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McAuliffe, Swigert students bolster skills through writing mentorship that hits high note with Greensky Bluegrass

(Cover photo: Greensky Bluegrass guitar and mandolin player Paul Hoffman playing and writing with young writers from McAuliffe and Swigert international schools on Feb. 26. Cover photo and other photos in the story are courtesy of  Jordan Bresnahan and Stephanie Krause, teachers from George Washington High School, GW photography students, and Autumn Webster of Swigert.)

McAuliffe International and Swigert Elementary students are participating in a writing mentorship program this year that began in 2017 when gifted and talented coordinators Robin Bresnahan of Swigert and Becky Middleton from McAuliffe set out to elevate student writers and deepen their passion for writing.

Bresnahan was motivated by her own experience as a gifted and talented elementary school student that included bimonthly creative writing pull-outs.

“I wanted to provide our students with the same opportunity to explore creative writing and begin to craft their own unique voices,’’ she says.
Robin Bresnahan, Swigert’s GT coordinator and co-leader of writing mentorship program.

A typical session begins with a creative writing prompt, then Swigert students pair off with McAuliffe mentors to write and workshop their pieces. Fourth grade teacher Derek Lavezzo helps lead the sessions that meet once a month for an hour and half after school. Nearly a dozen students from McAuliffe and two dozen or so from Swigert were accepted in the project this year based on teacher nominations and written work.

The work is very student-driven and selected, Bresnahan says, with some students writing poems, some turning warm-up prompts into fleshed-out pieces while many write short stories that range from biographical experiences to dystopian realities. Some students create short stories as a small group.

The last part of the hour is dedicated to students sharing their writing. Bresnahan calls the writing mentorship “the most magical part of my job because of the authentic student ownership.

“As much as we strive to infuse voice, choice and ownership into everyday learning, it can be a tricky balance. Students often feel they don’t get much say in what they learn.”

The group’s most recent gathering on Feb. 26 took a musical twist.

Bresnahan had recently attended the “Strings and Sol”, music festival in Puerto Morales, Mexico. Inspired, she thought students would enjoy and be motivated by someone she had connected with a number of times over the years at different concerts and festivals.

Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass with Rocky Bresnahan, proud author of “The Bacon Song.”

Paul Hoffman from Greensky Bluegrass.

Colorado-based Greensky has been playing for nearly 25 years and has earned critical acclaim from Billboard, Parade, NPR and Rolling Stone. The band sells out consecutive nights annually at Red Rocks Amphitheater. Bresnahan knew that Hoffman’s thoughtful lyrics, skillful mandolin and guitar playing, captivating voice and stage presence enchanted fans.

But along with being an accomplished musician, Paul is simply a good soul, a father and husband, who loves to connect with people of all ages, Bresnahan says. When she reached out he was immediately interested. He came ready to offer sincere insight for the students, opening their eyes to an art that previously many had not thought about — songwriting.

Here’s how Bresnahan recalled the Greensky session. (Links to videos of the session are below.) 

It was about 6 p.m. and I thought fondly back to what took place a few hours earlier in the Swigert library.

Reflections of students and adult participants included words like magical, fun, inspiring, stressful, thoughtful, the coolest, funny, powerful and amazingly awesome. And bacon.

“Yeah, we manifested something amazingly awesome here today,” I said to myself with a big smile.

At about 2:40 p.m. George Washington High School teachers, Jordan Bresnahan (my husband) and Stephanie Krause, arrived with GW photography students and busied themselves setting up for photos and to videotape.

Colleagues and family members begin to trickle in, a bit giddy about the man with shoulder length hair and long, neatly-trimmed beard on the stage, guitar in hand. He talked warmly with folks, colorful bean bags piled in the background.

At 3:15 p.m., with about 30 McAuliffe and Swigert student writers and 20 adults in their seats, I welcomed everyone and invited 4th grade student Sophia Schoen up to introduce Paul who smiled endearingly as Sophia sailed through the remarks she had memorized.

“As you all know, we have a very special guest. Paul is a talented and accomplished musician, a reflective and insightful songwriter, and an amazing human. Today Paul will play us a couple of songs, tell us a little about his journey as a singer songwriter, answer some of our questions, then lead us through a song-writing experience. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Paul Hoffman from Greensky Bluegrass.”

