Michigan Tech’s Summer Youth Programs include a “Calling All Writers” week-long workshop. This Unscripted series highlights essays from both students and teachers.
The writing prompt: Choose a physical object and use it to tell a story about your experience of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic theme was also uppermost in the minds of instructor Maria Bergstrom, lecturer in Michigan Tech’s Department of Humanities, and undergraduate teaching assistant Kate Woodford, an English major, who found the week-long August workshop offered new adventures in pedagogy.
"When we heard that in-person Summer Youth Programs would be cancelled, we were of course very disappointed, but it turned out to be a fantastic stimulus for some creative re-thinking,” said Bergstrom. “From the start we knew we wanted our time together to be very interactive and collaborative. We tried to think about what the virtual format offered that was different from the in-person experience and really took advantage of that.”
About Summer Youth Programs
A Michigan Tech tradition since 1973, Summer Youth Programs (SYP) gives young people the chance to experience university life while exploring a full range of careers — automotive engineering to theatre arts. Featuring a vibrant competitive scholarship program and led by current Michigan Tech students trained as counselors and mentors, SYP is one of three programs operated by MTU's Center for Outreach that enables K-12 students to experience science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in new, fun and inspiring venues.
For example, they brought in alumni for collaborative activities. “Through Zoom they could participate in just a one-to-two-hour time slot without having to travel or give up more of their work day,” said Bergstrom. “We also had a lot of fun thinking about how Google Drive could be a collaborative space for young writers. We did everything from multi-modal collages to collaborative storytelling to ‘competitive Google Doc poetry’ using just our shared Google space, and the students loved it! Having been ‘forced’ into the virtual space, we are now looking ahead to using this option more intentionally as a complement to future in-person programming."
"We had a really fun time together. I hope we can do this next year, but in person."
Young Writers Reflect on Bonding and Books
First up, an untitled essay by eighth-grader Edward Z. on the power of physical objects:
During lockdown, I couldn’t go out to eat, couldn’t see friends, and couldn’t go on trips. So, I stayed inside. This time inside made me realize the importance of some of my physical objects. I have three objects that I have formed a connection with during the quarantine, a mechanical pencil, my sketchbook, and my Kindle. It might sound strange to have a bond with these three specific items, but they all have their own stories. Friendship may be good, but physical objects can be important too.
The first object I have formed a connection with is my Kindle. I got the Kindle for Christmas in 2018, but I only used it occasionally due to my massive collection of physical books. But during my move, all the books were packed away, as if they were also in quarantine. However, I had my Kindle with me, so I naturally used it more. My Dad got me an Audible subscription, which gave me a free audiobook every month, so I also listened to more audiobooks. I found a few new great books from listening to audiobooks, such as The Man in the High Castle, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Tom Sawyer.
My sketchbook is also an object I have formed a bond with. I got the sketchbook before 7th grade started, and filled about half of it before lockdown. I’m not that good at drawing, but I enjoy doing it since I improve on it every day, and you can visibly see an improvement in the art. I don’t always have a plan, so I sometimes just draw what comes to my mind. This helped a lot, since my brain was extremely cluttered during lockdown, due to online assignments and not being able to see friends. My sketchbook relieved a lot of stress, and I was extremely grateful for having it.
The final object is a strange one to have a connection with. One day, I was walking down the hallway at my school, and found a blue mechanical pencil. Normally, I would just keep walking and ignore the insignificant object, but I was out of pencils, and always needed more. So I picked it up, and I realized that it didn’t work, but the back still had a full eraser, so I took that and threw the rest away. This was perfect, since my normal pencil had an eraser bit that didn’t work. I’ve been using this pencil for everything during lockdown, from writing to drawing. Now, I’m in Texas, and this pencil is important to me even more, due to having a part from my old school.
In conclusion, physical things were extremely valuable to me during lockdown. Most of these objects had sentimental value to me, or formed value during the lockdown. Some of these objects were unusual, or even borderline weird to form a connection with, but it (hopefully) made a lot more sense after explanation. Friendship may be good, but physical objects have value as well.
This essay, titled Cocoon, was written by ninth-grader Elizabeth Bergstrom:
In a cocoon of light, I read The Lord of the Rings while sitting snugly on many blankets. There isn’t a sound except my own stirrings as I watch the struggle between Minas Tirith and the great army from Mordor, both trying to wipe out the other. I watch as Frodo and the hobbits flee from the Shire with black riders on their tail. I watch Tom Bombadil, the one that movies forgot, save the hobbits before they are swallowed whole by a willow tree. I watch as Gandalf the Gray stops the Balrog and falls to the depths of the mountains with him. I watch, and watch, and watch, and I see the entire story unfold before my eyes. I live in a different world, and when it ends, I can go to a new one.
But there is only so much night. When my eyes stop focusing and I slide back into the real world, I will look at my alarm clock, wince at how late it is, and turn off my bedside lamp. The lamp is the source of my cocoon, a stained-yellow glass lampshade, a tall metal stand, hanging beads for the pull-cord. It looks exotic, with patterns on the metal and shade.
When I go to bed, I turn on the lamp and I read. The lamp is a way for me to shut out the world for a while, because everything the light touches is mine. My room, my books, my window, my clothes, my space. No one and nothing else is there except me. I am outside of the world, in a ball of light. And my books take me to different worlds. I’ve been doing this most nights, reading in the light of my lamp, to get away from the difficulties of living at home with my family all day. No matter how much I love them, sometimes you need a break from constantly talking to siblings and parents while trying to listen to the Beatles on Spotify. Or when I’m reading a book in our living room, sitting on the leather chair in the corner, then one of my older sisters picks up her tuba and starts playing it, my other sister starts playing on her computer, and my mother announces it is dinner time. All within a span of maybe a minute. That’s why I take an hour each night to come out of this busy world and see another one. It’s never dimmed, in my eyes yet.
I can only do this at night. During the day, the lamp is too dim to surround me with its golden glow, and I am too busy to think about it. But at night, when everything is quiet, I can see my lamp with easy eyes and I am free to read as I like. I don’t even notice the shadows lurking on my walls. I don’t notice how dark the hallway is. I am even distracted from the night right outside my window. I find happiness and love in my books, in my personal quest for stories. Whenever I’m in my sphere of light I don’t feel in my house, but in some mystical land far away. But no matter how much I may try, I cannot live in my books. I see but a glimpse, and then it falls back into reality. But I am calm and ready for my next task, which is usually to go to sleep. But even so, it gives me something to look forward to, and something I can look back on.
Essays Will Be a Part of History
Stories from the SYP workshop will be collected by the Michigan Technological University Archives as part of the effort to document life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Michigan Tech Archives team is excited to accept the Summer Youth Program essays from Calling All Writers. These pieces will add essential personal voices to help us preserve the memory of this unprecedented time,” said University Archivist Lindsay Hiltunen, who noted the essays “will be the first deposit at Michigan Tech of pandemic-related materials. I have been actively networking with colleagues across the state and region related to pandemic collections at peer institutions and look forward to working with our archivist team to design our own targeted collection development strategy. We are grateful that summer students will launch our efforts into this important collecting area," she said. The archives will make the stories available for public research as soon as possible upon receiving the materials."
A link to the collection finding aid will be provided on the archives collections register available on the library website: https://www.mtu.edu/library/archives/collections/
In the next Unscripted, essays from the teachers.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.