Teacher to Teacher
Talking with ... MARV HOFFMAN
Interviewed by Magdalen Dale
Marv Hoffman is another teacher whose book (Chasing Hellhounds: A Teacher Learns from His Students) was recommended to me by my own teacher, Sandi Wisenberg. Like Bob Boone, Marv has had a winding career path grounded in undying respect for his students and conviction for the power of creative writing. While he holds a Ph. D in Clinical Psychology from Harvard University, Marv has done the majority of his counseling in classrooms. His students have ranged from preschoolers to adults and he has held professional positions in numerous states, including Texas, New Hampshire, and Illinois. He is the Founding Director of the North Kenwood Oakland Charter School in Chicago and Associate Director for the University of Chicago's Urban Teacher Education Program. On one of the first sunny days of the summer I biked the Lakefront Trail down to Hyde Park to meet up with Marv at his office and talk with him about teaching.
MD: You have doubtlessly been influential to a number of students throughout your years of teaching, but I am curious to hear about who has been influential to you.
MF: Well it's interesting, as someone who is sort of professionally involved with schools and with teachers, to realize that the first person who comes to mind is a non-school example. When I was a teenager [in Brooklyn] I had a youth group leader, Marv Weiss, at my synagogue who was himself a rabbinical student. He came to our youth group several times a week to lead conversations, to teach, to organize activities. Unfortunately he died very young so I didn't have a chance to have an ongoing adult relationship with him, but I think what was so significant in retrospect (though I didn't think about it at the time) was the respectful way in which he dealt with me in particular, and with all the kids. He was ten or twelve year older than most of the kids in the group, but he treated us in an adult way and expected us to act accordingly. I think this model of respect is something that has pervaded all of my teaching experiences and has made it possible for me to establish relationships with kids that I have taught.
When asking students to write, do you have a favorite exercise or prompt that you like to use?
I have a couple of prompts that come to mind. One that I use quite often and another, kind of sillier one that's just kind of fun. The first one is writing about your name, which I think a lot of people have done. I've done it in writing sessions with kids and with adults of all ages and I think people are sufficiently narcissistic to be totally engaged by it. When I do this exercise, I usually start by reading a chapter from The House on Mango Street [by Sandra Cisneros] called "Esperanza" in which the character Esperanza talks about what her name means to her and what she knows about the person she is named after. I've also generated a whole series of follow-up questions. You know: What were your nicknames when you were growing up? What were your fantasies about what you wished to be called? What do you know about the meaning of your name? And I've never encountered anyone who doesn't get involved this task.
The one that's a little crazier and that I think you would find amusing is asking people to write about the history of their hair. Depending on what generation you are in or what your racial identity is, there's so much personal and cultural history that can be tracked through the different hairstyles, or when you had hair and then got bald.
[Laughter] Hypothetically speaking, of course.
I have these incredible high school photographs of myself with a great big pompadour and I have a nephew who is very involved with his hair. It's an important part of his ego and I think he was really taken aback to discover that this was something I had once had too and that it's an attribute that you can actually lose. Fortunately I got bald very young so it's not connected with any sense of aging or loss. It's been who I am for a very long time. Anyway, you can see what I would write about in response to this particular assignment. Again I think this is a prompt that can work with kids or adults too.
I've also done a lot of writing about favorite places, which is usually connected to mapping your childhood terrain, and identifying stories within that terrain. So, I could for example draw a map of the block that I grew up on in Brooklyn. I've lived there from the time I was born until I went off to graduate school, so I have this encyclopedic knowledge of everything that went on in every house on the block, and all the stores on the shopping street that was adjacent. Just mapping out your childhood haunts is a great stimulus for all kinds of storytelling.
I realize it's kind of silly to ask you if you have ever learned anything from your students, since your book is subtitled "A Teacher Learns from His Students" but would you mind elaborating on a couple of the specific lessons that you learned?
One of my earliest teaching experiences was when we moved from New York to New Hampshire and I was working in a small school in Vermont which was just across the border from New Hampshire. The principal gave us a big wing of the school which they had just built in anticipation of an increased student population. We were doing a writing program at the school and while the space was still unneeded, the principal let us turn it into a writing workshop. What we did in there was a lot of wonderful crazy things which I wonder whether I still would have the creative energy to do now. We built a stage so kids could write their own plays and then perform them. We built a dark room. The kids were taking pictures and writing along with the pictures. We bought a lot of old printing equipment that was no longer being used in print shops. And for all of this we built a lot of the stuff ourselves--and this is where I'm getting to the actual answer to the question. We wanted to build lofts in so that kids had private space to write in and read in, but I had never built anything. You know growing up in the city, it just wasn't part of my experience, but here I had 5th and 6th graders from a rural area who had built houses with their fathers and they knew all these practical skills that I didn't have access to So this is a very literal example of learning from your students and I think I at least came away from it knowing how to nail two boards together and build something that would actually stand up without falling down.
So that's one, but another more intangible example, and one that comes across more in my book, is the kids I worked with in Houston who were from fairly diverse backgrounds. Most of my teaching life has been spent teaching kids of color. Starting from my first teaching job out of graduate school which was at a historically black college where I had students who were really my guides into a culture that I hadn't grown up in and wouldn't have been able to understand and appreciate without their guidance. And that's carried through--working with high school kids, working with elementary kids of color. And I just feel very grateful that I've found myself in situations where, with the help of the students, I've been able to cross some boundaries that I wouldn't have been able to navigate without them.
And lastly, where do you see, and/or would you like to see, creative writing teaching headed?
First of all I think, for kids in public schools, and particularly students in high school, the first direction that I would like to see things headed in is providing kids with any opportunity to do creative writing because it's very low on the educational agenda these days. Especially with the testing-madness, it's not valued. Creative writing doesn't help people get good scores on tests and do the kind of writing they are expected to do when there is a written component, you know, the stuff that nobody of their own volition would want to read, the classic five-paragraph essays. I think another thing that has to happen is that teachers have to get involved in their own writing. I ran a writing project for teachers in Houston which was really built on that premise that once teachers became writers themselves, their understanding of what kids need as writers and their eagerness to provide that for them would develop out of their own experiences as writers. So I think for the most part what is needed, is just providing opportunities for people to write. I've been working in an 8th grade classroom in the school that I helped start and we just put together an anthology of stories that the kids had written. We were doing stuff about genre writing and the kids were writing horror stories and mystery stories. There was a sense of liberation that you could feel from the kids because even though there are a lot of good things happening in my old school which is head and shoulders above most public schools, there are still very few opportunities for that sort of creative outlet. Kids really connect with it when they are given the opportunity.
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