In a small New York City theater one May evening, the lights go down and a series of short, entertaining, and thought-provoking plays begins. Touching on themes like cultural tension, mental illness, and dysfunctional relationships, each play brings something unique to the table. What’s more, each play was written by an up-and-coming playwright under the age of 18.
The writers are all students of Writopia Lab, a nonprofit that holds writing workshops in schools, treatment facilities, homeless shelters, and public libraries. The organization, which operates in several cities, works with children and teens from all walks of life, aiming to foster joy, literacy, and critical thinking through creative writing.
Writopia students write anything from fiction and memoirs to graphic novels and poetry. The annual Worldwide Plays Festival highlights the work of the program’s young playwrights.
A Playwright Is Born
Writopia Lab produces the weeklong festival each May, presenting the plays Off-Broadway, in a professional New York City theater that is smaller than those traditionally used for Broadway shows. The event celebrates voices and themes that span socioeconomic groups and geographical regions, delivering humor and fresh perspectives. Each play is developed and polished by a young writer at one of Writopia’s workshops; professional directors and actors are then matched to each play, rehearsing the work and bringing it to life.
“The writing of our Writopia students continues to bring remarkable creativity, risk, truth, and beauty to the stage, while the professionalism and skill of the directors, designers, actors, and crew create a spectacular platform that showcases the power of these works,” says Kara Ayn Napolitano, managing artistic director of Writopia Lab.
Worldwide Pants, Inc., owned by television host and comedian David Letterman, has sponsored the festival for four years, enabling Writopia Lab to present the work of more than 250 playwrights. Forty-eight plays and musicals were produced this year alone.
Markus, an eighth-grader whose play was produced in May, drew on real-life experiences to develop his story. Raised in the Bronx and attending the free Writopia workshops offered by the New York Public Library (NYPL), he wanted to reflect New York City’s diversity while incorporating his love of classical music. The result was Premiere, a play depicting cultural tensions between two students—one Jewish, the other German—who are brought together by classical music.
“I really enjoy the program,” explains Markus. “I learned how to be a better writer and to elaborate more. I definitely want to continue writing.”
“Writopia was a wonderful experience for the children at the New York Public Library—offering them a creative outlet in a unique and innovative way,” says the NYPL’s director for library sites and services, Kevin Winkler. “The library strives to offer a variety of programs that can inspire as well as educate, and Writopia allowed us to do just that.”
Another Writopia student, Sharm, explains that Writopia helped him get his emotions out, “because you can be creative and open there.” Sharm joined the program while living at a treatment facility for incarcerated youth. His play, Housing, mixes equal parts humor and reality in exploring a young man’s relationships with his sister and his girlfriend as they argue over living arrangements.
Expressing Emotion through Writing
Students find themselves at Writopia Lab for an assortment of reasons; some are already accomplished writers in search of high-quality feedback, while others are struggling with writing in school and need a safe place to develop their skills. Still others turn to Writopia as an alternative form of therapy.
One young writer, Ronnie, lives in a treatment facility that provides long-term care to teenagers with behavioral problems, emotional difficulties, and mental illness. Most of the teens residing there have been through the juvenile justice system, including Ronnie.
Upon joining a Writopia Lab workshop, Ronnie found a comfortable and productive way to explore and express his anger and depression—through his writing.
“I love writing poems,” explains Ronnie. “If I had a rough week, I can come down to workshop and sum it all up in a poem. It helps a lot.”
The program coordinators describe him as passionate, prolific, and engaged. Ronnie says that the workshop is the highlight of his week and plans to continue participating in Writopia after he leaves the residential treatment facility.
“The activities we have in the residential treatment facilities are used for nontraditional therapy,” says Fastima Gooden, activity coordinator at one of the facilities where Writopia offers workshops. “These defiant kids come to Writopia and are given the opportunity to openly express themselves. It really boosts their self-esteem.”
In May, Voices, a play written by Ronnie about a young man’s struggle with mental illness, was produced.
