Thursday, June 13, 2019

Teachers and Writers Collaborative Interview

Good morning,
"And the beat goes on.................."

Note:  This is the fifth in a series of interviews with Aroha Philanthropies Vitality Arts grantees delving into their launch, management and continuation of creative aging programs for seniors.  The final two interviews to post in a couple of weeks.  

Teachers & Writers Collaborative (T&W) seeks to educate the imagination by offering innovative creative writing programs for students and teachers, and by providing a variety of publications and resources to support learning through the literary arts. T&W programs include writing workshops for students, professional development for educators, managing the NYS Poetry Out Loud competition, and publishing Teachers & Writers Magazine and other resources about the teaching of creative writing.


Barry:  Your organization has previously offered creative writing programs for seniors, and you've had experience with appealing to, and focusing on, seniors.  Was the project an expansion of your previous efforts in this arena, or more of a refinement of what you had been offering?

T&W:  Teachers & Writers Collaborative (T&W) has offered arts programming for seniors at various periods over our five-decade history, but this had not been a sustained focus for our work since the 1990s. In 2016, we initiated a partnership with VISIONS: Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired to offer a poetry writing and recitation workshop for senior center clients as an outgrowth of our management of the Poetry Out Loud recitation competition for high school students in New York State.

Our Aroha-funded work at VISIONS gave us the chance to build on the success of our 2016 workshop and to refine our approach by offering more sessions in each workshop, expanding art forms (e.g., adding musical components), having multiple teaching artists in each workshop, etc. The basic approach to the workshops has not changed from our programs for students of all ages, which utilize artistic models to help participants learn about different literary genres/art forms and inspire them to create their own work.

Barry:   Your project encompassed workshops in songwriting, playwriting, poetry, musical theater, and memoir. Each program was led by poet, playwright, and teaching artist.  Can you elaborate on those component parts?

T&W:  T&W’s five workshops at VISIONS included multi-disciplinary programs focused on songwriting and musical theater. Dave Johnson, our lead teaching artist at VISIONS, is a poet and playwright and he collaborated with Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Allison Moore on the songwriting workshop, and with experienced musician and teaching artist Scott Lilley for the musical theater program. These teaching artist partnerships enabled us to offer programs designed by working artists in different, but related, art forms. They collaborated to create the curriculum for the programs that involved music. Johnson took the lead in helping participants to write lyrics, and Moore/Lilley then supported the seniors in creating melodies for their songs.

In addition to these teaching artists, teaching assistants worked with Johnson on all of the programs. These assistants included graduate students from The New School and New York University writing programs, along with individuals trained to support arts programs by Johnson as part of his work as poet-in-residence for the NYC Department of Probation. The involvement of these assistants was essential to the success of our VISIONS programming, since they offered support ranging from taking dictation from individuals who were not able to write during the workshop sessions to contributing their ideas to collaborative writing assignments.

Barry:  As you had previous experience in these kinds of offerings, you had time to consider the potential obstacles and barriers.  Was the reality of designing, then implementing, the project pretty much as expected, or were there still elements that surprised you?

T&W:  Because we already had some experience at VISIONS, there were not huge surprises in program implementation. We did gain a better understanding of how we could best overcome challenges for people with visual impairments; e.g., recording the discussion and providing the recording on a flash drive at the end of each session so participants had something to take home as a reminder of ideas they wanted to incorporate in their writing between sessions. We also found that having additional “teaching assistants” work in each session (e.g., to take dictation from participants) paid off not only in increasing the amount of work produced during each session, but also in enriching the conversations with added perspectives.

Barry:  In creating a budget for the project, what were the major projected costs, and were there any unanticipated expenses?  Did you leverage additional funding from other sources?  What sources and how difficult was raising the additional funding?

T&W:  Our primary costs at VISIONS were payments to teaching artists. We secured additional funds from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Brewer and the New York State Council on the Arts have awarded funding that is allowing us to continue to work at VISIONS beyond the end of Aroha’s funding. We have received additional support for our post-Aroha work with seniors from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. The challenge we have faced in securing funds is the limited number of institutional funders focused on creative aging, but the funders we have identified thus far have been generous in their support.

Barry:  What kinds of marketing did you employ in recruiting senior participants and did you go outside your usual constituent base?

T&W:  We were fortunate that VISIONS staff handled all program marketing, which made it very easy for us. We did provide language for fliers that were distributed to senior center clients, and one or more teaching artists made presentations about upcoming workshops at monthly “Senior Speak Out” sessions.

Barry:  Did you accurately identify the workload and time involved that management of the project ended up taking, and can you describe that workload and the time involved.  How did you develop your team to oversee the project?  What elements did you include?

