Your Handbook for Building and Running a Young Writers Program

by Jacob Lefton (jlefton @ gmail dot com)
May 2008

  1. Introduction
  2. Understanding Your Vision and Resources
    1. Potential Relationships
  3. Building Your Writing Program: The Right Environment
    1. Setting the Tone
    2. Publishing
    3. Tutoring Tactics
  4. Acknowledgments

Introduction

This handbook aims to inspire you to build a free writing program for under-served youth in your community. It contains mostly instructions and resources, and is written out of my own experiences and research. I am a senior at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I have concentrated on writing and education. For the past five months, I have been leading an after-school writing program at a middle school in Holyoke, a depressed urban area in western MA.

I run a writing club because I believe that writing education in particular is crucial.

Ours is a literate society. It runs on the written word. Business, government, community—all of these are defined in writing Walk down the street in downtown anywhere, and it’s clear that those who don’t understand the written word are at disadvantage. Street signs, billboards, storefronts, informing, directing, and advertising. The structures upon which our society is built—the codified laws, newspapers, books, all the ways formal information and discussion are transmitted, preserved, and passed on—are all written. Understanding and navigating the world around us requires an ability to read.

But to read is not enough.

A world in which we read but do not write is a world in which we do not have the tools necessary to exert power over our environment. Like toddlers, we would stand watching, unable to communicate our needs and desires in any nuanced way. We would be powerless to control even the forces that directly affect our lives—where we work, under what laws we live, how others view us, how we interpret our past and how we see the future. All this because we live in a literate society—one in which writing is the most accepted way to communicate in any formal sense of the term. Without writing, we are not free.

In my classroom, there is a boy who cannot really read. He can’t do math. He can’t write a coherent paragraph. When I ask him to write or even if we can figure out what he would like to write, he becomes very quiet. He gets his homework done because he copies off the girl who always sits next to him—she looks out for him.

“Do you have any homework?” I say.

“No,” he mutters, shaking his head.

“Mister, that’s because he forgot it!” says his friend, thrusting her copy in my face. She smiles sweetly and casts a sidelong glare at him.

He draws his skinny frame deeper into his big sweatshirt. “No I don’t have any,” he says, but can’t hide the sheepish grin that spreads across his face.

One day, he picks up a book on gangs. I watch him flip through it.

“Reading?”

“No. I’m looking.” He pauses at a picture of some older men, and then snaps the book shut. “They were in a gang?”

“Read it,” I say. I flip back to the picture—it’s a crowd of Mexican immigrants on their way to court. They were arrested because they were wearing zoot suits, a fashion commonly associated with gang members in the 1930′s. The boy figures it out, but only after I help him sound out words like “arrested” and “associated.”

He says there are gangs in the neighborhood where he lives, so I ask him to write about them, based on his own experience. He writes a sentence he says is fictional, and then I prompt him with questions to get him to fill in details. He resists further writing after getting this far:

“One day I want outside to play when I saw gangs start fiting in the middle of the road and the names were the cockroaches and the rats and they are fiding over territory one of the ganges where talking alot of stuff to the rats. Because the cockroaches Don’t Like the rat so they started talking bad like go suck a d***.”

He is in seventh grade.

Most of the students are well above this boy’s level, but they still misspell common words or leave articles and pronouns out of sentences entirely. They cut corners in their writing and are often unable to articulate more complicated thoughts without guidance—despite an obvious interest from some.

They have important stories to tell that are born of their own experiences. Too often, youth are not allowed voices, or what little voice they are allowed is not encouraged—or is actively silenced. With the right coaxing, their writing is a mirror of their lives. One boy lays bare the moral confusion he feels in a story about the president faking his own assassination—first, the youth is angry at the Iraqis for killing the president, and then he is angry at the president for deceiving the nation. His response is to lead an angry mob against the White House. At one tense point in the story he writes, “Do we attack Iraq? Yes or no.”

“Which one do you think is right,” I ask. He thinks for a brief moment, and circles ‘yes.’ When writing the final version, he insists on keeping the open question, as if to give others their choice of the right answer.

At other times, their writing is an exploration of their own identity. A girl writes of Megan, a fictional fourteen-year-old from a poor family with lots of mouths to feed. She has to share her room. And then, Megan finds a bag of money by the door. Megan asks her sister to help her find the owner of the money. I know the writer cares deeply about her own sister too—though at times it is a very strained relationship.

