Each week, a group of SUNY Cortland students meets as the Cortland Writers Association to exercise their writing skills critically engage one another’s work.
Those students are now starting to take their passion for the written word beyond the SUNY Cortland campus.
On Nov. 14, members of the association and David Franke, professor in SUNY Cortland’s English Department and the group’s faculty advisor, traveled to Seven Valleys New Tech Academy in Cortland to work with local high school students.
They divided students into small groups and gave them a brief creative writing assignment: describe a person, place or thing that defined “home.”
“There’s something about creative writing that helps them be really honest with their experiences,” said Cameron Poli, a junior professional writing major and Cortland native. “It allows them to present that in an artistic way and create relevance for any tough experiences they’ve gone through.”
This was an optional and elective program for students at Seven Valleys, some of whom had little previous experience with creative writing. Others, however, were very comfortable with the genre. By working with college students in an intimate setting, the high school students were able to build confidence in their abilities through verbally sharing their writing with all participants.
“There was one girl who shared a story in my group and it really got to her feelings and her perspective of being a young girl who loved books, who was so enthralled by stories and was using them as an escape,” said Collin Horak, a senior communication studies major and professional writing minor from Cortland. “That was a reflective moment for me as someone who loved books as a kid and used them as an escape.”
Victoria Van Every, a junior professional writing major from Lakewood, N.Y., led a small group of students in creative writing “sprints” as they developed material to be read aloud in the large group session.
“The common denominator was writing,” Franke said. “You’re writers, they’re writers and you’re all on the same level and you’re all free to explore together. I thought (the SUNY Cortland students) did a phenomenal job of getting the kids to relax and put their stuff on the table as writers.”
Alex Plesnar, a senior adolescence education: English (7-12) major from Vestal, N.Y., was pleased to work hands-on with students in a classroom setting. The experience was also of academic value for the college students who led the session, as it forced them to think about their own creative process and how to edit and offer constructive criticism to others.
“Through giving back to the community and working with high schoolers, we are keeping the core value of improving our own writing, too,” said Plesnar. “We’re seeing our own writing and we’re helping teach them how to write, so it’s very self-reflective about your own writing process and seeing your own words and your own flaws.”
Seven Valleys New Tech Academy, operated by Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES, is an alternative school that serves students in grades 9 through 12. It aims to provides an innovative environment and to improve college and career readiness through project-based learning, collaborative workspaces and technology.
Shawn Waterman, a teacher at Seven Valleys New Tech Academy who helped coordinate the event, said “This was a fantastic experience for everyone involved. Our students are eager for the next visit from the Cortland Writers Association.”
Poli, who serves as president of the student organization Cortland Writers Association, is hoping to keep this partnership with Seven Valley intact into the future. The group has been invited to return to the school in February and they are also compiling the writing of the high school students into a short magazine in the mold of the association’s annual literary magazine, Transition.
Most of all, the college students want to continue to spread their passion for encouraging others to express themselves through writing.
“I talked to one student and his poem was really, really good,” Poli said. “I told him that his work was right up there with some of the work I hear when I lead my writers club and I saw his eyes light up. That was a cool moment for me to have the opportunity to inspire them.”