Paul Hoffman with Sophia Schoen, a fourth grader at Swigert.

Paul started off by chatting with the audience a bit, then played the song In Control.

“That song is sort of an affirmation,” he said. “Things you tell yourself. The line is, I’m not out of control, but in fact, when writing it I felt very out of control. To sing it to you is like me telling myself I’m ok. I’m going to be alright.”

It was clear students connected with this idea and nodded earnestly, then put their hands in the air, eager to ask the down-to-earth singer/songwriter questions about his journey as a musician.

Paul provided thoughtful and genuine answers. At one point he encouraged the group, saying: “It’s your song. You get to write about whatever you want to write about.”

I was struck by how authentic he was with students he’d met only a few minutes earlier and how he’d earned their respect and attention. Paul played another song, took a few more questions, then we invited the students to try their hand at crafting their own song lyrics. Quickly pencils were scrawling on notebook paper.

We invited students to sit next to Paul on stage and share their lyrics. Third grade student, Rocky Bresnahan (my son), known for his keen sense of humor, showed me his lyrics.

I winced a little as I saw it was about the whereabouts of . . . bacon. Rocky showed his dad who also winced. Undeterred, Rocky walked up to the stage and asked Paul if he would sing it.

I told Paul he was free to say no, to which he responded: “I like a good challenge.”

And the next thing you know, Paul had turned the “Why Bacon” song into something both beautiful and humorous.
“Why, why, bacon, why? Where are you now? Are you with the eggs? Are you in my tummy? Or are you in Paul’s tummy?”

The audience enjoyed a good laugh. I worried that the next song might be even sillier. But quite the opposite. The next students shared lyrics about being good enough for others and themselves, the perils of friendship, seeking something to feel whole and other deep lyrical ideas.

One student wrote:

 “One close thing that somehow seems too far away. Tangled in a chamber of my own thoughts. One old project, new problems. Stuck in my very own cage.”

Eva Sanders, a writing mentor from McAuliffe, reading her song to Paul Hoffman.

Another student, Eva Sanders, from McAuliffe wrote:

“Counting, counting, counting,

Wishing, wishing, wishing,

Dreaming, dreaming, dreaming,

 Counting, wishing, dreaming, for more

 To be enough, to be seen, to be good, to be good enough, for you.

 But how can I be good enough for you when I’m not good enough for me?

 Trying, crying to do the right thing, making mistakes, regrets, it’s an aching sting.

 I’m not prepared, how do I know?

 Nothing I get, when I show, every bit of my heart.

 Just to not be good enough for you.

 How can I be good enough for you when I’m not good enough for me?”

Paul reflected on their words then offered encouragement and feedback. David Miller, our STEM teacher, shared lyrics he had written about his baby waking him at night.

When the hour ended, several students and fans stuck around to thank and talk with Paul. One student gave Paul five friendship bracelets, each one bearing the name of a Greensky band member, Dave Bruzza, Michael Bont, Mike Devol, Anders Beck, and of course, Paul Hoffman.

Others gave him thank-you goodies, some requested pictures as I headed to the fridge for a large dinner I prepared for him and his family the previous evening.

This academic year my mantras have been “Dream Big” and “Manifest.” These are ideas I want to live by and to instill in my students. Too often we feel powerless in our lives and wait for things to happen rather than taking steps to actualize the things we desire.

We need to be exposed to new and different things. Paul left students and staff buzzing all week — truly on a high note.

Even students who aren’t particularly interested in writing songs took powerful ideas away from the session. One said that she may not continue to write songs but will take the idea of “writing what you want to write” into the short story she is working on.

Paul’s social media post about the event reads:

“Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking to some young creative writers about songwriting. They were so respectful, inquisitive and thoughtful. They wrote some pretty incredible lyrical ideas, too. I’m extremely grateful I was asked to participate. What an inspiration.”

We shared his appreciation and inspiration!

Below are short videos from the writing session with Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass courtesy of George Washington High School teachers and students.

Paul Hoffman reads rabbit song

Bacon and Rocky

Brooks and Eva


Girl singing.

Mr. Miller, Swigert teacher

Paul Hoffman talks about his songwriting.

Paul Hoffman sings.


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