They use writing to escape the boundaries of who, where, and when they are. “… I traveled through time again and was the first man on the moon,” wrote one student during our brief obsession with time travel, spurred on by the television show Doctor Who. “I snapped Neil Armstrong’s neck, took one step on the moon and said, ‘This is one small step for a gangster and one giant step for gangsta kind.’” Holyoke is not always a nurturing culture. Some of the students have missed school to go to court on charges of assault. Others ask me to write notes to their parole officer saying they attended and showed good behavior. When they get a chance to dream, they show they can dream as big as anyone else. Can you imagine being the first man ever to set foot on the moon?

I’ve seen writing be fun and rewarding for these youth. Two boys co-authored a story about war in Iraq. One partner agreed to read aloud because the other boy was resistant to that sort of performance in front of the rest of the club. But as we began to hear the chapter he authored, he could not hold back his excitement. He grabbed the paper and launched into the story with great feeling.

Without prompting, these stories would never have been written. There is little space in the school for this type of creative free-writing and exploration. There are standards that must be met, yet budgets are continually being cut. Classroom sizes are on the rise—where five or ten years ago some schools were looking at class sizes of twenty-five to thirty, various people predict that number rising as high as thirty-five in the coming decade. Imagine one teacher trying to manage a class of thirty-five students and keep them all academically on track. For teachers who see upwards of 200 students a day, even asking for one page of writing a week from each student would create an overwhelming workload.

Holyoke ranks twenty points below the state average on standardized tests, and eighty percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches—they do not have money to buy better opportunities. These are people who need the best education and support that our society can offer. They do not currently receive it.

I was inspired to start my program while visiting family in New York City. I visited a novelty shop I’d heard about named the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company. It was more than a store. It was actually a front for one of the most inspirational things I’ve seen in my life: a free drop in writing center, called 826NYC.

From the street, you can see that the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. is different. Giant black panel displays covered with tiny white writing proudly declare what types of merchandise will be found inside—setting it apart from every other storefront on the street. Entering introduces you to the world of super-heroes. Cans of invisibility paint and super strength serum line the shelves. Capes hang on a rack next to a fan so you can make sure they billow properly. A back bookcase has suction cups that can help you walk up walls, and is actually a secret door which pulls back to reveal a writing center—covered wall to wall with bookshelves, manuscripts from famous writers, and photos of children all wearing thick-rimmed ‘author glasses’ and trying not to smile, because we all know authors never smile.

The design of 826 is truly inspiring. It’s a free service that started as simply an after-school drop-in center and has expanded to include in-school help for teachers, field trips, and stand-alone workshops. It’s positioned not as a replacement for schools but as a teacher’s ally—trying to help them do what they would if they could work 1-on-1. To achieve that goal, they work very hard to recruit significant numbers of volunteers. With the help of volunteers, 826 accomplishes something that at first glance seems impossible. Under-served youth, some of whom are written off by even the public school systems, who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity, write and publish actual books.

There are many organizations that offer creative writing opportunities for youth. Word Street in Pittsfield, MA, is a drop-in center, and applies the same philosophies as 826. The Writer’s Express (WEX) works with schools and summer camps in the Boston and New York areas, using their own proprietary model. LA Youth is a twenty-year-old newspaper written by teen journalists. Teen Ink is a national magazine of writing by teens. The National Writing Project is a professional development network for teachers of all levels and subjects. There are many of these programs run by different people from different perspectives. Unfortunately, there is no way they can serve the millions of children in the United States who lack strong writing education. Programs are needed to encourage youth to develop a passion for writing and to give them opportunities to write the world as they see it.

This handbook is written to help you to get involved. It is a tool that you can use to build your own writing program for under-served youth in your area.

You’ll start small, but have a meaningful impact. With time and experience, the program will have the potential to grow. In the beginning, you don’t need many resources. It takes a small amount of free time, which is a privilege that many people take for granted. My program runs two days a week for three hours, with an hour of travel time for me—the students come straight from school. Planning encompasses another two to three hours, if I’m on top of things. If you work part time, if your employer is supportive, or you can set your own hours, you can do this. My total investment has been between $100 and $200 over five months, but I haven’t been very active in finding donations. You can do this at no personal cost in anything but time.