T&W:  T&W manages arts programs all the time, so we had a good sense of the time that would be involved in the Aroha-funded programs. Teaching artists who work with us as independent contractors did most of the work for each workshop, including attending a planning meeting with VISIONS and T&W staff, developing the curriculum for each workshop series and the individual sessions, leading sessions and rehearsals for final events, preparing anthologies for printing and publication on Teachers & Writers Magazine, and acting as MC at the program celebrations. In the workshops that involved two teaching artists, they spent a few hours meeting to develop curriculum together. Prep time for the individual two-hour sessions took 30 minutes to an hour (e.g., to identify model texts for use in the workshop). Editing and designing each anthology took about half a day.

Staff took part in the planning meeting for each program, did at least one observation during implementation, proofed anthologies and prepared them for the printer and the magazine, raised funds, and handled financial matters. In addition staff identified a recording engineer who attended all the workshops, rehearsals, and final events to create audio recordings; and a videographer to create a video from most of the final events. We also reached out to colleagues at other organizations to identify a musician/teaching artist to work in the musical theater workshop.

T&W has partnerships with The New School and New York University through which graduate students in creative writing programs serve as T&W education associates and work alongside experience teaching artists in a variety of classroom settings.  Several education associates were teaching assistants for VISIONS workshops. We also drew on Johnson’s work with the NYC Department of Probation through which he has trained a number of individuals as teaching assistants. Two of the people Dave has trained worked with us at VISIONS.

Barry:  Your said your project augmented the teaching artist with graduate students from The New School and New York University who work as T&W education associates, and with individuals your teaching artists has trained to work with him via the NYC Department of Probation.  How was the addition of those other support people critical to the success of the program?

T&W:  The additional support from teaching assistants was critical to the success of our work at VISIONS. Most sessions included a mix of discussion, sharing of work, and writing. Although some VISIONS clients have enough vision to be able to write on paper or a computer, others wrote by dictating to a teaching assistant. They also supported the program by serving as escorts to help participants get around at VISIONS, to get to their post-workshop transportation, and to attend the Broadway production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Teaching assistants typed work written by participants who were not able to type their own pieces and contributed their insights and ideas to discussions during workshops. One of the 2016–2017 education associates, Allison Moorer, is a Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter. Moorer worked with Johnson on the songwriting workshop during spring 2017. Her involvement was a treat for participants who continue to follow her career now that she has completed the MFA.

Barry:  Did the project involve any collaborative efforts and / or partnerships with other organizations within the community, such as with senior centers, care facilities or otherwise?  How did those come about and how did they work?  How critical were those to the success of the project?

T&W:  All of our work in the Aroha-funded program was carried out in partnership with VISIONS: Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired. We have worked at VISIONS since the late 2000s, and initially offered after-school performance poetry workshops for teens. In early 2016, we provided a poetry program for clients at VISIONS’ senior center. The success of that initiative led to our interest in reviving T&W’s commitment to creative aging and to our application to Aroha Philanthropies.

We could not have asked for better partners than the staff at VISIONS. They have offered us good advice on how to work effectively with the population they serve, taken on significant responsibility for program implementation (e.g., handling all marketing), and been open to our ideas. For example, when we asked about the possibility of having teaching assistants trained through the Department of Probation, VISIONS staff agreed right away and were welcoming to these young people who are in the justice system.

Barry:  Besides your experience providing services for the visually impaired and the blind, how did you deal with other senior issues such as non-native speaker participants, diversity recruitment, dealing with transportation issues of the senior participants etc?

T&W:  Although English is a second language for some of the seniors we work with at VISIONS, all of them are fluent in English. When they wanted to write a poem or song in Spanish, they were free to do so.

VISIONS is the only senior center in New York City at which all services are adapted for people with visual impairments. As a result, senior center clients come from all five boroughs. This resulted in a very diverse group of program participants with individuals of different races, ethnicities, national origins, and economic status.

Many of the senior center clients live at VISIONS, which is located in a public housing building. T&W program participants who don’t live at VISIONS got to workshops in a variety of ways, ranging from taxis to Access-a-Ride, the city’s free transportation serve for low-income seniors. (A majority of VISIONS clients self-identify as low income and/or Medicaid eligible.)

Our major transportation challenge was helping seniors get to the Broadway theater at which the group attended Beautiful as part of the musical theater workshop. In addition to T&W staff and teaching assistants working the program, we recruited volunteers to help with transportation. Everyone met at VISIONS and took taxis to the theater. The trip to the performance went very smoothly with everyone arriving in time to get into the theater and seated before other patrons arrived. The return trip was more challenging, since we had to find taxis or try to arrange app-car pick-ups during a rush hour rainstorm in Midtown Manhattan. Everyone returned to VISIONS safely, and all the seniors said that the time and effort involved in getting back to VISIONS hadn’t marred their enjoyment of the afternoon.

