Faces of WITS: Arlene Naganawa
September 16, 2020
The ability to express oneself clearly, with strength and beauty, is essential to creating change. With each classroom visit, our WITS Writers-in-Residence—working with students across public schools in Seattle and the greater Puget Sound region—provide new tools, perspectives, and attention to students to help them develop and express these lifelong literacy skills. WITS Writers also connect and inspire teachers, invigorate teacher practices, and help make our public schools as vibrant and creative as students are themselves.
Today, we are excited to announce “Faces of WITS,” a brand new series featuring interviews with our WITS writers who will give us windows into their favorite lessons, their writing careers, and the various joys they find in their classrooms. First up is Arlene Naganawa! Beyond her WITS work at McClure Middle School, Arlene has been a Scribes instructor at Hugo House, a Pongo poet writing with incarcerated youth at King County Juvenile Detention, and a youth mentor at Echo Glen Children’s Center.
Arlene brings many years of experience teaching at public and independent schools to the WITS program, and she’s a published author in her own right—you can find her work in the pages of journals like Crab Creek Review and Calyx, and her chapbooks include “Private Graveyard” (Gribble Press), “The Scarecrow Bride” (Red Bird Chapbooks), and “The Ark and the Bear” (Floating Bridge Press).
What is your favorite part about teaching with WITS?
Of course, my favorite aspect of WITS is working with students. I loved high school and literature, so I decided in tenth grade that I wanted to be a language arts teacher. What could be better than sharing space with students and beautiful language? My dream was realized and I taught middle and high school for many years. Now, as a WITS teacher, I have the privilege of continuing to write with and listen to young people. Students are so smart and perceptive. Their writing surprises and delights me, year after year.
Tell us about a favorite lesson or writing prompt.
I like teaching “Cow Worship” by Gerald Stern. The poem is both funny and meaningful. It moves from the observation of real cows trampling the yard into a moment of cosmic appreciation. Students write about worldly, often mundane, things that they love (cats, baseball, bagels) and move seamlessly into a universe that encompasses themselves and all that they love. Their poems are often witty and always touching.
What’s “your” local bookstore?
I live near Seward Park and am so appreciative that Third Place Books lives in the neighborhood. The fact that the building used to house a grocery store is a nice metaphor: nourishment for the body has become nourishment for the mind and soul. It is a lovely, welcoming place, a “third place,” for many (before Covid, of course). It will be a gathering place again.
What’s your hidden talent?
We did an exercise with our fifth and sixth grade Scribes in Hugo House this past summer where we named our superpowers: singing, dancing, playing soccer. My superpower was lying on the couch pretending to exercise. My other hidden talent is talking to animals. They don’t often respond.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Marvin Bell said to use one word when responding to student writing: “Yes.” Jason Reynolds offers another gift of wisdom. He says that our job as adults is to see young people, really see and hear them.