In these pages, I offer tools I’ve used and others I’ve discovered. In this guidebook I share my philosophies, processes, failures and and successes. I will guide you in developing an educational philosophy and framework for the program or workshops you develop. I also offer you the advantage of my hindsight to help alleviate the challenges you will undoubtedly encounter and provide assurance that you are not, in fact, alone in facing these challenges.


Understanding Your Vision and Resources


My goal is to give you enough to get started. I believe that with a framework and some examples, you can fill in the details and particulars for the needs of your students and community. We’re going to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of making contacts, starting your organization, and running it.

Before you start working in earnest to realize your vision, set the goals of your program on paper. This will help you not only to solidify in your mind what you want to do, but it will also help you when talking with others. Nothing is worse than starting your pitch with “Um.. it’s kind of like…” Clearly defining the core is important for communicating the project to anyone else.

You’ll want to make a clear difference between your long-term vision and short-term goals. On a piece of paper, write down everything you hope your program will be, given all the resources in the world. Of what you just wrote, what is the core—the basic foundation—of your program, around which everything else can grow? For example, my program’s goal is to encourage students to write creatively and to give them one-on-one access to tutors. Another program might center around basic computer literacy for effective communication. I read of one program which encouraged students to do original, inquiry-driven research on their local environment, from which they wrote scientific papers, newspaper articles, and even ended up giving congressional testimony. From this core goal, you will be able to determine the most important and immediate resources.

You are making some choices. Here are few of the major ones:

  • Do you want to work in the schools with teachers, or after-school? This will affect what relationships you look for from the teachers you are helping with your program.
  • Do you want a drop-in format, or one for which students sign up? With drop-in, the program is very accessible, but the overall numbers and the regularity of a particular student’s attendance can be more unpredictable than if there is a sign-up process.
  • Are you focusing on any particular aspect of literacy, and does it call for specialized resources? If you want to do something specific, like bookmaking or computer literacy, you’ll need more specialized resources than if you are just writing.

Having a strong sense of what you want is important when asking an organization or individual for their help—if they say yes, they may ask you what assistance you want from them. Being able to tell them straight up what your needs are shows to would-be donors of time, money, or equipment a genuine focus your vision.

As you start to acquire resources, you’ll likely go back and forth several times between your goals and what you’ve actually found to make small adjustments. Goals inform you of where and what resources to look for first. The resources you do find show you what goals you’ll most be able to meet.

When I was starting my program, I had hoped to work in the middle school with an English teacher. We were going to design a project, and I would bring in volunteers so the students would be able to work on it in a one-on-one environment. Sadly, it didn’t work out because of one simple scheduling problem—the school schedule was an eight-day rotation. Scheduling volunteers for that kind of thing would have been extremely difficult. Luckily for me, the principal was working to set up a new after-school program for which he needed clubs. Thus my after-school writing club was born.

The most important resources are your relationships with others, and how you nurture them. My first contact with the school principal was through the daughter of a friend. I spent a bunch of time running around and speaking with other people about the project, but there was little direct interest. I managed to learn a bit about what programs existed in Holyoke and how some of them worked, but my initial fact-finding missions were mostly dead ends. However, with an established relationship, I was able to communicate in depth what the program was about and get the lead I needed. Talk with everyone you know about your program goals, and maybe they can help you.

Though I think it is usually easier to get help from someone you know and who knows you, contacting and speaking with new people should always be one of your priorities. If you meet someone or hear about someone whom you think could help you, do not be afraid to ask for a small amount of their time. Explain briefly your goals, allowing them to ask questions. Even if they don’t ask, let them know how you think they can help you. Make sure your presentation to them is succinct, because you don’t want to make them bored accidentally, and also make sure to leave them a letter with a written request and your contact information.

It is important to know who to approach and to have a list of relationships you want to build. I’ve put together a list of different groups one can find in most communities. There is a description of the group, a few reasons why you might want to approach them, what they can provide for you, and what they might gain by helping you. I include this last piece of information to give you context and help you tune your message. Your most important tools are a physical phone book, internet search (Google is probably best), and knowledge of what to look for in your community.

