National Writing Project

Teachers Write to Music at NWP's First Music Marathon

Date: December 1, 2010

Summary: NWP teacher-consultants from several states came together—in person and online—to write to the same beats in the first-ever multisite music marathon.


Many people connect via music. Many people connect online. And many teachers connect via the National Writing Project's nationwide network of sites.

All those ways to connect were woven together on September 10 of this year when teacher-consultants from several sites gathered, in person and online, for a music marathon.

A music marathon, according to April Estep, a teacher-consultant from the Coalfield Writing Project and one of the marathon's organizers, "is simply some concentrated writing time, in this case two hours, with music-themed prompts."

The event, which took place in Iroquois Park in Louisville, Kentucky, on September 10, brought together teacher-consultants from the Marshall University Writing Project, Kentucky Writing Project, and Indiana University Southwest Writing Project.

The genesis of the event began when teacher-consultants Crystal Howell and April Estep both attended the 2009 invitational summer institute at the Coalfield Writing Project, a satellite site of the Marshall University Writing Project. They found they had something else in common besides a love of teaching and writing: both were big fans of singer-songwriter Corey Smith .

Corey Smith was coming to Louisville on September 10, so the glimmer of a special event began to take form in the minds of Howell and Estep. How could the pair get him to connect with Writing Project teachers and share a pointer or two about his narrative craft—and get teachers to connect to his music?

After all, Smith had been a teacher before taking up music full time and, according to Howell, it was "his capacity for storytelling" that first and most significantly moved her.

Like many good ideas, this one could have died in infancy, but then the technology kicked in. As it happens, Estep was an NWP Twitter and Facebook friend with Paul Hankins of the Indiana University Southeast Writing Project, and he came up with the music marathon idea.

I love the idea of connecting a live writing event . . . with an online writing community.

"I knew he was from the Louisville area and suggested a meeting," said Estep. "He figured since we were going to have some Writing Project people spending time together there should be some writing involved. The idea grew from there."

The online planning continued. Says Estep: "Paul and I did some collaboration using Google Docs to work out the details and talk about how we would promote the event."

Another one of Estep's Twitter pals was Bryan Wilson of the Eastern Kentucky Writing Project. He solicited event participation from his site. Coalfield Writing Project Director Tracy Baisden sent out emails announcing the marathon to everyone in her NWP network.

iAnthology: Online Wings for the Marathon

But how could the musical marathon reach a wider audience of NWP writers? After all, only a limited number would be able to make it to Louisville on September 10. The event deserved to be available to a much larger group. The organizers found their answers at NWP's iAnthology .

Aided by iAnthology curators Bonnie Kaplan and Kevin Hodgson, the marathon leaders established a place on the iAnthology site—Musical Musings—for potential postings.

The next step was to give potential writers a little push to help them find appropriate musical topics. This task fell to Hankins, who developed several appropriate prompts such as

  • Create a playlist that could be for an important event or time in your life; maybe writing a paragraph or two about the event or time to accompany the playlist.
  • Write about a song connected to a memory.
  • Create a found poem from an album or various songs. Isolate the words and phrases that call out to you. See if you can string these words in a new piece of poetry.

To read an example of one of the writings, read Crystal Howell's "Bury My Heart" (PDF), which is comprised of lyrics from Corey Smith's songs.

Corey Smith Makes a Guest Appearance

At the end of the day in September came the Corey Smith segment of the event.

According to Howell, "When Corey came to meet us, he seemed genuinely interested in the NWP and the variety of writing we teacher-consultants do with our students. He understood our efforts to help students develop their voices and to write for the simple joy and fulfillment that is now a motivation for his career. He even showed us one of his journals and described how his private writing reflects his state of mind."

Hodgson, of the iAnthology, has been very excited about the music marathon. "I love the idea of connecting a live writing event held at an NWP site with an online writing community. And when you add music and song to the mix, that just opens up another realm of inspiration for writing. It became yet another way to let folks feel connected to the larger NWP community."

That's not to say that the NWP writers on the scene on that September day in Louisville didn't have a special experience that could not really be duplicated online. But Hodgson reflects on the specialness of the online writing as well:

"The discussions and writing prompts at our site will continue to be alive as long as we want them to be. So someone new could join our iAnthology, see the music marathon posts and add his or her own ideas. Then suddenly the music marathon—an event that has passed—comes back to life. We may have missed the actual concert as distant writers, but we didn't miss the event."

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