Artist Spotlight: Roger Bonair-Agard

Our teaching and touring artists are amazing creatives and educators with unique philosophies towards their work, and we hope that getting to know them will both deepen your vision of our programming and inspire your views on arts education. Here on the blog today is teaching artist Roger Bonair-Agard, an acclaimed writer and performer who teaches literary arts residencies through Urban Gateways and has been doing so since 2011. Thanks for taking the spotlight, Roger!

I’ve been a teaching artist, teacher, and college professor for almost 20 years. More and more in the teaching of creative writing, what I’m understanding is that I am the midwife of young people’s pain a lot of the time. Not that all writing is about pain, but certainly conflict is what hallmarks good writing, interesting writing, particularly because poetry is my focus. It means that I’m mining a lot of my students’ pain, and helping them mine it.

The model by which I run classes is pretty much the same whether it’s with 4th graders or college students: I bring in work, we do a close read of poetry, interviews, songs, whatever else, and then based on whatever that thing is, I have a writing prompt to get them off and writing.

Young people who are dealing with trauma, who are in conflict with the law, or just about any young person of color right now in Chicago or America is dealing with the ravages of an education system that has, in some cases generationally, made their contact with academics traumatic. So when you tell young people, you’re going to write, they think about school. First you’ve got to deal with that. Sometimes the students are also reading and writing behind grade level. So the idea that they can write, that they have a story to tell, something to say, is very often for young people a hurdle you have to cross.

I cross that hurdle by talking to them about voice. I explain that I’m not requiring that they write in a particular way like standard English, and we’re not going to diagram sentences. I won’t tell them that their writing is incorrect. What I am interested in is detail, making it clear that their communities are worthy of documentation and uplift.

It sometimes has to start, just like it does for professional writers, with one line. In one session, you might only succeed in getting one line down. We have to count that one good line as a success. Redefine, not just for these students’ situations but in a writer’s life, what success is. Sometimes it’s not a full story or poem in a day, but a line.

I try to be really clear that a finished project for a writer is a multi-year thing, so that my students don’t feel that narrative for failure that traditional education gives you; in traditional education you have to complete this thing today, tomorrow, or you fail. Not us. We’re building a culture around editing and revision.

Writing has challenged my beliefs. If I have to put something down in black and white, I have to show and prove it to myself. The ability to change one’s mind on one’s own is a huge skill set to have. And for me, much of that has come because I’ve written down what I thought, and it didn’t hold up – in my body, my writing, or even in the mechanics of writing it down.

I hope for these young people that the writing of their lives gives them the tools to analyze their lives, to make sure that their lives hold up to their own beliefs, and if not, to act to change that. Your life’s got to hold up to YOU at any given time, and if it doesn’t, you’ve got to have the tools to change. I hope each of them writes a book, creates a video project, an audio project…but even more important, I hope writing develops for them the skills to be able to develop their lives.


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Roger (center) during an “ArtsCAN” workshop at UCAN (Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network), summer 2016.