Barry:  What were the overall pros and cons, logistically and otherwise, in designing, creating, and implementing the project?  What benefits were there to the organization - e.g., new volunteers, new support, greater community involvement, media coverage, expanded organization image within the community etc.?

T&W:  There were no real cons for T&W, and far too many pros to list! One major benefit was realizing that we have the organizational capacity to offer creative aging programs based on many of the same strategies that we use in our work with children and teens. We also learned how many of our teaching artists had experience with creative aging and how many are interested in working with seniors.

One concrete benefit of the Aroha-funded work is that it helped us to reconnect with Elders Share the Arts (ESTA), a 40-year-old creative aging organization that was originally established as an outgrowth of a T&W project called Artists & Elders. In early 2018, T&W and ESTA collaborated on a poetry and visual arts program at the SAGE-GRIOT Innovative Senior Center in Brooklyn. Due in part to the success of that partnership, ESTA, which was preparing to cease operations in summer 2018, asked T&W to take over management of senior and intergenerational programs it had initiated. We took on those programs without hesitation, and might not have done so if we hadn’t had such a positive experience with our Aroha-funded work at VISIONS.

Barry:  What criteria did you use to determine if the project succeeded from your organization’s point of view?  How did you evaluate the project during its course and post completion?

T&W:  We did not establish specific criteria to evaluate the VISIONS programs before they began, but indicators of success over the last two years have included:

  • People signing up for multiple workshops. About two-thirds of participants in the workshops took part in at least one previous program.
  • Attracting new people to the program. Although there were many repeat participants, new folks took part in each workshop series. This mix of new and continuing participants enabled us to create a community of artists that was always invigorated by new voices and ideas.
  • The ease of recruitment. Fliers were created for each workshop and upcoming programs were announced at VISIONS’ regular senior speak-out sessions and at classes held at the senior center. In four out of the five workshops, the number of people who signed up to take part was more than the maximum number of participants we had set. Knowing that some individuals wouldn’t be able to take part in every session (because of health issues or other reasons), we didn’t turn anyone away.
  • The quality of the writing and performances seen in the program anthologies and at the final events.The feedback we received from VISIONS staff, who told us they heard only positive comments about the workshops from their clients, and that they observed participants sharing their work and rehearsing for events throughout the week between workshop sessions.

Barry:  What lessons did you learn from your experience with the project?  How will you apply what you’ve learned to the sustainability of offering new and additional creative aging projects to the senior community in the future?

T&W:  Because T&W provides arts programs for people of all ages, the primary lessons for us from the work at VISIONS relate to effective strategies for working with people who have vision impairments. Some of those lessons are transferable to providing programs for people with other disabilities. For example, the artists and assistants who worked at VISIONS are all much more adept at helping people who have mobility challenges of various kinds to move safely through a challenging space, whether it’s a New York City sidewalk during rush hour or a senior center undergoing renovations, as VISIONS has been for several years. Our decision to record workshops so that participants could take home a record of each day’s session on a thumb drive is a strategy that would be helpful in workshops that include people who have difficulty hearing in a group setting, but who could hear the discussion while listening to a recording in their own home.

Barry:  Would you recommend that other organizations consider creating and launching their own creative aging vitality arts programs?  What are the major considerations organizations ought to consider before embarking on the launch of their own programs?  What are the specific considerations in your experience that writing organizations ought to consider in planning a creative aging vitality program?

T&W:  Creative aging isn’t right for every organization, but it has been an exciting direction for T&W. Things to consider in exploring the possibility include:

  • Whether the organization has any history of working with seniors and what the results of those earlier efforts were.
  • Whether there are systems/infrastructure in place to support creative aging work or if those would have to be created from scratch.
  • Whether there is an organizational commitment sufficient to fund programs for a few years in order to get some proven results to take to outside funders in order to generate revenue to support creative aging initiatives.
  • Writing can be a particularly good art form for creative aging work, since it’s something that anyone can do with relatively few resources; i.e. you don’t need a big space or a lot of supplies to create a poem. Older adults have a lot of stories to tell, and writing memoirs, poems, plays, or songs is a great vehicle to tell and share those stories.

Barry:  What advice would you give those organizations gleaned from your experience?

T&W:  Find a senior center or other partner that is as invested in your creative aging work as you are. That is one of the major keys to success. Having a strong relationship with a center allows both partners in the program to maximize what they do well (e.g., getting recruitment messages to clients of the senior center vs. designing an arts program) and know that the rest of the work is in good hands.

Barry:  Do you intend to continue to offer these kinds of program to your senior community?  Why or why not?

T&W:  As noted above, T&W has taken over management of programs initiated by ESTA, and we are also continuing our partnership with VISIONS where we are currently offering a “Text &Touch” workshop on poetry and tactile collage.

Thanks to Amy Swauger at Teachers &Writer's Collaborative

Have a good weekend.

Don't Quit