PEN In The Classroom Community Interview with Jill Diamond

Jill Diamond teaches English at John Marshall High School and was one of the very first teachers to host a PEN In The Classroom (PITC) instructor in her classroom when the program was first established in the mid-‘90s. In fall 2011, Jill had an opportunity to host PITC instructor Danielle Moody in her classroom, when the Los Angeles Arts and Athletics Alliance (LAAAA) sponsored a PITC residency at John Marshall High School. This fall, Jill hosted her third PITC residency, which will culminate with a final reading at the Lyric-Hyperion Theatre and Café in Silver Lake this coming Saturday.

You first served as a PITC host teacher in the very early years of the program in the nineties. Can you tell me what you remember about that experience?

Yes! In 1996, Michelle Serros worked with my class for ten weeks on a poetry anthology. I was a new teacher and she was a newly published poet. She was a huge inspiration. What I remember most is the final performance that we had in a small theater at school. Michelle shared, with the students, that she always put objects on her desk when she writes, a kind of alter to her muses. She encouraged the students to do the same, and that night they filled the stage, with all types of objects from candles to stuffed animals. It was magical.

You have hosted two PITC residencies in the last year with the same PITC instructor, Danielle Moody. Can you tell me what it’s like to host a PITC instructor and what Danielle brings to the classroom?

Many teachers are control freaks and don’t like to give up control of their class to another teacher. I am the opposite. I find relinquishing control and giving my students over to another instructor quite easy. For certain, I am not the only one who can inspire and teach them and they appreciate the change. The entire experience makes them feel special. They know they’ve been chosen for this experience and that I expect them to value it, and they do. It is like a vacation from our everyday routine. Working with Danielle for a second time is wonderful. The whole process is now natural and organic. She brings a much different dynamic to the class. For example, she is softer spoken than I and the students respect her in a different way; they treat her like a guest. Also, they don’t view the day she is there as “school.” They don’t realize that they are learning, though they are, and that is the true beauty of working with PEN In The Classroom.

Why do you think it is important to provide your students with a creative writing workshop?

With the current focus on standardized testing, almost all of the Language Arts curriculum is about expository essay writing, and there is almost no room for creative writing in the standards. I have found that the students are much more motivated when asked to write about themselves and their worlds in relation to the literature we read in class. I wholeheartedly believe that they are freer and less afraid when writing creatively, and the end result is that this type of writing engages students and builds their confidence. When asked to write a literary analysis essay or a persuasive essay, the students often get stuck on doing the work “correctly” and they develop a type of writer’s block, which I never see happen when the students are writing imaginatively or when writing creative nonfiction.

Why is it important, in the long run, for students to discover their unique voices and learn to exercise their freedom of expression?

I believe that everyone has a creative self and a voice; the school system tends to stifle this part of the children. I watched this happen to my daughter when she moved from a wonderful pre-school to a traditional kindergarten. Even the idea of having five-year-olds sit in seats for the majority of a day is ridiculous. Left-brained logical thinking and learning is dominant in American education. I enjoy watching my students exercise the other side of their brains, and I tell them that they must exercise their creative selves in order to strengthen and discover the person who lurks within.

Do you have a favorite memory from a PITC workshop? Have you seen significant changes in the work your students produce as a result of the workshop?

What I enjoy most about working with PITC is watching a student who does not know he or she has an interest in writing make that discovery. Working with the demographic that I do, in a Title I school, many of the students have not had the same opportunities as children from more affluent communities. I believe it is my job as a teacher to open new worlds to my students, and PITC does that.

Did you have a writing mentor growing up?

I did not have a mentor growing up; however, my father always believed that I should follow my heart and he always supported me in all my creative endeavors. He never implied that they might be frivolous or impractical, and he always believed in me. I hope that I instill some of this parental confidence in my students.

What advice would you give to a young aspiring writer today?

My advice to a young writer is the same as for a young dancer, musician, actor or painter: follow your heart, trust your instincts, and take time to look, observe, and listen to the world around you. And, as the great Joseph Campbell so eloquently stated, “follow your bliss.”