Professor brings students, homeless women together through writing
September 29, 2011
By: Amber D'Angelo Na
DU Writing Program Lecturer Geoffrey Bateman’s first-year advanced writing seminar is anything but a typical class students take to fulfill a graduation requirement.
In the Gender of Homelessness, Bateman uses his connections at the Gathering Place to give his students a chance to engage in service learning and write narratives the organization can use in its fundraising appeals.
The Gathering Place — founded in 1986 by Toni Schmid (MSW ’86) and Kathy Carfrae (MSW ’86) — is a drop-in day shelter that provides free programs and services to homeless or impoverished women and children. Located in metro Denver, the shelter includes play areas and showers as well as a computer lab, laundry room and health clinic. The shelter serves 5,500 meals a month. Women also can “shop” for clothing, groceries, toiletries and baby supplies. The Gathering Place furnishes clients with information about housing and jobs, and offers GED tutoring sessions as well.
In 2008, with the assistance of a DU Public Good grant, Bateman and fellow DU writing professors John Tiedemann and Eliana Schonberg founded a writer’s group at the shelter, where women can obtain help with their writing, regardless of genre or ability level.
The professors and two DU students take turns consulting women on poetry, novels, memoirs, screenplays, children’s literature and reflective journals and essays. They also help women write resumes, cover letters, college admission essays and legal correspondence.
Bateman says volunteers don’t pretend to be experts in all types of writing. Rather, they give women validation and a sounding board to ask questions and think critically.
“Listening to these women as writers, talking to them as writers in the midst of what can be a rather harrowing economic or life situation — it’s been clear that plays a very important role in their overall well being,” says Bateman, who also is the interim director of DU’s Gender and Women’s Studies Program.
Leticia Tanguma has been a regular at the writer’s group for almost three years.
“He’s very professional, but also warm,” says Tanguma, who received a scholarship to study creative writing at the Community College of Denver. “His critiques are very frank, but at the same time, they are encouraging in a way that makes you want to keep writing.”
In 2010, Bateman decided to incorporate his volunteer work at the Gathering Place into DU’s first-year writing program.
In class, students study homelessness and gender issues. The students then visit the shelter, where they interview women about their life experiences and how the Gathering Place helps meet their needs. Students transcribe the interviews and write narrative essays based on the women’s stories.
“The women just love [Bateman] and all the students,” says Sunne Meyer, vice president of personal growth and learning at the Gathering Place. “There have been really meaningful relationships that have developed. The women feel like the DU group learns from them, as well.”
At the end of the quarter, Bateman gives the interviews, transcripts and essays to the Gathering Place’s development staff so they can use the students’ writing in their newsletters and donation appeals.
“Doing service learning seemed to be a natural fit so students could experience writing in multiple contexts and write with real audiences, not just for a professor or an amorphous audience,” Bateman says. “When they’re invested in it they actually get it, like, ‘What I write here will actually be read.’”
Bateman says he has high expectations for his students but is fair and encouraging in the classroom. He wants to help students improve their writing by engaging with people from different backgrounds in meaningful ways.
“We’re all writers,” he says. “That makes it seem a little more respectful and humane, not like they are the problem and we are the answer and here we come. No, here we are in an exchange in dialogue. We’re building community together because there’s a lot to learn. Seeing the world through their eyes helps you as a writer to be a more curious, open-minded person.”
Devon Varoz was a student in Bateman’s 2010 course and returned spring quarter 2011 to assist Bateman in the class.
“I am still changed by the narratives of the women at the Gathering Place and by the insight gained from Bateman’s discussions,” Varoz says. “By listening to the women at the Gathering Place, little phrases and recounted memories are hard to forget. Even hearing the most unfamiliar experiences, listening openly can greatly expand your awareness of what happens every day in Denver for women and children experiencing poverty. His course left me with a sincere connection to these issues and to the women of the Gathering Place.”