Potential Relationships

  • Schools
    Schools and their associates are probably your number one resources. Finding schools that are in need of help is not that hard. Think of the communities near yours that have reputations for being dangerous or poor, or have high immigrant populations. Check your local communities online at websites like greatschools.net or read the local papers to get a sense of standardized test scores. Talk to the school district offices. In the phone book or online you can probably find their number or address under the name of the city and ‘school district.’ Talk to the school district’s central administration and find out what in school and/or after-school programs exist. Also, get a list of local schools, and call them up. The individual schools should have lists of organizations that come into school and do work, or that students attend after school. These schools are probably the main place where you will find students will be interested in your program! Talk with English teachers and administrators

    • Why you want to approach schools: The purpose of this program is to augment the education that students are receiving. Schools are your number one ally in reaching students, tracking their progress, and developing programming.
    • What to ask from them: Approach the different schools with the proposal for running a workshop with students after school. Ask the school if they have a classroom available, and if they would be interested in helping to advertise. Ask to speak to the English teachers and let them know what you are interested in doing, and ask to see their curriculum. Suggest to them that you are interested in working with them to develop the program, and make sure they know your primary concern is to help them achieve their goals—you don’t want them to feel defensive or threatened.
    • What you offer: Obviously you want to offer an augmentation to the work their teachers are doing. You are providing opportunities for the students that they wouldn’t get otherwise, or you are providing opportunities for teachers to teach one-on-one in large classrooms by bringing in tutors. Based on your own project’s goals, there are a lot of things you offer.
  • Established Community Organizations, Youth Centers, Service Organizations, and Churches
    This is a diverse group of private organizations that are all social clubs of one type or another. There are community centers like the YMCA or YWCA and youth centers like Sam’s Club or Boys and Girls, which often run after-school programs. There are also service organizations including Knights of Columbus and Rotary Club. Churches are quintessential community organizations, often having congregations from the immediate community.

    • Why you want to approach community organizations: Community organizations are the social spaces for many members of the community. Many times, the established organizations own a building and can be in close proximity to a school with which you are trying to work—in the case of churches, students who attend a school could be part of the congregation at the church down the street. A number of non-youth oriented organizations do offer leadership training for youth, so they already have a vested interest in meeting young people.
    • What to ask for: Some of these organizations are a great place to find volunteers. A lot of them encourage or even finance community service. Organizations that own space might be willing to lend it for a few afternoons each week. Maybe they could be encouraged to give a small grant to a startup organization, or can give money for specific resources like pencils and paper or snacks. At the very least, they can put a flier up with your information on a billboard or in a weekly bulletin.
    • What do you offer: These organizations are community-based. They are often run by community members or their membership lives in the community, so they have a vested interest in seeing it flourish. In the case of service organizations, many of them are founded on humanitarian beliefs, and encourage service and relationships with the community they are part of. Your program could provide support for the children of these organizations, or an outlet for the adults to interact with their community in a meaningful way.
  • Libraries and Bookstores
    The Library and any bookstores should know about reading and writing groups that exist. You can ask them if they know of any writers in the area to whom you could pitch your idea. There might be some writers already holding workshops, so getting in touch with them could be important. Furthermore, you could put up a copy of your flier if there is space. If, later on, you decide to hold a reading of your students’ work, libraries or bookstores would be perfect settings.

    • Why you want to approach libraries and bookstores: These are book palaces and temples. The people who run them care a great deal about reading and writing, and are very eager to encourage youth to read and write. They are also often interested in displaying the work of community members.
    • What to ask for: If you are unable to find a suitable after-school space in a school or close enough to one, many libraries have children’s rooms or back rooms that could be used to host an after-school writing group, so it’s worth asking them what sort of spaces are available. Bookstores often have similar spaces. Many of these places also have author events, so working with them to present students’ work in a coffee-house format may be worthwhile. Setting up an event at which the youth get to sign copies of their writing may be very exciting.
    • What you offer: Libraries and bookstores are inherently interested in writers and readers; that is their business. The people who run them are passionate about reading and writing. Engaging with these businesses allows them to help spread their love of writing with younger people, whom they probably feel they don’t see enough of. Also, businesses that engage in community service are likely to thrive from support of community members. More than likely, libraries and bookstores would be happy to display books that you and your students have written.
  • Colleges
    There exist over 2000 colleges and universities in the United States. Dedicated to post-secondary education, they have a vested interest in seeing students succeed in high school. People from all walks of life come together to collaborate on many different types of projects at colleges, and there is a lot of energy from both students and faculty.

