141: Where Does Your Mind Go When You're Given a Writing Prompt?

141: Where Does Your Mind Go When You're Given a Writing Prompt?

Today on our show, we bring you a story by one of Allison’s 7th grade students. She spent two months teaching English to 7th and 8th graders at a private school in Miami, and because she’s her, she assigned personal essay after personal essay. She learned about their parents, what they eat for dinner, their nannies, grandparents, and favorite sport. They resisted getting personal, the same way Allison did when she started writing.

Most people seem to struggle with writing about themselves, getting vulnerable, telling a story that might get them made fun of. But, not Webber. Webber is a kid who draws in class to stay focused. He pays attention and asks questions. When he speaks, his words matter. By the end of the first week of school, Allison had an inkling Webber was brilliant and unique. 

The Hispanic Heritage Month’s Essay Contest was optional for the school but a graded class assignment for Allison’s class. The students worked on the 500-word essay in class and those who weren’t Hispanic were stumped. Allison told them to write about being stumped. On the day the essay was due, Webber handed in an incredibly mature and well-written essay. A week later, at the culmination of the week’s Hispanic heritage celebration, Webber won the competition. 

Today, we bring you Webber’s essay, completely written on his own. Allison did no editing. What’s cool about this essay and many essays that are created from a writing prompt, is that Webber played the piano and let his mind wander. On this episode we talk about ways to relax our minds so we can write--either through being quiet, playing a sport, or using another art form.

Webber is a 12-year-old student at Ransom Everglades Middle School in Coconut Grove, Florida. His story is called The Bossa Nova.

Writing Class Radio is hosted and produced by Allison Langer,  Andrea Askowitz, and Zorina Frey. Audio production by Matt Cundill, Evan Surminski, and Aidan Glassey at the Sound Off Media Company. Theme music by Justina Shandler.

There’s more writing class on our website www.writingclassradio.com including essays to study, editing resources, video classes, writing retreats, and live online classes. Join our writing community.

Follow us on Patreon to join our First Draft weekly writers groups. You have the option to join me on Tuesdays 12-1 ET and Zorina Wednesdays 6-7pm ET. You’ll write to a prompt and share what you wrote. 

If you’re looking to take your writing to the next level, we have two Second Draft writing groups. Each week, three people bring a finished draft for feedback. 

Join the community that comes together for instruction, an excuse to write, and most importantly, the support from other writers. To learn more, go to www.Patreon.com/writingclassradio. Or email andrea@writingclassradio.com for a Zoom link. First session is FREE.

A new episode will drop every other WEDNESDAY. 

There’s no better way to understand ourselves and each other, than by writing and sharing our stories. Everyone has a story. What’s yours?


Allison Langer 00:00:09
I'm Allison Langer.

Zorina Frey 00:00:11
I'm Zorina Frey

Andrea Askowitz 00:00:13
I'm Andrea Askowitz. And this is writing class radio. You'll hear true personal stories and learn how to write your own stories. Together, we produce this podcast, which is equal parts heart and art. By heart, we mean the craft of writing.

Allison Langer 00:00:28
No, we don't.

Andrea Askowitz 00:00:30
By heart, we mean the truth and a story. By heart, we mean the craft of writing. No matter what's going on in our lives, writing Class is where we tell the truth. It's where we work out our sheet. There's no place in the world like Writing Class. And we want to bring you in.

Allison Langer 00:00:52
Today on our show, we bring you a story by one of my 7th grade students. I just spent two months teaching English to 7th and 8th graders at a private school in Miami. And because I'm me, I assigned personal essay after personal essay.

Andrea Askowitz 00:01:08
Yay, right?

Tara Sands (Voiceover) 00:01:10

Allison Langer 00:01:11
So what I learned from their essays was how their parents got to the United States. Intercultural relationships that their parents have either marriages or friendships. I learned about their nannies, and I learned about the foods they like. But what I didn't learn was anything about the student, because these kids did not want to be personal. They did not want to get vulnerable. And I don't know why I was so surprised, because I did the same thing when I started writing. You don't want to put yourself out there on the table, so I don't really blame them. So this contest was for Hispanic Heritage Month at school. It was really meant to help the Hispanic kids to be able to share their culture and their heritage. But what I wanted them to do is write a personal essay. And so I made the contest mandatory instead of optional, because I think it's really important. Even when you think you don't have any relationship to whatever the topic is, I always feel like you can write a good essay. So what ended up happening was we started this essay in class, and all the students were like, I don't know what to write about. I don't have any Hispanic culture, including Weber. And I said to him and everyone, then write about that. When it was time to turn it in, Webber gives me this insane essay that I was totally blown away with, and I urged him to please submit it. Please, please. And he did. And he won.

