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Norman Alternative School Students Connect With Gillian Flynn, Other Famous Writers


Sam Weller stands before a group of high school students, waiting for his first guest of the day to appear on a large screen.

“Nate Marshall can you hear us?” he asks, as Marshall, a poet and rapper from the southside of Chicago, flickers via Skype into Dimensions Academy in Norman.

It’s a Thursday morning, and students are still clearing away the cobwebs as they huddle on sofas or park at their desks. Marshall starts by reading an aubade.

“An aubade is poem that is meant to like welcome a new day or welcome the dawn. So this poem is called ‘Aubade for the whole hood,’” Marshall tells the class before reciting his poem.

Sam Weller organized this writer’s festival, called “Pieces of Us,” which featured several famous authors from across the country, including Gillian Flynn, the writer of Gone Girl, and Elizabeth Crane, who wrote We Only Know So Much.

Weller is the authorized biographer of Ray Bradbury, and he first came to Norman last year when the Pioneer Library system celebrated Fahrenheit 451. He did a bunch of activities, including one at Dimensions Academy. Something about the school stuck with him.

“It’s small. To be perfectly honest, it feels a little threadbare. It feels like it needs some love. The kids certainly need some love. It’s an alternative high school,” Weller said.

The school is for students who, for one reason or another, couldn’t succeed at the district’s other high schools and need a different, smaller setting. Weller liked it so much, he came back last October to teach a creative writing seminar.

“They’re different learners. And so, these kids, each one of them has a story. You know, as a writer, I tend to just naturally gravitate toward story and when I walked in here I connected to their story,” Weller said.

Weller wanted to do more, so he offered to organize and host a writer’s festival at Dimensions. He approached some writers to see if they would participate. Most, like Nate Marshall and Gillian Flynn, were beamed in through Skype.

Some of the writers have been sharing their own flaws with the students, their own personal stories of addiction and recovery,  and of loss. Weller says the students have been connecting with those messages, and he hopes it will help the students express themselves.

“If they share their stories with other people, it will make people who are experiencing potentially the same thing feel less alone in this world,” Weller said.

Sophomore Courtney Osborn shows off the posters that students created for each author. The posters include photos and details about the writers’ life and work. Osborn says writing short stories helps her get through tough times. Sam Weller and the other writers at the festival have inspired her to write more often.

“A lot of people here at Dimensions also have some rough backgrounds or stories that they’ve been through,” Osborn said.

Osborns finds inspiration from the writers. They have gone through pain and challenges, but are successful nonetheless.

“We can be that, too,” Osborn said.

Angela Johnson works with Norman Public Schools’ “Baby Steps” program for teen mothers, and she coordinated with Weller to bring the writers festival to Dimensions Academy

“Going down an expected path, like happens when you are enrolled in an alternative school setting, doesn’t have to be negative,” she said.

Johnson hopes these activities will give students a chance to connect with their creativity, and help them discover their strengths.

“Most importantly, I want them to know that they are heard and that there is a way for them to discover their own voice and through that process actively affect the trajectory of their own lives,” Johnson said.

Sophomore Courtney Osborn is already working on her trajectory. She plans to get a cosmetology degree while still in high schools, and then study nursing in college. And, no matter where her life takes her, she plans to continue writing.

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Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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