Prairie Writer's Workshop: Next Generation

Program Teaches Rural High School Students Storytelling Skills and More

KABLOW! Do you remember the first time your mind was blown?

I recently had the great pleasure of watching several high school students have their minds blown by author Gregory Hill during his creative writing workshop.

“Argh, my brain hurts, it feels like it’s gonna explode!” proclaimed one student during Gregory’s lecture on writing about place in a rural context, part of the Prairie Writer’s Workshop at Wray High School, on Colorado’s eastern high plains this fall semester.

This year’s Prairie Writer’s Workshop was funded by a grant from Arts in Society, a program aimed at fostering cross-sector work through the arts, by supporting the integration of arts and culture into multiple disciplines critical to the health and well-being of Coloradans.

 

Rethinking Art Education

The Prairie Writer’s Workshop is a high-school level journalistic and creative writing project administered by the Applied Rural Arts program, initiated in 2016 by the Liberty Rural Learning Cooperative, located in Joes, Colorado. Liberty Rural Learning Cooperative is a group dedicated to supporting education initiatives that preserve and celebrate rural culture in Colorado’s High Plains region. Courses are taught by community members, which facilitates important inter-generational learning experiences that foster positive social engagement.

The Prairie Writer’s Workshop is designed to rethink how K-12 art education is produced in rural schools, with a goal to create a more dynamic cultural aesthetic practice. We want to encourage students to reflect on their relationship to the past, present and future of their rural community.

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As an interdisciplinary program, the Prairie Writer’s Workshop exists at the intersection of art, creative writing and journalism; building fluency in writing techniques, while teaching hands-on design and publishing experience. Taught in a collaborative environment by the local newspaper editor, Tony Rayl and lifelong High Plains resident and novelist, Gregory Hill, the program presents opportunities for students to engage in multi-generational conversations, and build discourse around creatively writing about place, rural journalism within a democratic free press.

It is the goal of the workshop for participating students to build a stronger sense of community, through common experiences, while learning in a real-world context. Students are encouraged to fully engage in the inquiry process during the workshop, from problem to solution. This 2018/2019 school year, the Applied Rural Arts Program is offering the Prairie Writers Workshop in Wray High School, a larger school (by Eastern Colorado standards) serving 170 students this fall, and the program is also being offered at Arickaree High School, a smaller school of 48 students, next spring. Both schools are located in Yuma County, Colorado, whose total population was 10,075, according to the U.S. Census in 2017.

A Local Author Gives Back

Gregory Hill is an author and Joes, Colorado (pop. 80) community member, who recently completed a creative writing workshop with a Wray High School English class. Gregory’s unique sense of humor and storytelling style engaged and motivated participating students . Hill challenged each of them with his eloquent and philosophical approach to thinking and writing creatively.

After a group critique session, Gregory gifted all the students with copies of his novels East of Denver and The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles; each student eagerly lined up to have their new novel signed by the author.

 

Understanding the Importance of Local, Independent Media

Meanwhile, the business students spent a day at the offices of their local newspaper, Yuma Pioneer where they met with Tony and Kelly Rayl, owners and editors. The independent newspaper has been in operation since 1886. Students learned all about small town journalism, the business of running a newspaper, how to write in a journalistic style, methods for utilizing photographs to support stories, how to interview potential sources for a story and the importance of the First Amendment. After a newsroom brainstorming session, students spent time exploring the town of Yuma, taking photographs to use for the paper.

After the photo session, students conducted interviews with a various community members, including: Bethleen McCall, a hemp advocate and Yuma City councilperson who recently ran as a Democrat candidate to represent House District 65, a brilliant man named Tim Cullen who claims he was abducted by aliens, and a local Vietnam Vet being featured for a Veterans Day newspaper special.

 

Reflections on the Experience

Following the workshops, Wray High School English teacher, Mrs. Rebis, shared her thoughts on the day’s events:

My students have really enjoyed Greg’s presentations. I think he has fired up several young men who really have not thought (up to this point) about writing much at all. (Also, please convey my thanks to him for encouraging our Creative Writing Club — especially, Chris who is presently working on a novel.) On another note, the students who came back from Newspaper session with Tony were really excited. They had a lot of fun and felt they learned valuable information.

Going forward, the Wray High School Prairie Writers are working on more stories, articles, photographs and design ideas to create the second publication of material that emerged from their experience in the Prairie Writers Workshop. The student publication will be printed in both English and Spanish this winter.


Learn more about the Liberty Rural Learning COOP’s Applied Rural Arts Program by visiting their website and watch this space for updates on the Prairie Writer’s Workshop.

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Special thanks to Maureen Hearty for writing this week’s blog post; Maureen is an active member of the Liberty Rural Learning Cooperative. Photos and images throughout courtesy of Maureen Hearty and Kirsten Stoltz. Edited for clarity by Sarah Slater.


 

ABOUT ARTS IN SOCIETY

In August 2016, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, Hemera Foundation, Colorado Creative Industries, and RedLine Contemporary Art Center joined forces to launch a new collaborative grantmaking program: Arts in Society

The purpose of Arts in Society is to foster cross-sector work through the arts, by supporting the integration of arts and culture into multiple disciplines critical to the health and well-being of Coloradans.

The Arts in Society grant program funds projects that engage arts organizations and individual artists as partners in illuminating and finding solutions to a wide array of civic and social challenges faced by our communities.