Andrea Askowitz 00:02:45
He won.

Allison Langer 00:02:45
He won.

Andrea Askowitz 00:02:46
I don't know. He won?

Allison Langer 00:02:47
Yes, he won.

Andrea Askowitz 00:02:49
Oh, my God.

Zorina Frey 00:02:50
And of course he won.

Andrea Askowitz 00:02:52

Allison Langer 00:02:53

Andrea Askowitz 00:02:53
Oh, I was okay.

Allison Langer 00:02:55
Two or three or four of the stories were really well written. Actually, even maybe two handfuls of stories really well written, which was shocking to me because writing and grammar is not like there's not a lot of time in the curriculum for that. By the time they're working their way through high school, they're getting more and more of it. But at this age they're sort of still sending writing like they text.

Andrea Askowitz 00:03:19
And also, like you said, they have trouble writing about themselves, as so many.

Allison Langer 00:03:24
People do, and trying to get the A and getting vulnerable and what's the right answer? They're just not creative. And their brains are just flooded with so much need to do and useless information and also important information that they're trying to learn in math and Spanish and all these things that they're learning in school. Like one more thing to try to be creative. That takes time and space.

Andrea Askowitz 00:03:44

Allison Langer 00:03:45
Courage. Yeah. Anyway, I was so proud that he won it. And I was proud of the other kids too, who really did talk about what the culture around does for them. And there were many other students that stood out. But Weber's essay was amazing for a reason. Why we get to when we discuss the essay in the end, just kind of his process and what that brought out. So after the essay you'll hear us discussing that. I just want to also say that I did nothing to this essay. Like, you know, I'm an over editor. I learned that from you, Andrea. And I always say that is bad.

Andrea Askowitz 00:04:21
No, I don't think you're an over editor.

Allison Langer 00:04:23
Right. But we always have our own opinions about how things should be written and how they should be worded and what's missing. And I literally had zero, zero edits on this. He came to the table with this himself.

Zorina Frey 00:04:38
That's saying something. Webber is a twelve year old student at Ransom Everglades Middle School in Coconut Grove, Florida. We'll be back with Weber's story after the break. We're back. I'm Zarina Fry, and this is writing class radio. Here's Webber reading his story called The Bossanova.

Wendall 00:05:04
I have to be honest, this was a challenging assignment. I will admit that this is one of the first times, if not the first, that I had to think about the influence of Hispanic heritage in my life. It would be easier to list the names of places or foods or pop culture icons that have Hispanic roots and origins. However, as to think of the influence in my everyday life, I came up empty. Most Americans probably do not consider the effect that Hispanic heritage has on their daily life. This only emphasizes the importance of this month as it allows me and many others to learn about Hispanic culture. Being pushed to think about how Hispanic heritage impacts my life made me wonder where I see examples of other cultures to help myself think and brainstorm. I did what I always do and sat down at my piano. This is how I often develop thoughts and ideas. As I was playing, I realized something. At a young age, I fell in love with improvising in jazz music. One of my favorite styles of jazz music is the bosnova. It suddenly occurred to me how this style was influenced by Hispanic culture. Bossanova is a combination of jazz set to a song, a rhythm. The Bostonova story began in the 1950s when artists such as Evoke, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and percussionist Chenopozo brought Hispanic rhythms and Afrocuban instruments into the New York City jazz scene. Bringing these instruments into the United States sparked a new type of music called the Bostonova. Using influences from jazz music found in the United States, in Africa, Latin American and Sabo music, the Bossanova was created. In reading about Latin American influence on jazz, I came across an interesting quote about jazz from jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton. He said that jazz was born with a Spanish tinge. Bostonova uses more unique chords, creating a rhythmic beat based on a foundational clave. Claves are the foundation of a bossanova and are found in almost every song using Afrocuban rhythms, keeping time. Claves often act as metronomes to help musicians communicate and stay on the beat. In the past 50 years, the Bossanova style has evolved with artists such as Stan Guest, astrude Gilberto, Celia Cruz and more. For me, this music has a unique style. I love the fun rhythms and distinctive instruments. And now I have realized a rich history. I've learned to play several songs with The Boss and Nova influence and they are always challenging but wonderful. Some of my favorite Bossanova pieces include the well known Girl of Emphanima and the Vaz standard Blue Bossa. Although I started this assignment feeling confused and frustrated, I have to admit that now I feel grateful. I've discovered that something I do every day and feel passionate about is influenced by Hispanic culture. The Bostonova is a unique musical style I never realized without Hispanic origin. Now every time I sit by the piano, I will be reminded that Hispanic heritage is more than just erpa's empanadas.

