Writing took on a whole new meaning for Anne Hefele when the St. Gertrude High School junior met best-selling author Adriana Trigiani. The writer, a Virginia native, came to the school this year to participate in St. Gertrude's visiting-author program.
Trigiani, the author of Big Stone Gap and three other novels about her hometown in Southwest Virginia, spent an entire day with the students, talking about her craft and explaining not only how she comes up with the characters in her books but also how she conducts research.
"It's great to see and understand the process that writers go through," Hefele says. "I really liked Adriana. She was very involved with the audience. She wasn't afraid to answer our questions on everything from shoes to her books to her family in Big Stone Gap."
The program at St. Gertrude, a Catholic girls' school in Richmond, has evolved since its inception in 2007. "Writing is a very strong part of our English program," explains Maureen Williams, the school's director of admissions and marketing. "All three of the authors we have brought in have talked about the entire writing process. Our kids formulate questions and have discussions with them."
St. Gertrude isn't the only area school to recognize the value of bringing writers into the classroom. At the all-male St. Christopher's School, author and poet Ron Smith has served as writer-in-residence since 1994. Former headmaster George McVey, who put the program in place, felt that having a writer on campus would not only prompt students to take literature seriously but also to listen more attentively. "I thought [it] would inspire students to heed the advice of a person known for his own contributions to the field," McVey says.
Current St. Christopher's headmaster Charles Stillwell sees the program as a positive asset for the school because it focuses the institution on the "importance of literature, reading and writing." Smith, who has published two books of poetry, takes the responsibility very seriously. The goal, he says, is to demonstrate to students "that literature is very much alive."
In addition to lecturing and teaching a series of classes ranging from creative writing to sports literature, Smith also brings in well-known writers such as Virginia novelist Lee Smith and Pulitzer Prize winners Rick Bragg (who won for feature writing) and Claudia Emerson (honored for her poetry) to work with students.
The program is a real eye-opener for students who want to pursue writing as a career. "They learn from the inside what it's like to write, revise, publish, revise again, create a book and wrangle with editors," Smith says. "I show them how I work and try to help them learn how to do things their own way, the way that works best for them."
At the all-boys Benedictine High School, students from the Cadets Exploring Literary/Creative Arts Society assist with the school's Visiting Author Series, intended to help build character as well as a love of reading. This year's guest writer is Alex Kershaw, author of The Bedford Boys.
Authors speak to the entire student body and also visit with classes, talking about the writing process. The 12-year-old series has brought in authors from Virginia novelist David Robbins to noted historian Gen. David Palmer, who wrote George Washington and Benedict Arnold: A Tale of Two Patriots. Fritz Knapp, who wrote The Book of Sports Virtues, joined local sports figures in round-table discussions with students.
"The program allows students to meet the authors and relate to them," explains Sally Boykin, Benedictine's head librarian. "We've had great success each year."
Writers visiting the all-girl Orchard House school have also made a positive impression on students. Last year, local author Meg Medina, who wrote Milagros: Girl From Away, spent two weeks working with 7th- and 8th-grade students on character development. "She talked at length about the writing process," says English teacher Martha Ann Burford. "She also talked to the students about career possibilities and writing for themselves. She worked with them one-on-one during their regular writing workshops."
Orchard House has been bringing in a writer every year for the past five years. "A lot of the mission of the school centers around each girl's voice," Burford explains. She says that seeing a writer who has chosen to do something he or she loves brings a new dimension to the classroom. Writing "becomes intrinsic and authentic instead of a writing assignment."
Writing and appreciating literature, however, don't come naturally to every student. Some need to be motivated. It's that motivation that Frank Williams, instructional specialist for fine arts at Richmond Public Schools' Arts and Humanities Center, hopes students will find through the center's writer-in-residence program. This year's program, presented in conjunction with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, includes author Renee McRae and poet Daniel José Custodio. "Any time students can have direct access to a professional in the field, it helps them lose their fears and appreciate writing," Williams notes.
The center has taken part in the writers' program for more than 15 years. "We are grateful to the commission," Williams says. "It allows us to give this type of access to our students."
Collegiate School's writing program takes a slightly different approach from others in the area. The Whitfield Fund for Excellence in Writing series was established in 2004 to promote excellence in all forms of written expression. Writers who talk with students and work with them in classes are not necessarily authors or poets. "Excellence in writing has a lot of different applications across a lot of fields," explains Collegiate's head of school, Keith Evans. "For example, we had several writers come in that focused around the theme of how writing plays out in a democracy like ours."
Speakers for that series included law professors A.E. Dick Howard of the University of Virginia and Rodney A. Smolla of Washington and Lee University. Previous participants have included Palestinian-American poet Naomi Nye and sportswriter and commentator Frank Deford.
"We try to look at a broad group of writers," Evans says. "This gives the students a sense of how excellence in writing transcends a lot of categories. They see that what they learn in English class translates across different fields. Our students look forward to it each year."