This conference changes students' lives.
That’s the consensus area English educators have formed regarding the Key West Literary Seminar, which this year ran from Jan. 10 through 20, at the San Carlos Institute, on Duval Street.
In its 31 years, this famed get-together, which brings a galaxy of book world stars and their most dedicated readers to the Southernmost City, has grown to become an important component of the curriculum of educators such as Kerri McLean of Key West High School and Hilary Parmentier of Florida Keys Community College.
The seminar itself may be over for now, but its ripple effects will be felt by the students in these teachers' classes, as the lineup for the next event shapes this year's studies.
"I can't say enough good things about the Literary Seminar," said Parmentier, who currently serves as an FKCC English faculty member at the Key West campus. "Last year I contacted them about becoming a volunteer, and they made me aware of some scholarship opportunities that were available. One of my students wrote a short story, which resulted in a scholarship, and we ended up with two tickets, which about 15 of my students were able to use for the various workshops. This year, they gave us as many tickets as we needed, so about 35 of my students were able to attend. They've been very generous."
Parmentier said that for many of her students, including the ones who were born and raised in town, it took the seminar to really bring to life the literature they were studying, and the writers who created it.
"These students don't often get a chance to see Key West as the artists' mecca that it is," Parmentier said. "They may not have known about the rich literary experiences that have taken place in this town. The reading that we do in class is made so much better by this event."
Poet Billy Collins was among the writers Parmentier's pupils had a chance to meet this year. For the students, who had been studying Collins' work in class, it was a "humbling but helpful" experience. Other authors, such as Judy Blume and Margaret Atwood, made attending the seminar extra special for the students, Parmentier added.
In addition to the seminar events, the 100 or so audio-file online library that seminar Associate Director Arlo Haskell has been building up has provided another dimension to Parmentier's teaching.
"When we're analyzing literature, hearing the author recite their own piece adds another layer to what we're doing," the English professor said. "You get to hear the work the way the author intended for it to be heard. It helps us achieve a depth of analysis that wasn't there before. It's also how I show the students what the seminar is all about."
Parmentier noted that at this point, she has begun to partially shape her curriculum around the seminar, focusing on some of the authors who will be participating in the upcoming event.
"I've definitely been tailoring our program to fit what's going to happen," she said. "We start preparing for the seminar in the fall, and even during the spring to some degree. It's helpful for my students to familiarize themselves with the writers who are going to be speaking. Otherwise it could be a little overwhelming for them."
Over at Key West High School, English teacher Kerri McLean views the seminar through the same lens as Parmentier.
"I've been involved for about 15 years now," she said. "I used to have my students attend the Sunday sessions, which are open to all. They'd go and get really excited to see and meet the writers that they knew about."
McLean, too, credits the seminar organizers for making sure that she had a ticket each year. Over time, this annual gift mushroomed into five or six passes, which were eagerly utilized by her students.
McLean is the chairwoman of the school's English Department and an adviser to The Key West High School Snapper newspaper. She also teaches Advanced Placement English Language and Contemporary Literature Honors courses.
Like Parmentier, she revels in the fact that her students have been able to meet famed authors they were studying in class, such as the aforementioned Billy Collins, and also Jamaica Kincaid and Barbara Ehrenreich.
"One year we read Jamaica Kincaid in class, and then we went to the seminar, and they met her and fell in love," McLean said. "Later that year there was a question about her on their Advanced Placement exams, and they rocked it. It was serendipitous. Also, we don't read Judy Blume in my class, but many of my students have read her before. When they find they're sitting next to her at the seminar, they can't contain themselves. We have a great time, but it's a serious endeavor."
McLean pointed out that former KWHS students who were exposed to the seminar, such as Nick Vagnoni, and Arlo Haskell himself, have gone on to careers in the literary fields. (Vagnoni is currently an English instructor at Florida International University.)
Already, McLean is preparing her classes for the 2014 seminar, titled "The Dark Side: Mystery, Crime & the Literary Thriller."
"They're going to have people like Les Standiford and Michael Connelly," she said. "We'll read excerpts from their works, which are linked on the seminar site, and the students will write about the material before and after the seminar once they've listened to them speak and reflected upon their presentations."
Parmentier, McLean and their students aren't the only beneficiaries of the seminar's largess.
"As an organization with a national profile, we also provide scholarships to teachers and college-age students throughout the country; and our audio archives are a valued resource in many of their classrooms," Haskell wrote in a recent email to The Citizen. He added that a number of mentors with the Take Stock in Children program also utilize the seminar's archives when teaching their mentees.
"There seems to be more discussion in the community lately over the role of arts and culture in the city," Haskell continued. "With the new arts component of the city's strategic plan, and the Community Foundation's series of forums exploring the issue, I think it's a good time to consider how organizations like ours contribute to education in the county-- and hopefully to further a discussion of how county leaders, nonprofits and teachers might work together to do more for our students."
Yet another firm believer in the educational work of the Literary Seminar is Maureen McKloski at the Florida Department of State Division of Cultural Affairs.
"She recently discovered our archives and has been excitedly pushing the material for use by the Florida Alliance for Arts Education, as well as other Florida and national arts and education groups," according to Haskell.
The seminar and its archives, which are the recipient of grants from McKloski's department, are "doing amazing work," McKloski said. "It's a gift. Otherwise we would not be able to have access to that information. It's just phenomenal."