Colette van Kerckvoorde, Director of Writing and Thinking Workshop, Talks About Teaching Young Writers

Colette is also Division Head in Languages and Literature and Professor of German and French.

How long have you been teaching the Writing and Thinking Workshop? 

I taught my first workshop in 1987 after being trained by Natalie Harper [a founding faculty member of Simon’s Rock].  Since then, I have taught it almost every single year. It was only natural that I would offer to be the director when John Weinstein left the position [Weinstein is serving as Dean of the Early College at Bard High School Early College in Newark NJ through 2014].  I am currently in my third year as director.

What do you most like about teaching young writers?

I like most of all that I get to work with a new group of students who are very eager to be in the classroom, willing to be challenged, and are experiencing what Simon's Rock is all about. It is a pleasure to watch how they react to the readings and the actual writing. We are doing things quite differently from what they have experienced in high school, and they respond very well to our approach. As workshop leaders, we spend five hours each day with a small group of students, and it is a great opportunity for us to get to know these students very well.  They, too, get attached to the others in their group and form their first friendships here.

How has the writing workshop changed over time?

The core philosophy and approach of the Writing and Thinking Workshop have not changed substantially: we still want to provide students with tools and techniques to revise, improve, and edit their own writing and to instill in them a belief that this can best be done by working collaboratively with their peers. These aims can be met in a variety of ways: we still have a core anthology, but we are using film, music, and paintings more frequently than we used to in my early years. Such an evolution is natural and is in line with the changes we recently made in the Seminar courses.  

When I first led workshop sessions we did not have students work on a PPP, i.e., a "Polished Piece of Prose." This is the first written assignment that students complete at Simon's Rock and bring to their Seminar I instructor. Students have a very clear connection with the Seminars. Another important change is the introduction of the Book One program.

How does the Book One choice impact the writing workshop?

Book One is the first book that all students read and write/talk about in the classroom. In their workshop, they prepare for the author's visit to the campus. Then, they actually get to see the author, listen to them, ask them concrete questions, and talk to them at the reception after the lecture. Last year's author, Julia Otsuka, talked extensively about the process of writing her novel The Buddha in the Attic: it took her ten years, she emphasized. She also revealed a lot about the writing process. Such close contact and discussion with an established author encourages the students to reflect on the act of writing and to revisit their own beliefs about the writing process. In a way, the authors all reinforce that the methods that we use in Writing and Thinking are valuable and useful to them, even though they may not be familiar with the actual work that the students do.

Have early college students changed over the last 25 years?

Simon's Rock students have always responded very well to the work that we do in Workshop. I have not seen any trends that are noteworthy.  Students still use pen and paper in the workshop – students are less used to writing by hand, but they are willing to try and adapt quickly. I think that they enjoy sitting in a room, writing, and have complete silence. I also believe that they recognize that the computer has many distracting factors and that the use of pen and paper may actually keep them far more centered than they would with their laptops.

Anything else we should know about Writing and Thinking Workshop?

All faculty who teach workshop have two and a half days of training in which they do exactly the same work as the freshmen will do. Faculty participate in the training, regardless of the number of years they have taught a workshop.

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