Pioneer Youth Writers

11 03 2008

Hampshire College has an interesting divisional system. Division I: Spend one year puttering around trying to figure out what you sort-of want to do; Div II: spend two years collecting a range of similarly-themed learning experiences; Div III: spend one year on a single, focused independent project, usually an aspect of what you’ve been learning in Div II. I’m halfway through my final semester, and hopefully more than halfway done with my Div III.

Inspired by Dave Eggers and 826 NYC, I decided to jump on the writing program bandwagon and for my year-long project, I started an after-school writing club at a middle school in Holyoke, MA. My aim, like 826, is to provide one-to-one support for students.

The students I work with are wonderful and smart kids. They’re sixth and seventh graders—I guess that the eighth graders have better things to do with their time than hang out at after-school clubs, especially writing ones. However, we have a lot of fun. Right now, we’re working toward putting out a third chapbook of student writing. Some of the stories they tell are, in my opinion, incredibly important. One girl writes of a poor teenager who finds an envelope of money—what does she do? A boy writes of his moral conflicts in a fictional story in which the president fakes his own assassination to get people to attack Iraqis.

The second part of my project is to write a handbook to inspire and guide others to start programs of their own, in cities or areas that don’t have access or abundant resources. Yeah, that means you. You don’t need a lot of money, and you don’t need that much time.

I run the writing club basically for free. I’ve poured maybe three hundred dollars into it since the beginning of October—about $75 a month—plus the publishing costs of two chapbooks. Since the club is running in an after-school program facilitated by Holyoke Community College, some of the publishing costs are free. We’ve gotten some free pencils and paper from the writing center at Mt. Holyoke College. When I say ‘we,’ I’m also referring to a cadre of dedicate volunteers, students from Hampshire and Mt. Holyoke.

I’m not ignoring tuition that I pay to Hampshire, that provides for me a room and utilities, a van, and access to a Five-College Consortium. The amount of work I put into the program tops out at fifteen hours a week. We’re in the school If I was working a full time job right now, I would probably be trying to carve out time to work with the kids—either during the day or on the weekends. This is important work. The ‘why’ is something I’ve been struggling for the better part of two weeks to articulate in writing.

Holyoke, for those of you who don’t know much about it, is part of the Springfield metropolitan area. The western half of Massachusetts is a collection of rich country towns and dead mill and steel towns. Holyoke is no exception; it’s one of the poorest cities in the state. Last year, it scored twenty or more points lower than the state average for English on standardized tests (the MCAS), and it was worse in math. Over eighty percent of the students at the school I work at qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. That means four-fifths of the students are coming from families making less than $40,000 a year. To put that in perspective for at least me, their entire family income for a year would not be able to pay for my college tuition. These students come from communities and backgrounds that provide little opportunities and get little support.

Writing education is not just about giving the students tools they need to succeed later in life. Yes, I think writing is important for them to get a job that will pay enough so that their kids don’t need to be in free-or-reduced-price lunch programs at school. But that’s too simple and straightforward. When I say ‘succeed,’ I mean a whole lot more.

Ours is a literate society. Everything is based on the written word. To get along, one needs to be able to write. But that’s not all. Reading without writing in our society is like being a toddler who can understand what is going on around (to some extent) but doesn’t have the words to articulate his or her own needs, desires, or opinions. Being unable to write in a society like ours makes impossible exerting influence in any effective way. Writing leads to being in control of your community, because you can transmit opinions, write laws, write history.

Writing is important in a personal way—our identities are based on the multiplicity of literacies we interact with. We define ourselves in large part by the media we consume—books, television, radio, internet—and the media we produce—e-mails, text messages, online profiles, formal writing for newspapers, etc. Who we are and who we will be remembered as, in personal and public ways, is based in large part on how we communicate.

And adolescent literacies are more complicated than we give them credit for. Credit is the legal standards for written education. Most of the students I work with have cellphones and send text messages. Many have MySpace accounts. They all use the internet for school research, and they all have e-mail—even if they don’t have direct access to computers at home. Yet, schools are taking little of this into account. These students are members of a generation that is expected to produce far more writing than any previous generation. Giving them the tools to make their communication more sophisticated can only be a good thing. Plus, they have important stories to tell, and they don’t get the chance to in a typical school curriculum.

My handbook couldn’t come at a better time. Eggers recently won a TED Award—$100,000 to make a wish come true. He said:

I wish that you — you personally and every creative individual and organization you know — will find a way to directly engage with a public school in your area, and that you’ll then tell the story of how you got involved, so that within a year we have 1,000 examples of innovative public-private partnerships.

With the money, Eggers started the Once Upon A School project—to collect 1000 pledges and stories in one year of people directly engaging with public schools in their neighborhoods. It’s ambitious.

This shows me that there is (finally) a movement to push private citizens to engage with public schools. Too long, I think, there has been a damaging divide between ‘regular’ society and most of youth culture. I think this could change the way our society views education. Instead of being solely delegated to professional educators, professionals of all stripes should be interacting with youth. It takes a village.

Once Upon A School provides some instructions, but they are pretty generalized and sparse. My handbook will be a bit more specific and a bit more fleshed out. I hope the two can be used in tandem by people who are interested in this really important way of actively engaging with youth and their communities.

Says Eggers:

“When we think about kids and education, we have to get back to the basic undeniable that kids are individuals, they learn in a thousand ways, and there are undeniable steps to greater education for all: better salaries for teachers, smaller class sizes, and more one-on-one attention.”

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