Andrea Askowitz 00:08:03
I think this 7th grader is fucking brilliant.

Allison Langer 00:08:07
We're talking about a 7th grader. Do you think you can knock us once? Do you think he'll listen?

Tara Sands (Voiceover) 00:08:16
Yeah, he's going to listen.

Andrea Askowitz 00:08:17
The 7th grader is brilliant. First of all, we know that right away. He sits down at his piano when he's trying to, like, think, alright, so I'm already like, Whoa, special kid. Very special. That's so cool. And then he taught me so much.

Allison Langer 00:08:33
Had you ever heard of Bostonova before this?

Zorina Frey 00:08:35

Andrea Askowitz 00:08:36
No. But I've heard of Celia Cruz. So then I felt cool.

Allison Langer 00:08:40
I knew Dizzy Gillespie saying we are idiots.

Andrea Askowitz 00:08:46
Oh, I've heard about Fuzz.

Allison Langer 00:08:48
Very funny. And the Girl of Ipanema.

Tara Sands (Voiceover) 00:08:51
Oh, yeah.

Andrea Askowitz 00:08:52
Okay, let's not talk about how dumb we are.

Allison Langer 00:08:54
Wasn't that a dog grooming place in Gorilla Gables?

Andrea Askowitz 00:08:56
At some point there is a dog place called the Dog of E Panema, but that's different.

Allison Langer 00:09:02
But what I think is so cool is that this kid has so much knowledge of something we don't know anything about. And I often feel that kids are, oh, you're just a kid, you're kind of ignored. They think you don't know anything. But that's so not true. The reason why this was so important for me to bring to the podcast and to share with you guys and all our listeners and everything is because I want people to start paying attention and learning and listening to these kids because that's encouragement to them, and we get to learn something in the process.

Andrea Askowitz 00:09:41
Dang alison, you're like a kid advocate. Now get a job as a middle.

Allison Langer 00:09:48
School teacher and, like, you turn into a kid advocate.

Andrea Askowitz 00:09:51
Well, you do.

Allison Langer 00:09:52
Not all kids are like him. He's very unique, very special, and he cares. I wouldn't say any of them are really excited about this assignment. So, like I mentioned at the top, it was an essay contest at his middle school where I was substitute teaching, and it was optional for the kids, but not for me because I was teaching English. And I said, guys, we're going to all do this essay. It's short 500 words, like, the whole thing, but I really want you guys to practice. And this was the perfect opportunity. And I was just with this essay and a couple of other ones, too. Blown away.

Andrea Askowitz 00:10:32
I'm blown away. I want to start from the top and just, like, go through it, because this kid did everything we want our students to do in terms of essay writing. Like, he starts in one place and then he comes to a new place by the end. So he starts by saying that he like to be honest, this was a really difficult assignment. This was the first time this Hispanic kid was forced to think about, is he Hispanic?

Allison Langer 00:11:03
No, he's not Hispanic.

Andrea Askowitz 00:11:06
I thought he was. What do you think, Serena? I thought he was.

Zorina Frey 00:11:09
I just figured he was.

Allison Langer 00:11:10
No, and this is going to make more sense. It was during Hispanic Heritage Month that this school assigned this essay. And I feel like it was geared to people to share their own Hispanic heritage with others. But what I always think is cool is somebody who has nothing to do with the situation, having empathy.

Andrea Askowitz 00:11:34
Well, he thinks he has nothing to do with the situation, but he has everything to do with it, which is why I actually thought he was Hispanic. I just thought that he was Hispanic kid. He wasn't really that in touch with his roots at all. And then he sits down at the piano and he's like, oh, my God, wait a minute. The songs I've been practicing and playing my whole life up until now, at the ripe age of 1212, are influenced by Hispanic culture. And then he did that thing that you just talk about, which is like, he taught us all about bossanova and a little bit about jazz. And I'm like, wow.

