A Writing Class Inspired by New York

A Writing Class Inspired by New York

As unique as each Chapin student is, one commonality is a connection to New York City. Whether they were born here, moved to the city as children, or commute from nearby areas to attend school, New York has indisputably shaped them in some way.

In Upper School, a far-reaching FOCUS course gives our Classes 10-12 students the chance to explore what the Big Apple represents to them and to contemplate the significance of place through the lens of the written word.

The curriculum is framed by three essential questions: “What does it mean to write in 2023?”; “How can writing reflect, reimagine and reform a local space?”; and “How should writing and its forms, especially online, work to engage specific audiences?”

During a recent visit to the class, “New York Writing: Introduction to Public and Digital Humanities,” English and History teacher Emily Feder was leading a discussion around a photo essay titled “Time and Space on the Lower East Side,” published on the website “Untapped New York.”

“Was there anything you saw here that made you feel inspired?” Ms. Feder asked the group.

“It’s interesting and interactive,” said one student. “It’s kind of beautiful,” added a classmate. “It showed the nuance to life you don’t see if you don’t live in that area.”

The robust reading list – this Lower East Side piece and an assortment of other New York-focused content – as well as a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the photography exhibition “Berenice Abbott’s New York Album, 1929” cast a vivid spotlight on a changing metropolis.

It also helped prepare the students for their culminating assignment – to construct a shareable, public-facing online project that engages with a particular New York community (for example, a single city block, a community organization or a targeted space like bodegas between 70th and 80th streets).

Although the students could pick their own platform (such as a website, podcast or photo story), a writing component was required in addition to quotes from three members of their chosen community and at least two audio or visual artifacts.

On a May morning, as they continued to strengthen their research and interview skills and decide on their final topics, the class was treated to a guest-lecture by Calvin Walds, a writer, educator and image-maker who is one of Chapin’s current Scholars in Residence (Marcus Brock and Cindy Gao are the other 2022-2024 scholars).

Professor Walds, a Ph.D. candidate in geology who holds an M.F.A. in cross-genre writing and poetics and two master’s degrees, seamlessly reinforced the course’s overarching theme by introducing the students to another evocative New York writer, Helena Fitzgerald, and the non-fiction form she uses called “the braided essay” in which three (or more) threads are woven through a narrative.

“Pay attention to the themes, ideas, questions, moments in time, tone and perspectives,” Professor Walds instructed them. He handed out copies of Ms. Fitzgerald’s essay “The Accidental City,” published by Catalyst, and the students took turns reading the text aloud.

The absorbing prose illuminated an emblematic New York experience: the subway: “My dad still gets the names of the New York subway wrong, which means that when he comes to visit, he invariably rides the train up past the stop for my apartment and all the way to Harlem, then sends a text, cursing, explaining that he thought the IND always stops at 81st.”

“Take a moment to sit with the piece on your own,” said Professor Walds. “Then we’ll open it up to conversation.”

Room 314 grew quiet as the students read and re-read sections of Ms. Fitzgerald’s essay, their imaginations clearly sparked. After a few moments, a lively dialogue arose with many students sharing their thoughts.

“I like how she started to see things through her father’s eyes,” one offered. “It’s a lot more authentic and conversational than a more formal essay,” another contributed. “I learned about her connection to the city. She writes about memories, like going to SoHo on the subway with friends.”

Then Professor Walds asked the class, “What parts of yourself do you bring to the front in your writing? What parts do you leave behind?” These questions needed no spoken answer yet provided a springboard for the next activity.

“Let’s do a bit of writing,” he said. “I’d like to experiment with the form. Try a three-part braided piece or three vignettes or three moments.” He reminded them to incorporate different time periods, tones and points of view, all informed by a mutual theme or issue.

The students’ opened their notebooks and laptops and wrote steadily for several minutes. When time was up, they were invited to share. A number of their flash-prose pieces centered on New York – bonding on the train; frustrations with the MTA; restaurants in Brooklyn; taking the bus to school – and will most certainly enhance their final projects and their ongoing work in this provocative, creative and relatable class.