    • Why you want to approach colleges: Many colleges have people who run or are interested in volunteering in local commuities. Many colleges run after-school programs in local schools. There are teacher licensing programs that encourage or require students to get experience. Also, community-based learning or community-engagement is becoming an important part of college students’ educations, and a lot of schools are financing centers and mandating that students engage in some form of community service.
    • What to ask for: The best people to approach at a college, if you are not directly in touch with students, are professors. Professors in education and teaching will have contacts with both local teachers and principals, and with students who want to engage with youth. English departments have at the very least contact with college students who are interested in literature and writing, who are potential volunteers. Sometimes, colleges can even provide monetary support in the form of grants.
    • What you offer: Increasingly, colleges are asking their students to engage with the community either through community service or other programming. Providing easily accessible outlets for their students is beneficial. Colleges with education programs ask their students to work in schools or after-school to get experience. College students can provide younger students with encouragement to apply to college.
  • Parents
    Do you know parents of youth in your city? Who do you live near? Can you strike up a conversation with them? Are there local programs they rave about or local programs they hate? Where do they send their kids for school, after-school, or for recreation?

    • Why you want to approach parents: Winning the trust of parents will be vital to your success. Parents want the best opportunities for their children. If your program can support their children well, they will likely let their friends and community members know about your program.
    • What to ask for: From parents, you can ask for students for your workshop, if you know parents with appropriately aged children. You can also ask them to come and volunteer, or to attend events that you put on celebrating their children’s accomplishments. You can also ask them to recommend other organizations with which you could partner.
    • What you offer: You offer an alternative to their children sitting at home in front of the television, not getting their homework done. You offer further educational support for their children, maybe even giving them something to be excited about, to strive for in the future. Your work will help increase grades, broaden horizons and inspire.

Make sure to write down all the resources you find! Having this list available in the future will be very useful for speeding up the process of growing and developing the writing program later on! I suggest using a spreadsheet to keep the information organized.


Building Your Writing Program: The Right Environment


The level of success of your writing program dependents on the type of environment you create. An environment that is nurturing, safe, and fun—but also focused, demanding, and rewarding—will keep students coming back day after day. Factors that contribute to this environment are the atmosphere set by your expectations and the way you engage with your students. The outcomes including publishing, reading, and other appreciation of students’ work, the physical space, and the way tutors interact with students.

Setting the Tone

When deciding how to design the environment, it’s important to understand the contexts within which your program operates. When a student walks in the door, from where are they coming and what are their goals?

My students come to a writing club in a larger after-school program for middle schoolers. They come directly from school, so they have homework that must be done. They’ve just been in school for six or more hours and want to spend some of their time playing because when they go home during most of the year it is dark and cold, and no one else lives on their street. Some of them really want to write and seriously enjoy writing, but others are there because they have nowhere else to go.

In order to set a general tone for the club, we ask students to sign a contract. I make them read it and go over each point with them. By signing, they say they understand a number of things: that they are responsible for doing their homework and engaging in a writing activity; that the tutors are there to help them with homework and writing—not to babysit; that if a student doesn’t want to do work they can’t disrupt others who are doing work; that they must be respectful of their peers and respectful of writing by their peers; and that if they do finish their work, we will have a chance to go outside and play games.

A lot of this came from prior experiences, both good and bad. I can remember one brilliant girl with whom I could not get along, despite my best efforts. She was a wonderful writer, bright, talented, and full of energy. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t communicate with her in any effective manner. She would get in fights with the boys in the classroom, refuse to even acknowledge me, and stand on desks, shrieking. It was quickly and sadly decided by the student, myself and the director of the larger program that moving her to another club was the best idea. Originally, I assumed that the situation was because I couldn’t control the behavior of the boys in the club, and they would gang up on the girls in the club. I realized shortly afterward that it wasn’t simply my inability to control behavior, but my failure to set clear expectations for this girl or the boys at the beginning of the program.

There is always room for improvement in your teaching. I always talk with my fellow tutors about what worked and what didn’t work on any particular day. At the end of the day, make a short journal entry detailing successes, failures, and learning experiences. Often, in the course of writing about a problem, the solution becomes evident. It’s why I decided to use a contract—which seems to have worked thus far. It’s not a new idea, but I learned the hard way.