Tara Sands (Voiceover) 00:12:11
Oh, my God.

Andrea Askowitz 00:12:12
And then he goes from being confused to grateful that he realizes that, like, yeah, he's like, it's inside him that's why I thought he I don't know why I'm bummed out that he's not Hispanic, but that's why I thought he was Hispanic, because it's in him.

Allison Langer 00:12:27
And I think it's even more beautiful that he's not, because it goes to say, how can one person write about something that they don't have knowledge about? So that happens in writing and trying to get published and trying to get an editor and trying to get your book out into the world. I mean, I've run into that with my novel.

Andrea Askowitz 00:12:47
Right? You're bringing that in?

Allison Langer 00:12:49
Of course I have to, because it's true. They say, well, what do you know about an AfricanAmerican kid in prison? Because my story's about injustice. Well, just because I'm not that person doesn't mean I haven't seen the injustice and experienced it through the people that I communicate with. But here's a kid who has no Hispanic blood, who is appreciating something in a culture that he wasn't born into, and I think that's so beautiful.

Andrea Askowitz 00:13:18
I'm waiting for Serena to go on.

Zorina Frey 00:13:20
What can I say about this story? I mean, this is a child who's viewing the world, but he's viewing the world like everyone should. But I felt like I was being taken to task. I don't know any of these people.

Andrea Askowitz 00:13:36
Well, you were saying earlier, Allison, that and we've seen this a million times with whenever we give a prompt in class, like, some people get so stuck. So with the prompt was Spanish Heritage Month, and then this guy was like, oh, my God, what do I do? What do I do? But then he, like, relaxed. You can tell that he relaxed. And maybe what he did was he just kept writing, which is something that we tell our students. Like, if you get stuck, I love to say, like, if you get stuck, just say, right, just keep writing. Like, keep moving your pen. What next? What next? And it feels to me like he did that until he got to his piano, and then he busted out with what he knows about how Hispanic culture has influenced the music he plays. I loved the lessons learned here. I was like, oh, my God.

Tara Sands (Voiceover) 00:14:27

Andrea Askowitz 00:14:28
What really very cool you know what.

Allison Langer 00:14:31
I thought was really cool about this is that it goes to your point. Often we don't know what we're feeling or thinking until we start writing, and then all of a sudden, all this stuff comes out. So you can either go into an essay going, okay, I kind of know the arc already, and some you're just like, Well, I'm just going to see where this goes. And I thought this kind of happened with this, because we started these in class, right? I wanted to give class time. I remember he walked up, he said, I'm not Hispanic, and I don't know what to write about. And I said, Then write about that good.

Andrea Askowitz 00:15:00
That's it, right?

Allison Langer 00:15:01
And he said, okay, and then did it and then finish it at home, and then handed me this, and I was just like, wow. And after, I read 50 of these essays, and this one stood out so much because it was not as literal. And I think that's what the interesting thing for us to remember is when people give a prompt, they don't necessarily need the literal response to the prompt. It can be anything, however your mind works, the creativity behind it, once you start writing, there's something really fun about.

Andrea Askowitz 00:15:39
Being in writing class where everyone gets the same prompt and then, oh, my God, if you believe that person wrote about that or that or that or that. And it's like we all kind of all of our stories are, like, hovering around that prompt sometimes, but sometimes what comes out has nothing to do with the prompt, or you don't even know what the prompt is. And I always say that our class doesn't matter what the prompt is, so it really doesn't. This kid, it seemed like once you told him to just write about how he doesn't think he has anything to write about on this topic, seemed to just let loose. And that's so cool.

Zorina Frey 00:16:19
Yeah. I mean, it just really shows just how one should look at society. You guys mentioned this before just about him going to his piano, but I want to go a little bit deeper into that because he says it very plainly. To help myself think and brainstorm, I did what I always do. I sat down at my piano. This is how I develop thoughts and ideas. This is something that every writer should look at. We all don't have to play the piano. But if we're stumped, usually what I tell the writers in my first draft class is just to keep writing, right? That's what we all say. You think you're done.

Andrea Askowitz 00:17:06
You're not.