Creative Writing for All
In 2006 Writopia’s founder, Rebecca Wallace-Segall, was hired by the principal of a school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to run a creative writing program.
“I loved what I was doing there, and the kids were getting a wonderful experience. They were winning more writing awards than those from the top private and public schools,” explains Wallace-Segall.
In 2007, when it was announced that, despite its success, the writing program was going to be cut, Wallace-Segall and ten parents decided to found Writopia, taking the creative writing program to the public sector.
“My original work at the school was with kids who came from privilege, and when we started Writopia, we wanted our workshops to be available to a broad range of kids,” Wallace-Segall says. “We are the most socio-economically diverse writing program in New York City. We’re not a segregated program; we dig deep into diverse characters and people, and by exposing them to each other, their lives and writing become richer.”
Although founded in New York City, Writopia has spread to areas across the country, including Westchester County, New York; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago. The program now serves more than 2,000 kids per year and continues to grow.
Enrichment for a Vulnerable Population
One hot Tuesday in August, around 15 kids are seated in a classroom at Saratoga Family Inn, a homeless shelter run by Homes for the Homeless, a New York City–based shelter provider. Hanging on the wall are signs that read, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” The room is buzzing with energy and excitement as the children talk.
This is the last week of a six-week workshop run by Writopia as part of the Saratoga Summer Day Camp, a full-day program for homeless and at-risk youth. Meeting three times a week, the instructors help two groups of kids—one made up of children under 13 and the other made up of teens—develop short stories from which they will read excerpts for an audience in just two days. In September, they will each receive a book of all of their stories.
A handful of the younger kids are at the computers off to the side of the room, finishing and editing their stories with the help of instructors who walk around offering guidance and asking thought-provoking questions. Across the room, kids who have already finished take part in games and exercises to keep their creativity flowing.
One ten-year-old girl sits at a table surrounded by her peers, answering their questions from the perspective of Chrissie, a character she created. Her answers get her thinking about what to include in her short story to develop her character further.
In another activity, students use the five senses to describe where they are from. One girl who has been quiet up until now brightens up and offers to read her poem, beginning: “In my Africa, we dance.” The instructors’ faces light up, and the other children actively listen. When the poem is over, the other members of the group take turns giving positive feedback. The young girl, who seemed down at the start of the day, now appears engaged and excited to continue working on her poem.
Elsewhere in the room, an eight-year-old boy sits alone, looking upset. One of the instructors walks over and takes a seat next to him, asking if he is all right. When he does not respond, the instructor asks if writing another story would make him feel better. The boy nods his head, gives a little smile, and runs back over to a computer.
Later in the day, the teen group gathers in a circle in a small room. This group is initially withdrawn, but as they go around the circle sharing their favorite and least favorite words, the mood lightens. Some students break away to finish their stories, while others share with the group parts of what they have written. Each time, they are flooded with positive feedback from their peers, which visibly increases their confidence.
The instructor, Jessie, reveals that seeing this change in attitude is her favorite part of the job. “You can see it. These kids come in, some visibly in a bad mood. It’s rewarding to see that by the end they are participating and engaging with the group. They are all so talented.”
Homeless children are more likely to struggle in school and have emotional and behavioral issues than children living in stable housing. Writopia helps these kids express their emotions through writing while improving their skills.
“Writopia instructors work with our kids one on one, giving them personal attention and showing them that writing can be fun,” explains Saratoga Family Inn Administrator Mike Fahy. “Homes for the Homeless knows how important it is for all kids to have the same opportunities to learn and grow. That’s why enriching activities like Writopia, which works with children from all walks of life, are so important and appreciated.”
The Writing Crisis
According to research, students of all ages struggle to write proficiently. Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics and the National Center for Educational Progress found that only one in five students in the U.S. is able to write competently. The English Journal, published by the National Council of Teachers of English, reported that 67 percent of high school freshmen tested below grade level in writing.