I also suggest giving each student a folder with their name. They can put drafts, revisions, and final pieces in. It’s easy for you and them to keep track of what they’re working on—just pull out the folder and hand it to them. There’s no mess of papers to go through. After a while, also, the folder will grow. It’s really exciting to watch a students’ writing accrue, and then to see them realize how much writing they’ve actually done over the course of a month or two! The added benefit is that a tutor who works with the student on one day can write a simple note for the next tutor letting them know what the student was working on, how much they did, and any specific problems or goals to keep in mind.

Another experience, a very common one, is the following exchange:

“Mister, can we go outside,” students will ask at the beginning of the afternoon.

“Only after we finish our work,” I’ll respond.

They’ll ask, “How about at five? Can we go out at five?”

“Maybe. We’ll have to see where everyone is. You should focus on your (homework/reading/writing) or else you won’t be done by five.”

“Okay. Everyone hurry up! We’re going out at five o’clock!”

This is clearly not what I said, but I will bargain with the students. “Okay, if you finish a page of this story, and you and I do the edits, then we can go outside.”

Sometimes I feel rather tyrannical not letting them run loose and wild after a long day at school. I spoke with the director of the after-school program on a day that we’d just published one of our books, after two months of hard work.

“Sometimes I feel bad, forcing them to do work when they’d rather be playing,” I said.

She replied, “Well, it’s good that you expect so much of them, because someone has to.”

Publishing

Publishing is the core of the program, the main incentive to write. It’s what gets students engaged in the first place and makes the club more than ‘writing help after school.’ Without it, I don’t think I would be able to get any engagement from the students. I can just imagine their disbelief that someone could be so stupid:

“You mean, you want us to sit in a room after school and write for no reason?”

Very few people would see value in that, much less a room full of cynical middle-schoolers! In fact, at first it’s hard to get them to see the value of publishing, even, because most of these students have never seen anything come of their writing. For the first two months I ran my program, it felt like pulling teeth to get the students to write, revise, edit, and finally finish a piece. Yet, at the end it’s very rewarding.

Even kids who insisted they hated writing looked at a book with a few of their pieces and admitted that they were “a little” proud of themselves for what they accomplished.

I put together one copy of a book early and ended up handing it to a boy who wasn’t in my club any more. Ten minutes later, the book was circulating the cafeteria—students from the club were grabbing it out of each others’ hands to look at it. “Mister!” one girl shouted to me while holding the battered copy out of reach of another student. “This is pretty slick!”

Tutoring Tactics

Tutors are one of the most important resources you have for creating the right environment for the program. Make sure your tutors understand what they need to do, or they will be confused and potentially discouraged. Tell them what the schedule looks like—i.e. homework first, and then some reading until everyone is done, and then we are going to start a writing activity. Be specific if you can. Make sure that they, and you, know that each child is different. You cannot assume anything about children’s background or family life until you interact with them, and learn how they learn.

One way to prepare for this is to put the volunteers in positions of role-playing student and tutor. Have the ‘student’ come up with excuses about why they can’t do their homework or don’t want to read. The two role-players try to reach some conclusion, and through this, the tutors learn strategies for working with students.

I’ve used every single tactic I know for getting someone to write, while keeping it fun, including several I had to invent on the spot. The tried and true tactic is to read closely the students’ writing and to start asking questions in areas that you think they could expand on, that would make their writing better. Sometimes, they won’t want to write because the physical act is blocking them from telling their story. Having a volunteer transcribe their words for a first draft so they can later edit the story works well. My favorite and probably most successful improvisational strategy to date was telling two boys that instead of making lewd and suggestive comments about one of the tutors, they had to have a contest to see who could write the most euphemisms for ‘breasts.’ Only euphemisms used in complete sentences were valid, though, because we had to know what they were talking about. Not only did it briefly stop the harassment, one of the boys also wrote a long and funny piece entitled “The Girls That Bother Me.” There’s no sense in censoring the students if they are already discussing difficult topics. There are creative solutions.

