Mark Forrester: For Danny

Mark Forrester was my mentor during the first semester that I taught in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland in College Park. But he is so much more that a teacher—Mark is a father, a husband, a poet, and a true friend. I hope readers will enjoy his blog on what it means to be a witness to one’s students.

When I think of former students, as often as not my first impulse is to offer an apology.

Danny was a junior in college, a student in my professional writing class. He showed up for class every day, on time, and sat in the front row of the classroom. However, the work that he submitted often seemed careless and reflected an immaturity that also appeared when he spoke up in class. He would offer loud observations that were irrelevant to and threatened to derail our classroom discussions. He embarrassed another student by noting that her name was also that of a videogame character.

Not surprisingly, I quickly grew frustrated with Danny. I was not rude to him, but I’m sure I directed more of my time and attention to those students who seemed more engaged and willing to learn.

On the last day of the course, I overheard Danny discussing the treatment he was receiving for autism. Would I have treated him differently if I had known this from the beginning of the semester? I’m not sure what specifically I might have done differently, but I know that my attitude would have been changed—and in teaching, a change of attitude can mean everything.

MF: College Professor
Mark Forrester

Of course, Danny is not the only student I have had in my career who was struggling with difficult circumstances. I have had students who were suicidal, who were in abusive relationships, who were dealing with eating disorders, who were sick and overworked, who were facing criminal charges, who had been sexually abused by a parent, who had a parent who was dying, whose best friend died that semester, whose parents were going through a bitter divorce . . . along with many other challenging and emotionally overwhelming situations. You cannot teach long at any level without encountering enough genuine tragedy to make Dickens seem like Pollyanna in comparison.

Few of us still subscribe (at least consciously) to the old-fashioned notion that our students come to us as empty vessels, eagerly waiting to be filled with knowledge. However, it’s often easy to forget just how un-empty those students really are. For a student like Danny, a teacher may be able to make adjustments in their teaching style. But when a student is struggling with the imminent death of a beloved parent, how can a teacher hope to make the distinction between cumulative and coordinate adjectives seem important?

The answer, of course, is that you can’t. In the moment, such matters are not important to the student, and they should not be important to the teacher. For that matter, the injustices imposed by prison privatization and the dangers posed by global warming will not seem important either. While it is a noble pursuit for a teacher to want to serve as a witness on behalf of their students, it is too easy to assume that you know best what needs to be witnessed.

A good witness must be an active witness. To be an effective witness, you must start by being an attentive listener. You must know where your students stand, what the content of their vessels really is, what they need and what they are ready to learn. Many problems, perhaps including Danny’s autism, carry the additional frustration of making it more difficult for the student to speak up about what they are facing, meaning that the teacher must do more than listen. We must observe carefully, we must empathize fully, and we must assume the best of our students—no matter how many times we have already been burned by that assumption.

We must first allow our students to witness to us.

So, Danny, I am sorry. I did not listen when I should have, but I hope that I am a better listener now.

Bio: Mark Forrester is a high school dropout, former chef, and haiku poet. He has taught literature and composition courses at the University of Maryland for 24 years. Mark is an Assistant Director of Maryland’s Professional Writing Program, and in 2014 was honored with a Philip Merrill Presidential Scholars award for mentorship.

Sharing Stories by B. Morrison

I first met B. Morrison at the Maryland Writers Conference several years ago when she published her memoir Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. She wrote her courageous account of being on welfare for a brief period in her life as a way of saying to the world, “Look, this awful situation can happen to anyone.  Even someone from a good home with an education.”  Last year we did a series of readings together where we both discussed the importance of looking back at our lives to move forward and to heal.

B. Morrison’s gentle approach to memoir writing is encapsulated in this quote from Othello:

“What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”
William Shakespeare

Why Memoir

I’ve been teaching memoir classes for quite a few years now. What I’ve found is that people want to share their stories for all kinds of reasons. They may want to leave a record for their families. They may have experienced a particular era, such as World War II or the 1960s counterculture, that people may later want to learn about. Or they may have gone through some other trial and believe that what they have learned may help others. Some simply want to discover the shape of their lives, to see their life as a sustained narrative rather than a collection of random events.

B. Morrison
B. Morrison

Often, people turn to memoir as a way to come to terms with a past trauma. Programs such as the Walter Reed Arts Program ( have shown that making art and music is often more effective for healing than medications or surgery, particularly for patients with brain injury or PTSD. Linda Joy Meyers explores this healing aspect of memoir in The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story (

While writing therapy is an established field, when I teach memoir writing I am not there to be a therapist or counselor. I am there to help them find their stories and to tell them. But inevitably I am also there as a recipient of their personal stories. As I read or listen to a participant’s story, I share their experience. I am a witness, but one with certain responsibilities.

