Using the Skills We Already Have

What better time to reflect on the past and look to the future than the first day of a new year?! When COMPAS writer John Minczeski wrote this introduction to the 1988 COMPAS Anthology of Student Writing, COMPAS writers had been “stirring up excitement for 20 years.” We’ve now been at it for close to 50! Even though styles have changed and we’ve added new literary art forms (hello, spoken word and hip hop), it’s still true that we’re all born with the creative impulse and really can’t get rid of it. And we say hooray to that. Cheers to creativity!

An excerpt from the introduction to The Midnight Butterfly Sings, the 1988 COMPAS Student Anthology of Student Writing…

In our society it is an unfortunate truism, and one that I have severe doubts about, that children possess creativity more than others. While it may be true that most of us have put the creative impulse on hold in order to go through the process of making a living, we were all born with it and really can’t get rid of it. It may be a little weak from lack of exercise of the imaginations, but it is there, and at any point may be put to use. Children are, I think, quicker than we are, more prone to engage in a sort of play which creativity demands – to be by turns serious, funny, inquisitive, resolute.

Through work with COMPAS poets and writers, children learn to channel that burgeoning creativity into poems and stories. The writers provide the kernel of an idea; the children take off from it with results that are frequently surprising and full of a kind of awe that indicates the breath of poetry passed over. The writers walk into a classroom expecting the students to be receptive, to exercise their creativity; the results are all too frequently astounding – as when a class of average students suddenly becomes a class of superb students; where the “low achiever” forgets to do the minimum amount of work, and instead performs mountains of work.

All of us working in the program have miracle stories we can tell. The reason for this is that we are not really teaching writing. We can show students some tricks with writing (which have been around so long they all have Greek or Latin names, such as “metaphor,” “simile,” “hyperbole,” “oxymoron”) but we are really showing them how to use the writing skills they already possess to get inside themselves, inside someone or something else, inside the world. And this is a great liberation to them. We are teaching reading and listening as much as we are teaching ways of using writing – for they are all interrelated. We are teaching looking, and smelling, and touching. We are teaching that there is no way you can do this wrong.