In this week’s I am HISD, which features district students, graduates, employees, and other team members, Reagan High School teacher Christopher Wise talks about how he became “a writer who teaches,” what he learned at the ABYDOS Summer Writing Institute, and why he spent 18 years perfecting a poem about cowboys.
I remember hearing about you back in 2008 and 2009, because you’d had several excerpts/adaptations from an unpublished novel, The Hard Way, appear in Cowboys and Indians magazine. When did that book finally come out?
Actually, I never finished it. (laughs) I’m writing three novels, but the only one I finished has been rejected like 54 times. It’s called The Smirk of Fortune, which is funny, because it’s about having bad luck. But if you Google “Whiskey in a Ghost Town,” you’ll find a poem I started back when I was still in the army. That piece took me 18 years to finish. It was my homage to the spaghetti western. I revised it and revised it, and when I finally submitted it, it was the quickest turnaround I ever had. Last time I looked, about 800,000 people had viewed that website.
What is it about the western genre that appeals to you so much?
I bleed Texas. This is my state! But that western piece came about one night while I was on guard duty during basic training. My friend and I were “guarding” a pile of coal—that no one wanted to steal and was half-frozen. So for entertainment, I was reciting poems. He was telling jokes. And he asked me, “Hey, Wise, you got any poems about a cowboy?” And I said, “No, but I will.” So I wrote it. Then we got sent to different bases, and he never got to see it. But I owe that one to him.
I understand your writing ability also got you noticed at this year’s ABYDOS Summer Writing Institute. How did that come about?
As part of the Institute, we had to write a “reflexive” piece and an “extensive” piece. The first was something like a short story or a personal narrative, and the other was more like a Supreme Court ruling, to use the most extreme example. They teach you that the boundary between the two is more of a tissue rather than a brick wall. You might remember that quote, “I refuse to believe that a student’s rights are checked at the schoolhouse door.” So even in that, you have an “I” (a Supreme Court Justice using the first-person narrative). At the end of the Institute, everybody’s work got published in a workshop publication called A Rhythm, A Gesture, A Voice. I was really shocked and complimented that they liked mine so well that I’ve been asked to write the fourth book in their award-winning Writers/Young Writers’ series, which will have my poems and stories, as well as my notes on craft, and extensions for young writers to write.
You were one of only about 50 participants to be picked to be a “trainer of trainers” at that event, too, right? What does that involve?
For myself, I will have to read 15 books and 15 articles in a year and write a paper on each. Then I have to go observe (some trainings) in San Antonio and give a demonstration for my peers on certain days. The three-year certification offers me an opportunity to provide instruction on these topics on a contract basis, so I can make a little extra money. But most importantly, it’s an opportunity to become a better writer and a more effective teacher. I think of myself as a writer who teaches, not a teacher who writes.
Can you give me an example of how you plan to apply what you’ve learned in the Summer Writing Institute to the classroom?
One thing that they did was called “clocking,” which I really like. Each student has a role in the editing process, like spelling or grammar or punctuation. So the kids will sit and pass a paper around in a line, and by the time they’re done, the student who wrote it has quite a lot of comments. Each one only comments on what his or her role is, and that divides it all out to make sure they have an equitable amount of comments on various topics.
Another strategy we learned was “ratiocination,” or approaching the writing process in the way that real writers write. As adults, we know that writing is not lock-step brainstorm, draft, revise, and publish. Sometimes we brainstorm in the middle of drafting, and sometimes we have done the prewriting in our heads. From here, students can approach grammar from within the writing process, and it works because they want to be clear and understood when there is a publishing aspect in the classroom.
You’ve also had some pretty impressive results as an Advanced Placement (AP) teacher of literature. What can you tell me about that?
According to the numbers I was given, for whatever reason, Reagan only gave seven AP literature tests during the 2011–12 school year, and nobody scored above a three. Last year, we paid for 101 tests and gave 95 exams. We had 38 ones, 9 twos, 27 threes, 15 fours, and 5 fives. That was almost as many students scoring a five on the exam as took tests the year before.
That was my first year teaching AP, but we had an AP mentor program that gave me what I needed to know. I went to every training I could—weekends, weeknights, whenever. And the instructor was from Westside, a gentleman named Rob MacGregor. Whoever picked him really knew what they were doing. He was a great teacher and a great teacher of teachers. If not for him, I could not have done what I did.
When I talked to you several years ago, you were still teaching at Fonville Middle School. How did you end up at Reagan?
I like kids and I like talking about writing, but I worked at Fonville for nine years, and I just got tired of talking about “the main idea.” I wanted to get into stuff more like philosophy, character development, the more complicated aspects of writing.
I hear you’re also involved in some other activities that help youth. What are some of those?
I’m involved in the Word Around Town poetry tour which runs seven venues in seven days and really demonstrates how there is top-notch poetry going on every night all over Houston. I was also in the Kerouac Fest at the Orange Show, sponsored by Poets and Writer magazine, which was an honor. And I go to a lot of open mics where I’ve seen kids get up there and just fail miserably, because they use profanity at the wrong time, or it rhymes too much or whatever, and I’ll help them if they’re interested, but really I just like to be involved in the local conversation.
I’ve gotten to hear and meet many of the amazing writers in this town. If it’s good for the community and good for me, I usually want to participate. For example, right now I’m hoping to find someone who’s willing to donate a case of champagne (or two) to the gala for the Mission at Serenity Ranch on Sept. 21. It’s a safe haven for people who are victims of human trafficking; some of the stories they have are pretty horrific. We might forget how much we need each other, until we need each other. So, I’d like to help if I can.
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