Finding the story

I often work with people who want to write a memoir or have been asked by their families to create one, but they don’t know where to start. “My life is ordinary,” they might say, or “I don’t remember anything much.”

No matter how ordinary your life may seem, you have stories that will interest others. You may have to excavate them. You may have to shape them to make them more effective. You may have to get out the power tools.

To find the stories participants in my classes want to tell, need to tell, we do writing sprints. I offer a prompt, a suggested topic such as “Write about a time you fell down.” I leave it open-ended, so that the prompt could be interpreted as a physical fall or a metaphorical fall. Then we freewrite for a set period of time, five or ten minutes, just writing anything, whatever comes, without worrying about grammar or structure; just writing.

It’s surprising what comes out of these sessions. And such memories are like a magician’s rope of scarves: you start to pull and more comes out and more and then even more.

To shape stories we talk about story elements, such as characterization, setting, story structure. We work on including dramatic scenes. As one student put it, sometimes you need to take an axe and chop holes in your narrative that you can then fill with scenes.

A safe place

Memoir classes are different from other creative writing classes because people are sharing true and often painful experiences. It’s important for me as the teacher to create a safe space for such sharing.

One aspect of that safety is privacy. In the first session of every class I remind everyone that what is said in class stays there. It is fine to share what you’ve learned about writing, but nothing about the lives or experiences of others.

Another aspect is respect for each participant’s voice. We take turns critiquing work, going around the table, each person having their say. It is part of my role as the teacher to ensure that any criticism is constructive.

Even more important is that I make certain we critique the work and not the experience, not the person. For example, if a person’s memoir piece is about a past conflict with their mother, we would not say, “You should have felt this way or done that.” Instead we look at the writing and offer suggestions for making the piece stronger, perhaps by adding more sensory details or varying sentence structure.

I and the others in the class bear witness to the writer’s experience, without criticising the experience itself. However, though I work with adults rather than children, if I thought one of the participants were in danger, I would act. That is part of my responsibility as the teacher.


In a story the protagonist (who in a memoir would be yourself) goes a journey that starts in one place and ends up in another. In the best stories, it is actually two related journeys: one external and one internal. For example, in her wonderful memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls tells the external story of growing up with imaginative but irresponsible parents. Her internal journey is to learn to appreciate them for who they are and, as her mother says in the first chapter, to tell the truth about them.

Writing a memoir means digging into the emotions of a past event. Like the protagonist of any story, as we write about our experience we expose the inner wound that drives that particular story. It may or may not be healed, but at least it is heard.

Biography: B. Morrison is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and two poetry collections, Terrarium and Here at Least. Barbara provides editing services and conducts writing workshops, including courses this fall through the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Program and the Baltimore County Arts Guild. More information:


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LinkedIn: Twitter: bmorrison9

What Does it Mean for a Teacher to Serve as a Witness?

Definitions are important, I used to emphasize when discussed crafting an argument with my students. Definitions serve as the foundation for a common understanding of an issue. And when we want to find a definition, we usually consult the dictionary. While there are many definitions for the word witness, the following entry in Webster’s seems most appropriate to the work of teacher as witness: “to be present at, to see personally.”

Teachers are present at many events in students’ lives: reading a first book, winning a race, mastering an instrument, graduating.  But as teachers, we always need to bring the personal into the classroom, to see personally each of our students. To move past the challenging behaviors or the angry words and sullen refusals to participate.  As teachers, we are called to look at the student more carefully, more thoughtfully, so as to help them manage whatever challenges they carry.

“There’s beauty everywhere. There are amazing things happening everywhere, you just have to be able to open your eyes and witness it. Some days, that’s harder than others.” Sarah McLachlan

I learned this lesson most deeply when I taught adolescents in a psychiatric hospital several years ago.  To say their behaviors were inappropriate and challenging is to understate the situation. And while I was often at a loss as to how to break through the students’ defenses, I found my way in with poetry. The more I knew about each student, the more I was able to connect in a kind and understanding way.

The series of poems that I began while I worked in the psych hospital grew into a collection of poems that detail the stories of many of the students, teachers, and administrators I have worked with over the span of 40 years. Writing the poems helped me to go deeper into each student’s story and at the very least, to gain more empathy. Here is one of the poems about a young woman struggling with gender identity in high school. I hope her story will encourage you to witness the people in your life as personally as you are able. (Published in Mipoesias, Fall, 2015)


Rena’s brown eyes focus on something in the distance—
She slumps in her chair
cropped brown hair frames her frozen face.
Rena never smiles
except when she talks about her going back to Brazil
or about caring for her 5 year old sister.
They make castles together and later Rena writes stories
with a heroine named Marvelous Maggie.
Rena tells me I love reading to her and writing stories.
A smile spills across her face.