I keep an expanding file of different writing activities that I have made up, borrowed from others, or photocopied from books. If a student finishes their homework and reading and has nothing else to do, we make them pick out an exercise from the file. These little worksheets are designed to create constraints, to focus the writer and sometimes to develop specific skills. Often if given a completely empty piece of paper and no guidance, a new writer can get lost. These worksheets provide a starting point for the student In the back of the book are some worksheets I’ve found to be successful.

The right atmosphere can at times be at odds with itself: Both fun and challenging. Safe, but pushing students to grow. This is a delicate boundary to explore. No amount of reading can supplement the actual experiences of the classroom. Nothing will prepare you for the boy who bursts into tears about the homophone contest for English class, or the boy that decides he really wants to write about a prostate exam, and nothing can prepare you for the girl who decides she is going to write story after story about monkeys, requiring you to help her absorb and re-write actual research. Keep in mind your goals and those of your students and volunteers. Stick with your intuition when a new situation arises. Most of all, have fun and be creative.



Acknowledgments:
Special thanks to my academic advisors, Paul Jenkins and Madeline Marquez, who believed in me from the start. Also due are debts of gratitude to Paul Hyry and Melany Mendoza for their trust and support. Thank you to the students of the Pioneer Youth Writers club who humored my attempts to get them to write. Without the help of volunteers Lindsay Barbieri, Julia Evans, Riley, Monica Ballagh, Emma Williams, Alejandra Cuellar and Taverly Adams, I would never have managed. Also, a multitude of thanks are owed to Josh and the rest of the copy center staff who always managed to get my stuff in last minute. Finally, thank you to my parents and sister and brother, for being there.

9 responses

29 07 2008
Brian

Jacob, this was amazing. Fantastic job. I am inspired by this – and your goals and dedication to seeing them fulfilled.

29 07 2008
Jacob

Thanks Brian! That’s really high compliments. I’m glad it’s inspiring! I definitely felt fulfilled after writing it, and hearing you say it’s worth something is really great. Do you notice any similar programs in the various movements you’re involved with?

30 07 2008
tara

Jacob, this is awesome! It’s so interesting, useful, and personal. How are you getting it out there, besides this blog?

30 07 2008
Jacob

Thus far, this is it. I haven’t really been putting effort into shopping this around.

30 07 2008
Molly

If you do decide to do a printing of it sometime, I will re-offer to design it, now that I don’t have as much on my plate. I already sort of starting playing around with a cover design, as lately I’ve become re-obsessed with Dave Eggers, and I wanted something to design all pretty, 826 style.

30 07 2008
Brian

Yeah, there’s definitely some stuff going on in the movements I’m involved with – mostly the community-organizing aspects. I think that is really important, and I’m gad to see you put so much effort into that aspect. I feel that often times when folks are trying to work on things like this, they depend on money-wielding benefactors that are not connected to the communities – which obviously help financially, but don’t bring in any community commitment or enthusiasm. So yeah, again, great work. I’m going to link to this on my blog, if that’s cool.

30 07 2008
Your Handbook for Building and Running a Young Writers Program « Adventures in Free Schooling

[...] 30, 2008 This is an awesome tool and handbook for developing and running a young writers program. While it is [...]

15 09 2008
Lesley

Jacob,

My name is Lesley Stampleman-I graduated in 02 with a Creative Writing Div III.I was just browsing through and found your project. Great Work!

A little more backround: I just graduated with an MFA in English from Mills College, and worked in part with their Community Teaching Project. I also did some volunteer work with 826 Valencia. I am interested in creating a similar program in the rural California community in which I grew up. This handbook is a great resource for would-be teachers of writing. Would you be willing to send/sell a copy?

16 09 2008
Julie Ellison

Dear Jacob,

Congratulations on a great project. I am a faculty member at the University of Michigan, where I teach and American Studies senior seminar called “Getting In: What College Means in America.” It focuses on a community project centered on the college application essay, with the remarkable InsideOut Literary Arts Project of Detroit. I was inspired to start this class after working with South African collaborators (an arts organization and a pretty radical university writing center) to launch an annual writing workshop for young urban artists in Johannesburg. We focus on the artist statement in that workshop (the Isithunzi Writing Workshop). I’m definitely going to share your project with my class, as the students will be working to develop and identify useful resources around creative approaches to the college application essay process, which is often a fraught and miserable one.

Julie Ellison
Professor of American Culture, English, and Art and Design

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: