50th Stories: Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn

By Marv Hoffman 

Teachers & Writers Collaborative will turn 50 years old in fall 2017. To celebrate this milestone, we asked people who have been part of T&W’s work over the last five decades to tell their stories. Marv Hoffman was T&W director from 1969–1971. Here he shares memories of the organization’s early years.

T&W was in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was Brooklyn. Many readers might not know that early in its history, long before the recent move to President Street, the program was housed in a building owned by Pratt Institute on Vanderbilt Avenue. That’s where we lived when I took over as director in 1968 or 9, following the tenures of Herb Kohl, Zelda Wirtschafter, and Joel Oppenheimer, who actually conducted most of the program’s business from the Lion’s Head Tavern in Greenwich Village, a truly unique administrative style.

From that dingy loft whose floors had not been visited by a dose of wax in many years, a small crew of four managed the still embryonic program at a considerable remove from where the real work was happening—in schools from Chinatown to the Upper West Side to Harlem. It was there that writers like Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, Felipe Luciano, and Pedro Pietri were engaging kids and teachers in writing experiences that certainly did not exist when I was a student at PS189 in Brooklyn.

One thing we asked of the writers was to keep journals of their work in the classrooms to which they were assigned. These became the raw material for the magazine we sent out regularly to our small band of loyal subscribers. Previous directors had published occasional collections of writers’ and kids’ work, but this now became a regular part of our duties. In the days before computers, mailing the newsletters was a major undertaking. For each subscriber we struck a metal address plate. These were fed into a hand-operated contraption that transferred the addresses to mailing envelopes which we hauled off to the post office. Every issue brought the other office duties to a halt for days.

Perhaps the most important accomplishment of my time at T&W was the beginning of our book publishing operation. We realized that we were unlikely to ever have the resources to put more than a few dozen writers out in the field, so one way to have a broader impact was to do what writers do—write books about our work that teachers could use without having a live writer in their classroom. One of the earliest and most influential was The Whole Word Catalogue, which sold more than 100,000 copies (Poets, eat your hearts out!), a compendium of writing ideas and activities culled from our magazines and from writers’ journals. Another less known publication, Imaginary Worlds by Richard Murphy, described an ambitious project, which involved having each student create his/her own utopian society, complete with maps, an indigenous language, unique rituals, etc., an idea rich in possibilities for extension and elaboration.

It took me almost three years to realize that the writers in the field were having more fun than I in the office. That realization launched me into a 40+ year romance with the classroom as teacher, school director, and teacher educator. I’ve been thrilled to watch the program grow and deepen over these many decades. We need it more than ever in this era of what a young teacher I was mentoring called “soul-sucking” education. Here’s to another 50 years.


About the Author:
Marv Hoffman graduated from Harvard with a PhD in clinical psychology. His long career in education has included teaching at all grade levels from pre-school to graduate school, serving as the founding director of a charter school on Chicago’s South Side, and helping to found an innovative teacher education program at the University of Chicago. Prior to arriving in Chicago, he worked in many parts of the country, including New York, California, Mississippi, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Texas. Hoffman is the author of five books on various aspects of education.


Tell Us Your T&W Story:
We want to hear your T&W story. Please send submissions—written reflections, videos, images—to 50thstories@twc.org by September 30, 2017. Thank you!




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