Rena fails every class in 10th grade—
despite repeating 9th grade work. At midterm,
she begs for the chance to take Honors English 10
I’m bored. If you challenge me, I’ll work, she promises.
When I ask Rena how she’s doing, she looks past
me, then shuts her eyes.
My parents work all the time, so I have to take care of my sister.
I want to take a drawing class. Have you seen my sketch book?
“How’s it going in English?”
I missed a test because I was sick, but I’ll make it up this week.
I’m doing great though.
Rena doesn’t tell me she has a D average. I’m going to Brazil in January, so none of this matters.

Rena’s hair is shorter every time I see her
She sports a spikey leather collar around her neck,
wears baggy tee shirts with old Punk band logos. She holds hands
with a girl when she leaves school. When we have a progress meeting, she says
I used to want to kill myself and I’ve been feeling really sad
again. I don’t think I’m going to hurt myself, but I’m afraid.
Rena refuses to speak to me because I tell her parents what she said.
She turns away when I approach. She continues to fail every class.

Rena shaves all of her hair and leaves a strip long, hanging over one eye.
She dyes it green. I see her hugging a girl in the hallway.
Her clothes more masculine, her face impassive, yet defiant.

My parents won’t let me go to Brazil, she tells me.
I’m dropping out of school.

Reaching for the Stars, One Step at a Time

Last weekend I participated in a writing workshop  at Ikaros Restaurant in Baltimore. Rafael Alvarez and Rosalia Scalia served as co-facilitators and offered the participants a wealth of great information about writing as a craft, more specifically, writing fiction and nonfiction. That’s why I took the workshop–I want to expand beyond poetry and interviews and begin to write profiles and stories.


Of course,  the teachers assigned us extensive homework.  Lots of reading, lots of exercises to flex our writing muscles and stretch our skills.  Before the class had ended,  my inner voice started chattering and making plans for how I could accomplish my goals.  Like many inner voices, mine pushes me to achieve as fast as I can—–and to get moving NOW!  I call her my inner rabbit.

Have you ever watched rabbits move?  They don’t scamper in a straight line when they want to go somewhere–they flip, do side-twists, and sometimes even hop  in circles.  Sometimes they get startled and stop, sitting in one place and twitching their noses while looking side-to-side for danger. Rabbits are fast, but not all of their movements seem purposeful.

Think of the hare in the Aesop’s Fable “The Tortise and the Hare.” When I close my eyes, I see the hare scampering ahead, rushing headlong, sure he will win the race. And I used to think that being like the hare or the rabbit was the only way to achieve my goal. How would my inner rabbit’s behavior manifest as far as achieving my writing goals?

First, my inner rabbit would look at all of the books that the teachers recommended and buy them, preferably that day. She’d schedule herself to  read a book a week–which Rosalia recommended–and finish four books in a month. My inner rabbit has a lot of catching up to do. She’d read novels and text books, rewrite her stories and use the model of one of the masters to help her. She’d look for a new writing group and meet with them once a month. She’d take more classes, go to more conferences, enter a few contests….and keep working on her poetry as well.

But I know from experience that after a few weeks, my rabbit-approach would leave me breathless and frustrated. The initial rush of enthusiasm invariably withers after a few weeks of intense effort. More books unread, more papers shoved into the recycling, or put into a folder and forgotten.

As much as I love rabbits and enjoy watching them scamper and play, they make poor role models for achieving goals.  But I know that my inner-tortise can rein me in and get me focused. Instead of buying lots of books, I looked at my collection and decided which ones I need to read and annotate. I bought two classic novels and have a partner to read them with. And I selected one short story to use as a model to help me rewrite the draft  that I shared with the writing class.

What’s my timeline? How fast do I think that I’ll accomplish my goal of getting a story published? I’m giving myself a year to work on my craft and absorb all that I’ll be learning. I have a hard time running anyway, but I’m a strong walker!

A Poem for Labor Day

Heading to work with joy and purpose
Heading to work with joy and purpose

I’m taking a break this week because of Labor Day, and I hope all of you are as well. I am posting this fine poem by Marge Piercy because I have always loved the lines about people working hard “who do what has to be done, again and again.”  May you always find the courage to enter your work with enthusiasm and a deep sense of purpose. Happy Labor Day!

To Be of Use by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.