Old Kentucky Homework

Six slightly scruffy boys listen as their instructor reads from Look Homeward, Angel. She stops and asks, “How is Wolfe using melodrama here?” Tentatively at first, the boys offer answers, then discuss how they use melodrama in their own writing.

Janet Hurley reads to her writing students from Look Homeward, Angel. The middle-school aged group of boys learn and practice their writing inside Wolfe’s Old Kentucky Home, which he references in a novel.

Not only are these boys, aged 11 to 14, learning from Wolfe, they’re hanging out in his childhood home while doing it. In the dusty parlor of the “Old Kentucky Home,” the six discuss, under the tutelage of Janet Hurley, writing challenges such as point of view, sentence structure and using dialogue.

“Wolfe was a good writer, and I think it’s good for us to write here,” says Parker Bruer, 14.

“We are so honored to have some of Asheville’s young writers writing here where Asheville’s most famous writer grew up,” says Christian Dwight, Thomas Wolfe Memorial’s historical interpreter. “We’re trying to develop from just an old house for tour groups to a community center.”

In that spirit, Dwight offered Hurley the use of the Wolfe house for her young writers’ classes.

“Janet’s the first person to bring school-age kids into the house for classes. It’s been great. These kids really seem to have taken ownership,” Dwight says.

Atlas Kinzel, 10, says about the Wolfe house: “I like the feeling of having really old things around me. It definitely influences my writing.”

Hurley offers four-week writing classes at the Wolfe Memorial on N. Market St., divided into classes of 4th and 5th graders and 6th to 8th graders. The classes for the older students are divided by gender. This past fall, through happenstance, Hurley’s classes contained all boys.

“I’m not sure boys get the space to be writers the way they want to be in school situations,” Hurley says. “Also, when they’re in mixed groups, they’re more focused on being social. These boys tend to have thoughtful, in-depth conversations about writing that I’m not sure would happen with girls here.”

As part of her long-distance MFA program at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., Hurley worked on writing projects with students at Isaac Dickson Elementary School, where her two children attend school (the elder is now at Asheville Middle School).

“I’ve always enjoyed working with young people,” Hurley says. “I decided I wanted to offer camps in writing arts that would be fun, affordable and experiential.”

She set up a series of camps last summer and was thrilled when Dwight offered the Wolfe house as a locale.

Some of the students and parents were so enthusiastic about the camps that they asked Hurley to offer an after-school writing program, which she did starting in October. Each class culminates with an optional public reading where students’ families and friends can listen to them read from their work.

“The curriculum is so outcome-driven in the schools. I love that in these classes, the students get to develop a story over time,” says Chris Weaver, parent of writing class student, Aidan Weaver, and a third grade teacher at Evergreen Community Charter School.

“I think for younger kids particularly, the physical act of writing can be so intimidating. I try to let them enjoy writing,” Hurley says. She doesn’t focus too much on grammar or spelling, instead teaching students to get their thoughts and emotions on paper without worrying overly about correctness.

“When you get home and you’ve had a long day and you can write, it kind of relieves you of everything,” says Nick Welch, 12.

During class, the kids learn as much from each other as from Hurley, who has them brainstorm together, read aloud, ask each other questions about their writing and walk around town on writing “safaris.”

“When you’re writing by yourself, it’s too hard, but when you have guidance and some feedback, it’s great,” Welch says.

Hurley will continue to offer monthly classes throughout the school year, and she’s currently planning summer camps as well.

“Lots of times, we think youth diminishes the value of writing. We don’t think they’re experienced enough to write. But I’ve learned so much from what some of these kids write,” Hurley says.

[Anne Fitten Glenn writes the weekly column Edgy Mama.]

what: Writing classes for 4th to 8th graders
where: Thomas Wolfe Memorial
when: Next series of classes starts Feb. 4
cost: $80 for 2-hour classes (4th and 5th grades); $65 for 90-minute classes (6th to 8th grades) Info at www.true-ink.com or www.wolfememorial.com.
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2 thoughts on “Old Kentucky Homework

  1. AvlResident

    . . .In the dusty parlor of the “Old Kentucky Home,” the six discuss, under the tutelage of Janet Hurley, writing challenges such as point of view, sentence structure and using dialogue. . .

    Why is the parlor of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial dusty?

  2. Janet Hurley

    Great article! Just a clarification: New classes begin Tuesday, February 3. They run through mid-May and payment is on a monthly basis. They aren’t discrete four-week sessions. Prices vary by class and are somewhat different than noted in the article. At this point, spring classes are divided by age but not by gender. My summer camps are divided by gender for middle school age children. All rates, schedules and registration are on the websites as noted.
    Thanks so much!
    Janet Hurley

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