Your Handbook for Building and Running a Young Writers Program

9 07 2008

In the final year at Hampshire College, students embark on a year-long independent project. Mine was starting and running a writing club for middle school students in Holyoke, Massachusetts — a depressed urban area outside Springfield. I recruited and trained volunteers (including Lindsay) from local colleges to work with the students after school on homework and writing. Though small, the club was meaningful for everyone involved. We produced three chapbooks and had a lot of fun.

I also wrote a handbook for others, encouraging others to start similar programs in their own hometowns. The handbook has a dedicated page on the blog here, and I’ve excerpted it below. If you think it is interesting and useful, please pass it along.


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.

Read more of Your Handbook for Building and Running a Young Writers Program…

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