Writing Iowa in Kazakhstan

September 21st, 2015

With new MOOC on the horizon, English language fellow reflects on using IWP resources to facilitate poetry workshop

By Jeffrey Lauber for Iowa Now


Harry Leeds

Harry Leeds had expected students to be shy about writing poetry in English, the way any student might be nervous about writing and sharing personal work in a second language. When it came to the 20 Kazakh students in his poetry workshop, however, he was wrong: “Some people didn’t want to share with the group,” Leeds says, “but everyone wrote.”

Leeds was living in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan, as an English Language Fellow when he heard about theInternational Writing Program’s (IWP) How Writers Write Poetry 2015 Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). These IWP online courses are offered free of charge to an unlimited number of participants; anyone in the world may register for and take part in a MOOC. How Writers Write Poetry 2015 offered an interactive poetry writing course through class videos, teaching discussions, and peer feedback, all freely available online. While living in Russia prior to his fellowship, Leeds became especially interested in Turkic people and culture, which ultimately led to his decision to teach English in Kazakhstan.

“I was always impressed in Russia—and then in Kazakhstan—with the level of esteem for literature and poetry,” he says.

The International Writing Program’s newly implemented IWP Online Campus provides course content and teaching tools from its MOOCs in the form of MOOCpacks. These MOOCpacks are designed to make MOOCs accessible for group study in regions where individuals might not have the reliable internet access necessary to engage directly with MOOCs on their own. Before the How Writers Write Poetry 2015 MOOC opened in April 2015, the Distance Learning Program reached out to United States embassies in underserved regions to offer people like Leeds the tools to host live, community-based MOOC discussion groups and writing workshops. Drawing on his teaching background and love of Kazakh literature, Leeds used the IWP Online Campus to facilitate a poetry workshop that lasted seven weeks.

To illustrate how a local MOOC group can work, the IWP asked Leeds about his experience leading an IWP MOOC workshop:

Q. What made you interested in facilitating a workshop during your time in Kazakhstan?

A. I had wanted to conduct a workshop before I even arrived in Kazakhstan. I thought exploring our inner thoughts would be fascinating.

Q. How did you find out about the opportunity to conduct an IWP MOOC workshop?

A. One of the great resources around the world is the American Spaces, or American Corners, which are community spaces run by U.S. embassies globally that have books, computers, and other resources, and host a variety of events. One of the librarians at the American Corner in Pavlodar heard about the MOOC through the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan and let me know.

Q. How did you organize your workshop around the MOOC materials provided by the IWP?

A. Most days I would give a brief introduction to the week’s topic, then we would watch the MOOC videos for that week’s class session, which feature famous poets discussing the topic. I made worksheets that illustrated main points using published poems or the exercises suggested by the poets in the videos. We always began and ended with students writing poems, sharing in small groups, and finally reading to the whole room.

Q. Tell us a bit about the participants and their experience.

A. Though some people in Kazakhstan might write poems in school or even as a hobby, the idea of creative writing workshops is nonexistent. I think the participants felt the way I did the first time I realized what a workshop was—that these ideas and things I was jotting down could be heard by real people who would study them and give immediate feedback. It’s exciting in a way that makes you want to leap out of your skin, but frightening in a way that makes you want to crawl under the table and wail.

It was definitely a new outlet for them, and I could hear them discussing the poems we went over and each other’s poems as they walked out. They always walked out together in such a creative mood, always wanting to keep chatting and having fun.

The camaraderie was especially interesting given the varying ages of the people who took part. Our youngest participants were in high school; the oldest, retired.

Q. Would you recommend using creative writing workshops like this as a means for teaching English internationally?

A. Yes! Bringing open discussion of student-produced creative writing opens a bridge into a culture that is normally off limits. So much of teaching a second language is about motivation: the best way to learn a language is to speak it, and the easiest way to start speaking it is to have a reason. Having a stage to share emotional and psychological work in class is great motivation—which is why creative writing works so well for teaching English internationally.

I know that in the former Soviet Union a poet was seen not only as the writer of poems, but also as a public cultural force, a guiding figure someone could look up to. Plugging into that is very powerful.

Our participants developed a liking for American poetry, which I am sure will stay with them. That will be the longest lasting impact.

Q. Do you have any tips for others who might want to organize their own workshop in an international setting?

A. Educators who want to do an English creative writing workshop need to keep local culture in mind. In many areas, the idea of writing poetry or short stories and sharing them anywhere other than on the Internet is unusual. But the desire is there. My students were doubtful at first, but all reservations were quickly assuaged. As the facilitator, always make it clear that you are happy when the students are producing and sharing work. In fact, this should be the articulated goal of the group: praise all work for being finished and praise all participants for the courage it took to share.