holtzman's in Mt. Jackson. Some students were not aware of the existence of the African-American cemetery or the fact that there was a time when races were buried in separate graveyards, new-found knowledge possibly reflected in their writing.
Students toured the Route 11 Potato Chip Factory in Mt. Jackson. According to Ms. Shrum, they were quite amazed by the production process.
Photo: Matthew Eaton takes time to hug a potato.
Most of Ms. Shrum’s students have found the writing marathons beneficial. “Writing Marathons help me grow in creativity, and express myself so I can discover my identity as a writer,” noted one student.” They help me think more creatively and more critically.”
Another student said,“I think the marathons help me get inspiration to write. I usually can't figure out what I want to write about, so the marathons help me choose what I want to write about.” A third student commented, “The marathons help me grow as a writer by putting me in different environments that cause different thoughts and ideas to come to mind and be written down.”
Over the summer, Ms. Shrum made contact with Derek Pugh, an eighth grade language arts teacher in Monroeville, Alabama. Mr. Pugh portrays Reverend Sykes in the play To Kill a Mockingbird performed at the courthouse every year.
Derek Pugh, left, who plays Rev. Sykes, shakes hands with Billy Garner before a performance of To Kill a Mockingbird inside the old Monroe County Courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama, April 15, 2016. (Photo is used with permission of the photographer, Jeff Haller for The New Times. Jeff Haller/Key Hole Photo, Mobile, AL.
Throughout the school year, the eighth grade students at both schools will collaborate on projects and meet online. Their first joint venture is currently reading Our Town together to continue the theme of communities, past and present. This week, they will share their writing and provide feedback to each other.
If additional funding becomes available, there will be a writing marathon at Belle Grove and Cedar Creek for Grade 8 students. Mrs. Shrum also has plans for students to publish a book that will include writing generated through their participation.
“Many students never leave Shenandoah County and can’t imagine doing so,” said Mrs. Shrum. She knows her students’ writing improves as they write throughout the year, and she hopes their sense of community will as well.
“Harper Lee found what was special in her community,” said Mrs. Shrum. “She looked at the stories around her and told them in a way that changed history. I want my students to see they could be our Harper Lee and tell our communities’ stories.”