Theories about why this may be the case run the gamut. Some believe the issue is that writing instruction is not rigorous enough and focuses too much on expressing feelings, rather than on teaching students how to write logically and precisely. The new Common Core Standards, national guidelines adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, address that concern by putting emphasis on persuasive writing.
Others, however, argue that standardized testing and the associated curricula are the problem, leaving kids feeling disconnected from the learning process. Wallace-Segall explains, “Kids don’t feel like thinkers or creators anymore.” In fact, one of the top three reasons students give for their dislike of writing is that the constrictive nature of many assignments makes them feel out of touch with what they are doing, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Students also say they dislike writing because they do not know how to write or are not sure what teachers want.
Many times, students do not want to express themselves for fear of being laughed at by peers or causing concern among adults with their violent, mature, or “out-of-the-box” ideas. For example, a student writing a story about suicide is not necessarily suicidal. Writopia, on the other hand, is a place where unusual ideas are taken seriously and serious ideas do not cause alarm.
In 2012 Rebecca Wallace-Segall spoke at a TEDx event, a local, self-organized program that brings people together to spark deep discussion. TEDx events are hosted by TED, a global nonprofit dedicated to spreading ideas in the form of short, powerful talks. Wallace-Segall’s talk centered on education policy and the importance of empathetic, high-level creative writing instruction. Wallace-Segall explained, “When you start talking about grades, creativity often shuts down. A lot of teens say they don’t feel comfortable being their full selves in the classroom. This may lead to kids feeling disconnected, but sometimes it leads to depression. In the most extreme cases it leads to kids dropping out of school.”
For a key demographic served by Writopia, low-income and homeless students, mitigating the possibility of students’ dropping out of school is extremely important. The Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH) found in its report “A Tale of Two Students: Homelessness in New York City Public Schools” that after four years in high school, only 50 percent of homeless New York City students graduate on time, compared with 65 percent of all students; 15 percent of homeless students drop out.
ICPH explained in another report, “An Unstable Foundation: Factors that Impact Educational Attainment among Homeless Children,” that children who experience homelessness at a young age are more likely to demonstrate behavioral problems such as aggression, social withdrawal, depression, and anxiety, which can lead to academic, social, and economic difficulties. Writopia’s therapeutic effect on its students may help to offset some of the behavioral problems that can occur.
In addition, studies show that strong writing skills are essential in the professional arena, no matter the field. Over two-thirds of salaried jobs require a significant amount of written work. It is no surprise, then, that workers with good writing skills stand a much higher chance of advancing in their careers.
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, surveying employers about the writing of recent graduates hired, found that 26 percent had substandard writing abilities and that 28 percent of those were so deficient in written-communication skills that they struggled with their basic duties. The National Commission on Writing estimated that top American companies spend over $3 billion a year, and state governments around $221 million per year, to foster employees’ writing skills.
The Key Is a Safe Space
The key to the program’s success is that the writing process takes place in an uncensored environment with the guidance of published authors and produced playwrights. At Writopia students find a creative and intellectual atmosphere that might not otherwise be available to them. For young people who struggle with verbal and written expression, the program offers a safe space to develop these skills. The students become comfortable with expressing themselves on paper, and many eventually acquire a love of writing.
“Writopia has grown so quickly because kids and teens need a safe place to be themselves ... to think, process, write, and share their ideas, experiences, and fantasies,” says Wallace-Segall. “Writopia has grown because our instructors are the warmest, most brilliant people in their cities—and because they are deeply invested in the well-being of youth. We have complex, dynamic conversations with them about each and every sentence, story development, and resolution in their stories rather than assess what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ This is something incredibly exciting for most kids and teens who are used to being ‘taught’ and ‘graded.’”
Writopia uses a student-centered approach to teach writing, allowing lessons to occur naturally in the course of the work. “Their work is generated from what the kids want to do and write, which leads to an authentic writing experience,” says Wallace-Segall. “These kids talk about and process the world together. They develop their pieces with, and in support of, one another. In the end, the pieces that emerge are extraordinary.” Students use tools and games to help start and share stories. Instructors then challenge students to set and achieve writing goals, encouraging them to complete at least one well-developed, polished piece over the course of the workshop.
