BY HEATHER WRIGHT — Starting spring 2018, applicants for the creative writing program at Hyattsville Middle School (HMS) could start hearing wishes of “Break a leg!” prior to their auditions.
The HMS community successfully campaigned for the permanent reinstatement of its creative writing major. As part of the reinstatement, in fall 2017, the Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) Department of Arts Integration staff will start writing a new curriculum for the program to align it with Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and national fine arts standards. The creative writing program will then be a fine arts major. Starting in spring 2018, the onsite writing requirement for the audition will be a monologue. An application and audition are necessary for entrance into Creative and Visual Performing Arts (CVPA) programs or Creative and Performing Arts (CPA) programs, as they’re known in elementary and middle schools.
According to a PGCPS Department of Arts Integration powerpoint presentation submitted at the March 21 Board of Education (BOE) meeting, HMS’s CPA program, including the creative writing major, began in 2003. In 2010, MSDE adopted Maryland College and Career-Ready Standards, requiring all content disciplines to be standards based. In October 2010, the prior fine arts coordinator directed content supervisors to review all courses to “insure they align to standards [and] have current curricula, resources and assessments.”
The recent review of HMS’s CPA creative writing courses indicated that they did not meet fine arts standards. Instead, they were “better aligned” with reading, English, and language arts (RELA) standards. Therefore, the creative writing program at HMS was eliminated. At the March 21 BOE meeting, Dr. Monica Goldson, deputy superintendent of teaching and learning, explained the decision. “Based on the team’s review, the initial recommendation was to eliminate the course, without close examination of the ramifications of the decision.”
When HMS’s CPA applications came out in December 2016, students and their families expressed surprise that the creative writing major was no longer available. The HMS community began a campaign to reinstate the major, which, among other actions, included meetings with PGCPS officials, a petition started by Juwan Blocker — a graduate of HMS’s creative writing program and the student member of the BOE — in conjunction with HMS’s Student Government Association (SGA) and a letter-writing campaign.
Following a Jan. 10 PTSO meeting attended by PGCPS representatives, Arts Integration Officer John Ceschini wrote in a letter that the creative writing major would continue for the 2017-2018 school year but then would be “offered as an elective course for subsequent school years.” During an interview, Ceschini said that the original idea was to have all creative writing classes aligned to RELA standards. He said that it was never a matter of thinking that the creative writing program was not important, but “it was more of an alignment issue.” Ceschini said, “However, the community was very vocal and wanted to keep it.” He continued, “Our original intent was to align it with RELA standards but the community wanted to align with the CPA program.”
The focus going forward is not to change the major, Ceschini said, but to align it with MSDE theatre standards, “which currently it is not.” He said that the theatre department supervisor was creating a team that would write the curriculum and align it with MSDE theatre standards. Course numbers and names would be changed to distinguish CPA creative writing courses from non-CPA creative writing courses.
The only known change thus far will be having a written and performed monologue for the program’s audition. As noted by Goldson at the March 21 BOE meeting, “The creation and use of a monologue is a specific learning outcome outlined in the state’s current theatre standards.” Ceschini stressed that the emphasis will be on the writing, not the delivery, however: “The performance piece would not keep them out of the school because the focus will be on the writing requirement.”
At the request of Seiji Hayashi, the HMS PTSO president, Ceschini sent an email on May 8 confirming the leadership team’s decision to continue creative writing as a permanent major in the CPA program and outlining the need to align it to MSDE’s theatre standards. The leadership team is composed of representatives from the superintendent’s office and the Department of Arts Integration. Also on May 8, HMS principal Thornton Boone sent out a letter to HMS parents informing them of the leadership team’s decisions. In the letter, Boone added, “I appreciate your advocacy on this issue. We look forward to serving students with an interest in creative writing … for many years to come.”
Concerning the decisions about the creative writing program, T. Carter Ross, secretary of the PTSO and parent of a daughter in the program, said, “I’m glad PGCPS slowed down and reevaluated their decision. Having a curriculum that aligns with state standards isn’t something anyone opposed, so it’s good that we now have a path forward that preserves the creative writing major and creates a framework that would allow a creative writing major to be offered at other schools.” He added, “Ideally, as they go about this process, greater consideration can be given to expanding the creative writing opportunities both as a high school-level major and as an elective across all PGCPS schools.”
Kate Murray, a vice president of the PTSO, had a concern that there could be fewer applicants to the creative writing program for the 2017-2018 school year because “the program was still in jeopardy during the application process.”
Ross noted “a slight concern” that the need to fit the creative writing program into MSDE theatre standards could “unnecessarily constrain the creative writing major.” He continued, “creative writing as a discipline sits somewhere between English language arts and fine arts, which makes it hard to shoehorn into one or the other. At this point, I’m trusting those involved with writing the curriculum, include Ms.[Saralyn] Trainor, who’s overseen both the creative writing and theatre majors at HMS, to be able to thread the needle.”
Orla Collins, an HMS eighth-grader who is in her second year of the creative writing program and is the president of the SGA, said, “I’m very glad that they decided to continue the program. Creative writing is a valuable asset to our school. It attracts focused students yearly, and we have a unique presence in the school.” She cited creating a writing portfolio and participating in the PGCPS Write-A-Book as important elements of the current major for her.
Ross noted that HMS produced four first-place, four second-place, and one third-place winners in PGCPS’s 40th annual Write-A-Book contest. Murray noted that the creative writing program held a Poetry Cafe night and created a literary magazine this school year.
And it seems that there has already been some crossover work between the creative writing program and performance-based arts. Murray described how theatre students performed skits that were written by creative writing students. Additionally, HMS student Alexa Figueroa won Best Middle School Documentary in this year’s PGCPS Film Festival for her documentary #savecreativewriting on the threat of losing the creative writing program at HMS.
Collins said, “Through the campaign I have learned that if you make enough noise, people will listen. I think I’ve also learned that things won’t change unless we speak out against what we find unfair.”
Blocker agreed, saying that if parents, students, or the community sees something unfair or unjust, “the school system is not perfect … If you advocate and speak up, the school system will have to listen to you.” Blocker expressed his hope that if another course needs to be aligned with, or eliminated because of, MSDE standards, the school system would be transparent and proactive, contacting the school community first.
During the March 21 BOE meeting, BOE member, Raaheela Ahmed (District 5) said, “I wanted to thank the HMS community and Mr. [Juwan] Blocker for their efforts and diligence in fighting for this program.” She continued,“ I’m really proud of the grassroots activism that y’all took to preserve the program, and I don’t know if we would’ve got this result without it. So kudos to you Mr. Blocker and kudos to you the HMS community as well for their diligence in standing up for what they want.”