“Write what you know,” aspiring writers are routinely exhorted. But that can be paralyzing advice for a young person whose knowledge of the world derives largely from the Internet. The Muse doesn’t dwell in the belly of a machine; she frolics in the fields, wanders in the woods, reposes atop crags, bathes in springs and waterfalls. So how the heck are kids in today’s schools, relentlessly being “taught to the test,” supposed to ignite their inner sparks of natural creativity and hone their writing craft beyond acing the essay question? Where is the next generation of John Burroughses, Rachel Carsons, Ed Abbeys and Stephen Jay Goulds going to come from?
Here in the mid-Hudson Valley, a low-budget, low-profile cadre of dedicated teachers has been working away at that conundrum since 2001, in the form of the Hudson Valley Writing Project (HVWP). Using the “teachers teaching teachers” model promulgated by the National Writing Project (NWP), the group offers practical in-service training during the school year in the form of monthly Saturday Seminars at SUNY-New Paltz.
But in summertime, the focus turns to training the kids themselves to tap their creative wellsprings in a fun and stimulating way outside of school, through HVWP’s Young Writers’ Programs. Most of these are essentially five-day camps, hosted by cultural and historic sites in Ulster, Dutchess and Orange Counties, that emphasize place-based writing. The newest of these, launched last year in New Paltz, is called “Exploring Nature and History on Huguenot Street,” and registration is happening now for its return the first week in August.
Besides putting youth into an environment where they are free to write as the spirit of nature moves them, the new writing camp is innovative in bringing together several leading New Paltz non-profits for the first time in support of HVWP, which has been perennially cash-strapped since federal funding for its parent organization, NWP, got the budget axe during the 2011 government shutdown debacle. The Wallkill Valley Land Trust, Historic Huguenot Street, the Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary and the Huguenot Street Farm CSA are providing meeting space and guided tours for the young writers.
Participants will be exposed to the rich early history, daily lives and Colonial homes of New Paltz’s Huguenot settlers through tours of the oldest street in America’s famous stone houses. A visit to the original Huguenot churchyard with its evocative hand-carved gravestones proved particularly inspiring to young authors in the program’s first year, according to the two HVWP instructors, Laura Ifill, a creative writing teacher at New York Harbor School in Brooklyn, and Dennis Maher, an eighth-grade English teacher at Newburgh’s South Middle School, who will both be returning this summer.
Nature in its cultivated form is encountered in the fields of Huguenot Street Farm and in a wilder state in the woods, riverbanks and wetlands of the Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary, where paths and bridges wind around and across an oxbow of the Wallkill River. The protected lands are rich with waterfowl, deer, turtles and other wildlife that provided much of the diet of native Lenape people, as well as newly arrived Huguenot settlers in the late 17th century. The Wallkill Valley Land Trust’s rail trail passes right through the area as well, affording young hikers easy access to other prospects of inspiring natural beauty. “These experiences not only create a lifetime of memories, but they help students develop a better understanding of what it means to learn beyond the classroom walls,” says Maher.
Students in the program write daily and, with encouragement and support from their mentors, are introduced to a variety of writing genres, new vocabulary, sensory activities, meditation exercises and peer editing activities. At week’s end they will share their writing in a self-published anthology and at a celebratory reading in a closing ceremony before an audience of family, friends and leaders of the collaborating organizations. “Honestly, this is the type of writing that kids are not getting as many opportunities to do in our regular schools because of the heavy emphasis on ‘argument writing,’” says Ifill.
“Exploring Nature and History on Huguenot Street” 2015 will be offered from August 3 to 7, with activities running from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Tuition costs $295, and scholarships are available. For registration and additional information, visit www.newpaltz.edu/hvwp/summercamps or contact HVWP’s coordinating director of youth programs, Diane Rawson, at (845) 943-8437.