“I love the moment when a writer is surprised by the power of his or her own work—when they discover they expressed something new and bold,” explains the associate director of camps and curriculum instructor for Writopia, Danielle Sheeler. “I love when a writer realizes that they have met their own goals and feel proud of their accomplishments.”
Writing is not the only skill improved at these workshops, however. Students learn effective verbal communication, editing, analysis, and leadership skills while working with their peers. The access they are given to technology gives the writers an opportunity to acquire computer skills necessary in today’s technologically driven workforce.
Writopia also does not turn anyone away for financial reasons. Fourteen percent of its program funding comes from donations or grants, such as David Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants. The other 86 percent of Writopia’s funding comes from its sliding-scale fees. Wallace-Segall explains, “There is a no-questions-asked, no-application, pay-what-you-can policy.”
"We Help Kids Find Their Voices”
Success stories flow out of Writopia Lab, with results both academic and emotional.
The Worldwide Plays Festival is just one of several programs offered by Writopia Lab. After-school and weekend workshops, a summer sleepaway camp, and help with college application essays are also offered. Some students have performed their poetry at the Nuyorican Poets Café, a famous New York City venue for poetry, hip-hop and other music, video, visual arts, comedy, and theater, which has a long tradition of providing performance opportunities for both rising and established artists.
Program participants have won numerous regional and national Scholastic Writing Awards, the nation’s most prestigious and longest-running writing competition for teens. Two Writopia participants won the National Gold Medal Portfolio Award, the highest Scholastic Art & Writing Awards honor, which includes a $10,000 scholarship.
What’s more, reluctant kids and teens are now considering themselves writers, many of those who hated writing now love it, and kids who already loved to write are now doing so at a higher level and more openly than ever before.
Wallace-Segall tells the story of a young man who came to the program just last week. “A mother told me that her son, a teen who had previously declared that he had no interest in college, stated that he wanted to ‘become a writer and go to Yale.’ I loved that. He spent one week here and he felt better about himself as a thinker and an artist—and he felt a part of the world in such a positive way.”
“They become more confident about expressing their feelings, thoughts, and experiences on the page. They feel that their stories are important and worth writing down and sharing,” says Sheeler.
Wallace-Segall continues, “We help kids find their voices and intellectualism. We ask them to think about why characters do what they do. They think on deep, beautiful, philosophical levels. Parents tell us that we have reawakened their children’s spirit.”
Parents report seeing an increased confidence in writing, improved grades and standardized test scores, strengthened relationships with teachers and friends, and more informed and lucidly expressed views of the world.
The instructors also find the program rewarding, for the students as well as themselves. Strong connections form between the instructors and students. Sheeler explains, “The teens often write memoirs and autobiographical poetry. They open up and share many personal life experiences. We establish a strong sense of trust.”
Rebecca Wallace-Segall loves helping teens “calm down, open up, laugh, and write more and more honest, wonderful work. I cry almost every day here because that process can be so intense.”
To protect the safety and privacy of those we interviewed, we have not included the full names of program participants and treatment centers.
October 26, 2014 7th Grader, Annelie Hyatt, Performs at Writopia’s Spoken Word Reply by humanities7 • by Mr. Lakhaney
BSGE 7th grade Annelie Hyatt performed her spoken word poem titled, The Immaturity Dissection (full poem included below), at a recent event at Writopia’s Spoken Word at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Annelie wrote this poem as part of a program she attends at Writopia Labs where she has been developing her writing for the past couple of years.
Annelie says that she was always into writing and then two or three years ago her mom helped her find this program. At Writopia “there are instructors who are published authors in literary magazines and newspapers who come to teach kids who like writing once a week” Annelie explains. Each week the kids get to “sit on comfy couches and chrome book computers and at the start of the workshop you do some games or answer some prompts and then get into writing and at the end you get to share out your stories and get feedback.” The poem featured in the video took her one or two days to write and then got revised. Since she started with the program she has written around 20 different stories and poems. She would recommend this program to other students who like to write.
