10 Questions With…
Health Professions teacher Deborah Meltvedt
Former SCUSD Teacher of the Year Deborah Meltvedt was recently awarded the People Helping People Unsung Hero Award for her work with the nonprofit 916Ink and for starting a creative writing literacy program at Health Professions. The program fosters a love of language. Students annually produce an anthology of poetry and prose titled “Breath and Bones.”
Name: Deborah Meltvedt
Current Position: Medical science teacher and Work-Based Learning Coordinator at Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School
Other Job: Writer
Education: CSU Fresno, B.S. in Health Science; teaching credential in Health Science
Previously: Health Teacher, Valley High School, Elk Grove; Health Educator in clinics in Merced and Fresno; HIV Counselor
Favorite Quote: “Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
― Henry James
1) Some people might argue that high school students should focus solely on academic writing as a part of college readiness. Why do you feel it’s important to work with students on creative writing?
Bottom line, because creative writing is fun and kids want to do it. Kids want to write and when they want to write they gain confidence. Creative writing, especially the Amherst & Artists Method we use, is about expressing ideas in a fun, unique way. It is basically about storytelling. This method helps students love writing which in turn helps them become better readers and better at academic performance. Many of our creative writers do better in the classroom because they learn to trust their voice, to structure ideas, and, best of all, to have confidence that their voice is important. Colleges and industry want students who can be innovative, creative thinkers. We need to expand our definition of academics to include the arts because the arts help humanize all of the subjects we teach.
One other note: We need to encourage students to gain empathy for others and to forgive themselves. This is the basis of social and emotional learning, which needs to happen in order to have successful academic lives. Our writing method helps them do both in a safe setting.
I have learned from teens in their own beautiful words such specifics as the color of blood from a best friend’s wound to a description of how blackness feels when they lose a parent. Writing and reading non-judgmentally opens up the WHOLE student who can gain confidence to believe in all of their abilities.
2) Your students produce an anthology every year. Why is it important that their work is published?
Two reasons come to mind: First, published work acknowledges a student’s unique contribution. When they see their poems or stories in print, it makes them more “visible” as artists. It is as if we are telling them “you count, your voice really does matter,” which is just a beautiful way to recognize a young person’s talent. Second, before they are published, students must submit their work and go through an acceptance and revision process. Here, they learn important editing skills when their work is critiqued by 916Ink volunteers. This helps them become better writers and more perceptive in their overall communication skills.
3) How does creative writing improve reading skills?
There is a saying in AWA method that spelling has nothing to do with good writing (it does though with publications and submissions eventually) but reading does have something to do with good writing. We always start each session with a poem or short fiction piece and read out loud together. Eventually students will start bringing in poems they have read and book recommendations for me. Loving words makes you want to read more; being confident in writing brings more confidence in reading.
One professor in college even reported that one of our long term creative writing students was the best essayist in the class.
4) What are some tricks for getting reluctant writers to overcome their fear of writing?
Oh we have lots of tricks. First, sometimes we just break the rules – using the AWA method we don’t care (at first) about punctuation or having the “right” way to tell a story. This frees students to find their own voice and to think outside the box. Second, we don’t offer criticism on the first drafts. We listen empathetically and only tell what we liked or what was strong. Third, our prompts are fun and hands-on. We often incorporate anything from puzzles to games to food to help kids ignite their imaginations. But the best part is, we “trick” them by telling them they ARE writers as long as they write and as long as they are free to follow what needs to be written.
5) Have any of your students moved on to pursue writing in college or as a career?
Yes. Granted our Creative Writing Club is only four years old, but so far many of our students are taking creative writing classes and some are even volunteering with 916Ink to give back to the community. Others have begun to submit work to literacy organizations.
6) When do you find the time to write?
I have my own writing group led by an Instructor at Sacramento City College which meets usually every Saturday. It was from this instructor, Jan Haag, where I first heard about the AWA method. So I use the same method I teach to my students. Also, with this method, I also write with the students at each club meeting. I follow the same prompt and after all the students have shared, I share my work as well. It keeps the “Inspirator” teacher on the same level as the students. Some of my best pieces have come out of these student workshops as well.
7) You teach medical science. Do you have a background in health and medicine?
Yes, I have taught health science in classrooms for over 25 years. I majored in Health Science at Fresno State. Before coming to Sacramento, I worked as an educator in clinics, HIV testing sites, doctor offices, hospitals and shelters. Also, because I have mainly worked in health academies and at Health Professions High School, I am used to developing medical curriculum on anything from Mental Health to Infectious Disease to Reproductive Health.
8) How does health and writing fit together?
What I love about my job in the Creative Writing Club and with 916Ink at Health Professions High is that I get to blend two of my loves: Medicine and writing. This question is really why I started the club. We all need to tell stories to understand illness and social ills; and we all need to tell stories to help ourselves heal emotionally. Science backs this up. Basically, health care workers need to listen to their patient’s history – the stories of their lives that affect their health status. Art and writing helps us understand the human condition better when we look beyond science and into the fears, joys, sadness, etc. of patients and ourselves. Poems and stories help us deal with the injustice of illness and the stress of caregiving. Many doctors and nurses are also poets and writers – even in medical school they teach about empathy with patients through the arts. I may not be a doctor but I can help students understand and process the loss of a grandmother to breast cancer or the pain of rejection in their own life. Writing actually helps us heal. Quoting Pat Schneider who developed the AWA method, writing and reading aloud to others in safe group settings can reduce stress, ease grief, and improve our immune systems. Many hospitals have programs called “Writing as Healing” to help anybody cope with illness or any loss in their lives.
Also, medical terminology and anatomy is a specific language that is quite beautiful. Even looking at the cardiovascular system and the Creative Writing Club together. Both are delivery systems of hope; both give breath and take away wastes. The pen and the heart both save lives.
9) How has social media affected student writing?
I am going to answer this in a positive way. Many times students post poems on Facebook and links to their favorite artists. Social media can be another form of expression. Also, I still find that students love to write down words in journals, not just in blogs or on Twitter. Despite texting and so much screen time, what is wonderful is that I have anywhere from five to 15 students coming once or twice a week on their own to write with a pen or pencil in a notebook after school.
10) Who is your favorite writer?
For the blend of health and medicine, probably William Carlos Williams, Jane Kenyon (amazing poet on her own struggle with depression), and Emily Dickinson (yes she wrote about healing and sickness and human anatomy). But overall, I love short stories and fiction and would have to say Alice Munro, Toni Morrison and Ernest Hemingway, my birthday twin.