Marjolaine Whittlesey ’05 greets a new group of middle schoolers to the Telling Room for the la...Marjolaine Whittlesey ’05 greets a new group of middle schoolers to the Telling Room for the launch of its new after-school program, The Writers Block. Credit: Photo by Molly Haley“Portland has a growing immigrant population. The incoming class of Deering High School, one of Portland’s public high schools, has almost 50 percent English Language Learners, or ELLs. Some of The  Telling Room’s programs focus on the immigrant community, but any program in the Portland public schools is going to involve a high number of international kids.

There are only ten people on staff at The Telling Room, but we work with dozens of teaching artists and hundreds of volunteers—local teachers and artists who are looking to stay connected to the written word and to youth.

Working alongside these people is so refreshing and fun and exciting. The whole place runs on collaboration, which is something I loved about COA, too.

When you’re working with a group of students over six weeks or two months, you go through a generative process before finding the story you want to tell. This is my favorite part of our residencies—I love the dedramatization of writing. It’s a messy process, but by sharing that process, and watching others comb through words, memories, ideas, and working together to craft the story, students see sides of each other that are pretty raw and messy and fun and challenging.

I love seeking out the personal connections, highlighting the differences of where we come from, but also the similarities. In a lot of schools, the ELL kids are in their own classrooms before they integrate into the mainstream, so sometimes they rarely interact with the other students. This spring we’re starting a residency with South Portland High School focused on inclusion. ELL and mainstream students are collaborating on creating children’s books they will then read in the elementary school.

We did another project with South Portland high schoolers that also mixed mainstream and ELL students. Some of the mainstream kids thought they were part of the project to tutor the ELL students. Then they realized, Oh, wow, I have to write too—but I don’t have anything to say! Through the residency they found they did have a story, many even. One student was helping a Salvadoran newcomer with minimal English craft a story about his grandfather. Then the Salvadoran started teaching him how to count and read in his Mayan dialect. Suddenly, two high school juniors, who probably wouldn’t ever have talked or interacted with each other, were sharing stories about their grandparents.

It’s impossible to share a story with someone and then not look at them in a new light. From this comes a certain amount of respect and curiosity. That’s why we’re here. It’s about creating those friendships and connections through the writing process, which can otherwise be really lonely.”

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