What Is the Go West! Project?

G'Anne Sparks

For nine years I have been on the planning committee of the WNC Regional Literacy Conference, an annual event usually held in the spring, in Asheville, NC. At four of these conferences, I have presented writing workshops for adult literacy students, and will be doing another in 1999. They have been quite popular; the main attraction is that the students won't have to do the actual writing, I will be their pencil. Of course, if they wish to and are comfortable with it, I encourage them to put their words to paper themselves. These workshops are also different because we are not doing language experience (the telling of actual life experiences); we are doing creative writing -- they are coming up with original fiction. In my opinion, the Go West! book is the best collection so far, perhaps because the authors chose such an interesting period about which to write.

The steps I followed are outlined in the Background portion of the actual book. The group's first meeting was the conference workshop, where they decided upon the topic and made a few preliminary decisions on how they would continue the story.

This is a learner-driven project, so there is no way I can be prepared for this initial session, other than in a general manner, and by loosening the group up and getting them into the mode of thinking creatively. One year I had all sorts of photos of a cattle drive and cowboys mounted, hoping I could head them in the direction of deciding to write about a cattle drive. That year they decided to write about exploring and settling on a previously undiscovered planet in another galaxy! I got the message.

After the topic has been decided upon, there is always a considerable amount of research for me to do prior to each group meeting thereafter. These meetings were held approximately every six to seven weeks; additionally, I would meet with each individual at least once a week between group meetings. You can tell from the length of the stories which of the participants were unable to adhere to this schedule. Although it was clearly understood by all at the onset that this was to be a year-long project, life sometimes gets in the way.

During our individual sessions, each author told me his story, and I captured it exactly as told. We would meet four or five times, then I would print the progress for review. We would read it together and discuss editing, and if the author agreed, make grammatical changes. I would have each of their stories typed and printed for them before the next group session. During the group meeting, each author had the opportunity to read their story to the group. If they weren't comfortable reading it, someone else would do it for them. Often the peer comments prompted further editing, but no one was ever offended by the criticism.

The group meetings were five hours long, so once the stories were read and discussed, it was usually time for a lunch break. Everyone brought a bag lunch, and I had drinks, chips and cookies there. After eating, we would begin talking about where we were going next and what possible obstacles we might encounter. This loose format allowed us to end each session with an idea of a major assignment -- or direction for their story to follow -- but gave me the freedom to present certain alternative ways to do it.

The second half of the group meetings was my opportunity to present a mini-lesson, in the case of Go West!, usually an American history lesson. We also branched out into map reading, modes of transportation, and the Dewey Decimal System, as I managed to get most of the authors into the library a couple of times to learn how to do some of their own research.

I let them be as original as possible, but did insist on certain factual guidelines. For example, they couldn't hop on a plane to get there sooner, and they couldn't wear polyester clothing to make the laundry easier to do.

Two of the more advanced authors chose to follow their own drummer and not complete the group assignments; however, they still participated in the group sessions and they still met regularly with me. I feel they developed their story lines to dovetail nicely with the others.

From the conference day forward, each author is aware of the fact that he will be a part of a ceremony to be held at the next year's conference. At that time, the authors personally hand a copy of the book to a representative of each literacy organization present, for their library. This act is the culmination of a year of hard work, and the public recognition and applause is something many have never experienced. It is a beautiful thing to see!

G'Anne Sparks
Hendersonville, NC

Go West!-- 1995 - 1996 Writing Project