Notes from the Field: Tell Me Your Story


Katie Burke, 2010 Teach with Africa fellow, facilitates writing workshops at City College of San Francisco when she’s not teaching in South Africa. For more updates, follow her blog.

Today was exceptional.

I am teaching a creative nonfiction writing workshop in Cape Town. I’ve taught it to students as young as six and as old as 60. I revise it to make it developmentally appropriate for each class group, but the foundation is the same: I encourage my students to write from their hearts, reading aloud only what they feel comfortable sharing in our group.

The seventh and eighth graders are divided into groups labeled as various African countries represented in the World Cup. This morning, I taught the ‘Cote d’Ivoire team’. They were quiet, with all of them jumping into the free writing assignments, but none of them volunteering to read their work aloud.

In the afternoon, I taught the workshop to the ‘South African team’. The interest in reading aloud was much higher, and the readings were beautiful. I was excited to be exposed to such talented young writers.

The ‘Nigerian team’ was highly chatty, filing into the classroom in a buzz of multiple conversations. The class of about 25 students had only three young men, the rest young women. These children free-wrote to the exercises I’d planned, as instructed, but many of them decided they were done before time was up. I spent a lot of time moving from student to student, telling each one, “Tell me more of your story.”

After the first writing exercise, when the option to read aloud came up, no one volunteered. The writing part of the second exercise was equally painful, with many children telling me they were finished well before the time deadline—but this time, a few students raised their hands to read their stories. They all presented beautifully, and their words were genuine and very touching.

For example, one young woman, whose proverbial teeth I’d had to pull to keep her writing, raised her hand to share after the second writing exercise. She read about her love for her father, who is no longer around, and how much she loved him.

As one of the [South African] tutors worded it, “You have shown us a different side of our students, and now we can practice our own writing, to learn a different side of ourselves.”

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