Wrinkle Writing

by Susan Pearson-Davis

The Wrinkle Writing Project is a collaborative program which originated in the University of New Mexico's Department of Theatre and Dance in 1993. Its purposes are to use creative drama to enrich writing experiences in elementary and secondary classrooms, to encourage the inclusion of playwriting in the curriculum, and to use dramatic performance to publish student writing. Currently, most schools in Albuquerque do not include playwriting in the curriculum. Wrinkle Writing is driven by the belief that dramatizing the written word involves students not just intellectually and imaginatively, but physically, emotionally, and socially as well. Drama can provide a valuable addition to more traditional approaches to teaching and learning.

The idea for Wrinkle Writing emerged when I directed a stage adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's Newbery Award winning novel, A Wrinkle in Time in the spring of 1993. L'Engle, a friend of UNM emeritus playwriting professor, Robert Hartung, accepted our invitation to visit UNM to teach a writing workshop. Although the Department already had strong ties with Albuquerque high school drama teachers, I hoped that L'Engle's visit would help us forge a relationship with elementary and secondary language arts teachers that focused on writing. L'Engle wanted her workshop to be intergenerational, including children and teens as well as adults, so her desires dovetailed with mine.

I called colleagues from the College of Education for advice on making L'Engle's workshop useful to teachers and children. Education Professor, Don Zancanella, who heads the Rio Grande Writing Project, a chapter of the National Writing Project, provided me with the names of elementary and secondary writing teachers who would be good at designing a conference surrounding the L'Engle workshop. The twelve teachers who agreed to help us were all members of the Rio Grande Writing Project, so they had a strong philosophical commitment to writing process that blended beautifully with the process-orientation of creative drama. Several meetings later, the outlines of the Wrinkle Writing Project (named in honor of L'Engle's famous novel) emerged, and the Rio Grande Writing Project agreed to fund teacher stipends for the professional development training that teachers would need. Although L'Engle had to postpone her visit until March of 1995, the project kept "Wrinkle" in the title, took on a life of its own, and has grown to be more than a single visit by a famous writer.

Wrinkle Writing now has four components. The key component is professional development of teachers. We train participating teachers in: methods for using creative drama and writing workshop techniques; the basic concepts of playwriting; and how to use dramatic staging techniques such as staged reading, story theatre, and readers' theatre to stage their students' written works. These team-taught training sessions include Saturday morning workshops throughout the school year and an intensive two week institute in the summer. UNM playwriting professor and Emmy Award winner, Digby Wolfe covers playwriting; classroom teacher Julia Huchmala and author Jeanne Whitehouse teach about writing processes; and I teach the creative drama. Participating teachers then use these concepts and techniques in their classrooms, and their students create portfolios of writing stimulated by dramatic improvisations. Once a teacher has taken one of our training workshops, that teacher's classroom is eligible to be a part of the other components listed below. Teachers also receive our bi-monthly Wrinkle Writing Newsletter and an extensive curriculum guide.

The second component is the portfolio competition that culminates in a visit by a luminary guest writer. Each year, Wrinkle Writing brings a well-known author or playwright to the University of New Mexico. Students from participating classrooms who want to attend a two-day intensive workshop taught by that writer, submit two selections from their portfolios. A panel of ten writing teachers reads the submissions and selects the top forty young writers to come to the UNM campus and attend that workshop. Teachers who have served as portfolio competition judges also earn the right to attend. In addition, guest writers give a talk for all teachers, students, and parents of students in participating classrooms. Madeleine L'Engle was this year's guest writer. Last year's was Newbery Award winner, Paul Fleischman.

We designed the third component, the performance troupe, for teachers who want an intensive immersion in drama. We select up to twelve teachers from those who apply and assign a UNM theatre student to visit their classroom and work with their students twice a month for an entire school year. The UNM theatre student leads improvisational drama activities to introduce the concepts and processes of theatre and to stimulate ideas for first drafts. Then the UNM student organizes informal classroom readings and performances of these drafts so students can see their work on its feet for purposes of revisions. Finally, the theatre student directs them in a production of their works that they present for the whole school. Teachers find that this extensive demonstration of drama techniques in their own classroom allows them to learn more about what we've introduced in the professional development workshops.

The fourth component of Wrinkle Writing is its showcases. The UNM Department of Theatre and Dance produces a showcase of short works, written and performed by Wrinkle Writing students who have been in the performance troupe. This gives students the experience of creating costumes for their scenes and performing them in a fully equipped theatre on campus. The Department of Theatre and Dance provides a flexible modular set they can arrange as needed to serve their scripts and full stage lighting. The performance is free and open to the public, but heavily attended by parents, relatives, and friends.

The portfolio competition generates so much good writing that we are adding several more showcases. Next year, UNM theatre students will tour a production of selected Wrinkle Writing pieces to Albuquerque elementary and middle schools. Also next year, a local youth theatre group, Theatre-in-the-Making, is joining forces with Albuquerque Little Theatre, to produce a selection of works from the portfolio competition. These will allow the young playwrights to see their work in a polished, professional production either by college actors at UNM or by accomplished child and teenage actors. In some cases, the directors will work with the young playwrights on any necessary revisions so they learn what a collaborative art form theatre is. This link to community theatres as well as to schools significantly enriches the collaboration.

Thus far, the project has reached approximately 55 teachers and nearly 2000 students from a wide variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Two of our most active classrooms are at the Zuni Pueblo, and we have had bilingual students submitting work in Spanish as well as English. The UNM theatre students working for us include Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans, as well as Anglo/European Whites. They provide important role models for our young writers. Participating classrooms also represent the entire spectrum of ability levels. Along with their creative writing, portfolio competition participants must submit a "Process Paper" discussing how and why they wrote their works. In this way, judges can take into account a student's dedication and motivation in addition to talent.

We were fortunate to be able to build on an existing network of excellent elementary andsecondary writing teachers through the Rio Grande Writing Project and these teachers have inspired us with their talent, enthusiasm, and commitment. They quickly discovered how to integrate drama into subjects across the curriculum and have used it to teach literature, art, science, and social studies as well as creative writing in all genres. The quality of dramatic writing done by these teachers in the professional development workshops has been excellent. Some of them have seen their work produced in UNM showcases along with plays written by graduate and undergraduate theatre majors. Their excitement at discovering their playwriting ability adds depth and passion to their work with students.

Wrinkle Writing has also affected the lives of the students who have participated. Those who are shy about putting pen to paper are often very happy to get up and improvise dramatic situations, then write alone or in groups to capture on paper what they've just enacted. We treat our young writers as professionals. They sign contracts if we select their work for production and they see their writing taken seriously by their peers, college students and faculty, teachers, and parents. We give awards or certificates to all participants. Our guest writers also approach the children as colleagues and fellow writers.

The collaboration has had some other unexpected benefits. It has opened up exciting areas for research in the interaction between creative drama processes and writing processes. The knowledge and expertise of the participating teachers have expanded the horizons of the college faculty and vice versa. (I am integrating writing into my regular college courses in creative drama and acting in ways I never expected!) The theatre education and playwriting programs within the UNM Department of Theatre and Dance have come closer together, with more theatre education students taking playwrit-ing while more playwriting students are exploring the opportunities available in teaching. Theatre majors are receiving invaluable classroom teaching experience guided by excellent teachers. More lines of communication are opening up between the Department of Theatre and Dance and the College of Education. The intergenerational nature of the project has had a profound effect on all of us.


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