#ArtsEdWeek: Spotlight on Just Buffalo

For #artsedweek, we’ve asked some of our Arts Education Program grantees to tell us more about how they bring literature, music, visual art, architecture, theater, film, and dance to students throughout the state. Check back here or on Facebook September 13-16 to find out what they had to say!

noah-at-wordplay-releaseNoah Falck at Wordplay release at Just Buffalo

First, we spoke with Noah Falck, Education Director of Just Buffalo.

Established in 1975, Just Buffalo serves Western New York with author readings and conversations, literary events, writing workshops, interdisciplinary performances, and publications. Its signature author series BABEL has been recognized as“…the most exciting literary series Buffalo has ever seen” and its newest program, the Just Buffalo Writing Center, offers after-school writing workshops, mentoring, and a year-round writer in residence to teens in downtown Buffalo. The organization’s programs serve more than 150,000 individuals and 1,000 students each year. NYSCA supports the organization through our Arts Education and Literature Programs.

How and why is arts education central to Just Buffalo?

It’s important to us because our mission is creating and building community through the literary arts and we feel that young people are an essential part of the community. We feel bringing literature and creative writing to them as often as possible will give them a chance to participate in that community and voice their imaginations and their thoughts. It’s giving them a platform to share their hopes and dreams and their lives with the rest of the world.

Students have vastly different reading and language abilities and tastes. How does Just Buffalo engage at different levels?

Our teaching artists are equipped with the history of poetry at their fingertips, particularly living in the digital age. We have a lot of conversations about what poems and pieces of literature are easy to engage with on any level and can be interpreted across the board. A William Carlos Williams poem, for instance, can look very simple and be interpreted at a very concrete level but also has opportunity to shift thinking in terms of how it relates to their own lives, how it is a poem, how it isn’t. We also select poems that fit the populations they’re working with. Giving them the opportunity to engage from their own perspective really offers a chance for success. It’s not like a pass/fail situation. It’s more up to the student to decide if it’s something they want to engage with.

The biggest thing is creating that space where everybody has some success. That’s challenged in our education culture [with] the overtesting of these kids. What our teaching artists do in the classroom is give students a chance to step out of that testing culture, and engage with literature in a more playful, yet intentional manner. We’re taking away the pressures so they can use their imaginations and think differently about literature.

What do you think makes a successful teaching artist?

We’ve been fortunate enough to have writers like Sherry Robbins who has been working with us for 25-30 years, since the beginning. It’s like an act of magic when Sherry goes into the classroom, what she is able to inspire in students. It’s amazing. So can I say a successful teaching artist is proficient in magic?

[In terms of qualities we look for,] flexibility is a huge one, compassion, particularly, is a big one, and a sense of joy in what they’re doing there. The students will be able to pick that joy up if the teaching artist is able to convey, “I really love this poem, you will love this poem too,” by showing that in how they read it to the class or how they respond to a student who’s reading it for the first time. It’s a really difficult thing to do well.

You recently opened a new Writing Center. How has that expanded your arts education programs?

Our Writing Center has been open for a little over two years. Right now it’s serving students between the ages of 12 to 18-year-olds and we put a cap on 14 kids being at the center to make it feel more like a workshop than a classroom. We use it as a testing ground for teaching artists, and also for volunteers from local colleges, mostly creative writers or students in English departments.

This is an opportunity to extend what we’re doing in the schools, to invite students to this free afterschool space and continue working on whatever kind of writing they’re interested in. It happened very organically and I was quite worried at the beginning – are people going to come? We’re downtown, we’re not going out and picking kids up, they have to get here on their own. After a few weeks, it started becoming a known place, kids started telling their friends.

The setup is 3:30-6 Tuesdays and Thursdays. From 3:30-4:30, it’s an open writing time. We often have prompts of some kind – we’ve been having volunteers create mini-lessons, where students read and respond to a poem or watch and respond to a short film. Just the other day, a volunteer helped a student work on the introduction for a school essay about Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen.” At 4:30, we have an hour-and-a-half workshop –taught by a gamut of teaching artists – playwrights, media artists, filmmakers, painters, sculptors. All different art forms come in, and whatever the background the teaching artist is coming from, they know the kids are going to be using it as a vessel to write through. It’s been fun and experimental and we’re figuring out the next steps, how we’re going to analyze their growth. We have a lot of kids who come every week and some who come once or twice a month.

Every year, you collect student work into an anthology. What’s been most rewarding, and most surprising, about the process?

Our annual anthology is called Wordplay and it features the best of student work that’s hand-selected by teaching artists from that academic year. It ranges from third graders to seniors in high school and the work in there is as different as the age of the kids, you’ll have a poem about petting a dog and then you’ll have a poem about Shakespeare. It’s really cool to flip through the pages and see the huge jumps in style and ability and what they think a poem be.

The most rewarding part is having a release reading to celebrate the work in Wordplay. We invite all the students to the Writing Center, and they bring their families. It’s a big celebration. It’s celebrating not only them as people, them as writers them, but also as the future of Buffalo. You see the parents and teacher who come light up. It changes how people think about these kids. They’ve never stood up in front of 50-60 people and read a poem before. It’s about giving them that space, valuing what they do, giving them a stage, saying there’s value in everything they’re writing, and thinking. People are crying; there are standing ovations, it moves me every time.

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