In addition to writing and performing, Annelie interns at Writopia and works with some of the younger kids on their writing but sometimes she gets embarrassed because, as she explains, “some of them [the younger kids she works with] are taller than me so they think I’m one of the younger students. It’s really embarrassing.”
Eventually Annelie hopes to gather all of her written works and publish them. Here are links to two of her other performances:
Writopia Labs offers programs for kids aged 6-18 and according to their website, “Writopia Lab is a not-for-profit organization that fosters joy, literacy, and critical thinking in children and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing.”
Immaturity Dissection by Annelie Hyatt
Dear future self:
Yes, I am immature
is the dark matter
that makes up the universe
and you only see bodies but not
and you’re scared
to start believing again
because believers get hurt by society
and no one has time to dream
because the age of stories
and you think you’re mature
but maturity is an illusion
the death of not your body
but your soul
and in my world
you don’t breath air
but the stuff of stars
and you can dream dreams
bigger than the sun
and no one will laugh at you
and I’m immature
with a wall
that blocks you out
because the maturity disease will not
like it already killed you
and in my world
I go on adventures
far more interesting than our lives
will ever be
and I’m sorry
that you had to miss out
on those adventures
because you wanted to get a head start in life
and I won’t let adolescence break me down
because I’m stronger than adolescence
and I will shake the earth with my dreams
and I will never be forgotten
and I don’t want you to be forgotten either
because money is a drug
and we’re all addicted to it
and it makes the skies black
and the world smokey
and that murderer who was hired to
kill a little girl
went home to his family
and ate for the first time
in so many days
and that girl
looked down from the skies
and knew that she had made that family
and she forgave them
and that man at the store who sells those cigarettes
sells them for money
and doesn’t feel the regret that used to well up in his heart
Educational Summer Activities For Kids In Los Angeles
June 13, 2014 5:00 AM
Writopia Lab First Presbyterian Church 1220 2nd St. Santa Monica, CA 90401 (323) 761-0453 www.writopialab.org
Making the art of creative writing fun is a positive step for all kids, even those who don’t (yet) see themselves as future JK Rowlings or Ernest Hemingways. This skill will be used throughout life in so many ways and in so many jobs that any summer class that encourages a better understanding of how to scribe in English will further your kids’ educational and lifetime advantages in any number of ways. With that said, Writopia Lab, located all over the city in Santa Monica, Silver Lake and Encino, gives kids instruction on how to write better by writing in all kinds of ways, from short stories to memoirs and beyond.
Join Genna Kohlhardt and Maddison Conforti from Writopia Lab DC for May’s installment of the Northeast Library’s continuing writing workshop series. For kids ages 10-13, Genna and Maddison will lead a fun
creative writing workshop including warm-up games to get students inspired, writing exercises led by published instructors, and an end-of-day reading. Writopia Lab focuses on student-driven instruction, so
attendees’ writing will be inspired by ideas they’re already interested in. Workshops provide a safe space for writers to create without judgment; students may write in whatever form
they wish, and about whatever content they choose. Attendees are encouraged to bring a laptop or iPad if they have one; pen and paper will be provided. The workshop takes place on Saturday, May 10, at 2 p.m.
Maddison Conforti happily joined the DC Writopia team in June 2013. She graduated from DePauw University with a BA in English and Latin and has an MFA from Columbia College Chicago where she fell in love with the essay and teaching writing. Maddison's work has appeared in Eye on the World and South Loop Review. Originally from Indiana, Maddison also dabbles in literary translation and is an expert napper, wanderluster, and lover of all things Italian.
Genna joined the Writopia DC team in the fall of 2013. Genna’s poems have been published or are forthcoming in Strange Machine, H_NGM_N, Fact-Simile, Jupiter 88 and The Anvil Lit Review. She received her MFA in poetry from Boise State University where she developed a love for teaching while working as teaching-writer and WITS resident at the Log Cabin Literary Center. In 2011 she founded Goodmorning Menagerie, a chapbook press dedicated to publishing works by well-known and emerging poets. Genna grew up in Colorado and graduated from the University of Colorado with a BA in English and Fine Art.