Zorina Frey 00:17:06
Just keep writing. But Weber here goes to another art form that's just so beautiful, the fact that he was just able to do like a dump, where he just let himself focus on the thing that he knows well and let his mind just explore. And then he says, and as I was playing, I realized something. So that's just something I think that every listener ought to just take a look at. It doesn't necessarily have to be playing the piano. It could be exercising.

Andrea Askowitz 00:17:41
It could just read. I want to tell you, I do my best riding on my bicycle. I mean, people think I'm just, like, tooling around town, but I am working.

Zorina Frey 00:17:51
Yeah, I know. I've seen you on your bike. And I'm like, look at that girl tooling around. That's exactly what I said.

Andrea Askowitz 00:17:59
Look at that woman practicing her arts, being creative writing.

Zorina Frey 00:18:06
I've said that too.

Allison Langer 00:18:08
But this is something that I think this kid's generation really doesn't do enough of, is just stop, turn everything off, and just get into it. Whether it's just looking out the window or taking a shower. Like, I do all my best thinking in the shower. We're in the car with no radio on. We're taking a walk with no music. If we can shut everything off for a second, I think we hear things that we wouldn't otherwise hear and we see people differently and we recognize things in ourselves. And I just wish that some of these kids and grown ups, too, me included, would just shut our electronics off for a minute.

Andrea Askowitz 00:18:56
I agree with you. I'm wondering, though, right now. So Serena is saying that this kid went to another art form to get to this art form, but, like, is biking an art form or sports an art form? And I actually think they are.

Zorina Frey 00:19:10
I agree.

Andrea Askowitz 00:19:11
Is walking without anything? Yeah, I don't know. I'm not sure if walking is an art form, but I mean, like, when you get into your body and you start moving and doing something, I mean, taking a shower is not quite an art form necessarily.

Allison Langer 00:19:27
It's just turning your brain off for a second, shutting off the stimulation.

Andrea Askowitz 00:19:31
There's turning off, and then there's also tuning in in a different way. So I guess there are those things that we're talking about right now, like shush with everything, just be quiet and do something repetitive. Do some motion, play the piano, get into a different art form so that you can, like, unlock your brain and write something awesome.

Allison Langer 00:19:51
Well, I mentioned that he's always doodling in class to pay attention, and a lot of kids want to keep their computers open because they're watching some soccer game or Googling something. But I knew with him from the first 2nd when I saw his computer open and him doodling. I never said one word because I was like many years ago when I took my own kid to the psychologist and the teachers were like, he's chewing on his pencils and he's chewing on his shirt. I learned at that point that that is how that repetition or doing something else with your hands or your mouth or something like that, even just chewing gum, helps regulate the brain. And so for him, it's the piano and it's doodling, and it's really a positive thing. I hope that there's educators out there that understand that this is 100% necessary. Even standing up, moving around for some kids is really important. Anyway, you guys, this is so nice. I'm so glad we're able to get his story out. Thank you, Webber, so much. And thank you to his parents who let him record for us. I'm so happy.

Zorina Frey 00:21:01
Keep playing, Webber.

Allison Langer 00:21:03
All right. And thank you guys for listening.

Tara Sands (Voiceover) 00:21:08
Here's just a new beginning writing class.

Allison Langer 00:21:11
Radio is hosted by me Allison Langer.

Andrea Askowitz 00:21:14
Me Andrea Ashworth, and me Zorina Frey

Allison Langer 00:21:18
Audio production is by Matt Cundill, Evan Surminski and Aiden Glassy at the Sound of Media Company. The music is by Justina Chandler. There's more writing class on our website, writingclassradio.com, including stories we study, editing resources, video classes, writing retreats, and live online classes. Follow us on Patreon to join our first draft weekly writers group. You have the option to join me on Tuesdays, twelve to one Eastern time.

Zorina Frey 00:21:48
And Wednesdays, six to 07:00 p.m.. Eastern.

Allison Langer 00:21:53
You'll write to a prompt and share what you wrote. If you're looking to take your writing to the next level, we have two second draft writing groups. Each week, three people get to bring in a finished draft. For feedback, join the community that comes together for instruction, an excuse to write, and, most importantly, the support from other writers. To learn more, go to patreon.com. Writingclassradio a new episode will drop every other Wednesday.

Zorina Frey 00:22:20
There's no better way to understand ourselves and each other than by writing and sharing our stories. Everyone has a story. What's yours?

Tara Sands (Voiceover) 00:22:48
Produced and Distributed by the Soundoff Media Company.