"Writopia Lab is a 501(c)3 organization that fosters joy, creativity, and critical thinking through creative writing. We run creative writing workshops for kids ages 6 to 18. All of our workshops have a maximum of seven students and are led by a published author or produced playwright who has been fully trained in our time-tested methodology. In each of the past six years, our students have won more recognition for their writing than any other group of students in the nation."
St. Gregory seniors win national contest for 10-minute play
Some playwrights write a lifetime and never see their work on stage.
It took high school seniors Peter Chipman and Victoria Stiely just two days.
That’s how long the St. Gregory College Preparatory School students had to collaborate on “Set Back,” a 10-minute comedy that has won a national competition funded by David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants. It’s headed to off-Broadway in May, where it will be part of the five-day Worldwide Plays Festival. This is not some low-budget reading — it will be produced, designed, directed and performed by New York City-based theater professionals.
That’s a big, big deal. And the $1,000 scholarship isn’t bad, either.
Here’s a look at how it all happened:
This is the fifth year New York City-based Writopia Lab has held this contest, open to students ages 6 to 18. Writopia is a 7-year-old nonprofit that offers workshops with professionals to young, budding creative writers across the country.
Five years ago, Writopia held its first national competition for young playwrights.
“We had an instructor who said he would love to produce some of the plays” students had written, said Jeremy Wallace-Segall, the organization’s chief operating officer. “We gave him a $2,000 budget, and in a two-day festival he produced and directed 19 plays.”
The next year, Wallace-Segall said, they were prepared to double the budget. That’s when Letterman’s production company stepped in, handing over $50,000 for the play competition. That amount is now up to $60,000, and the gift allows for a bang-up festival.
“We get submissions from all over the country,” Wallace-Segall said. “This year, we got over 400. It was wonderful.”
Judges for the 2014 competition included writers for “The Late Show With David Letterman,” filmmaker Finbarr Wilbrink and screenwriter Karl Gajdusek.
While submissions come from students who have attended the workshops, it’s open to all young writers. Chipman and Stiely have not attended any Writopia events, but their drama teacher at St. Gregory, Lisa Bodden, had received a flier in the mail and decided it would be a good project for her drama students.
“It was such a shot in the dark,” Bodden said. “But I knew the stakes were high, and the ultimate goal was the performance in New York. We had nothing to lose by trying.”
THE WRITING TEAM
Chipman and Stiely decided to write the play despite the looming deadline, just two days away.
Collaborating made sense to them.
“We’ve been friends since middle school, and we both write,” Stiely, 18, said as she sat in St. Gregory’s conference room Tuesday, Chipman at her side.
The two seem like lifelong friends — they laugh easily together and sometimes finish each other’s sentences.
After brainstorming ideas for the play, they went their separate ways.
“We went on Google docs and alternated the writing back and forth,” Stiely said.
“We would edit each other’s stuff and offer ideas.”
Their long friendship, and appreciation for each other’s humor, fueled the story.
“My humor is sarcasm, and Peter’s is absurdity,” Stiely explained.
While she loves to write, she has no doubt that the play needed both of them to succeed.
“It definitely wouldn’t be so good without Peter,” she said. “I appreciate his humor so much.”
Stiely started writing in earnest when she was in the eighth grade. Chipman started earlier than that, and has saved all his stories to prove it.
“I write ‘Tar Struck,’ episode-by-episode parodies of ‘Star Trek,’ ” said Chipman, 17. He’s been doing that since the fourth grade.
Chipman also published a parody of fantasy fiction last year, “An Epic of Novel Proportions” (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform), which is available on Amazon.com.
“Set Back” took the top honor for comedy in the high school category.
“Two actors walk on stage 10 minutes before curtain and realize the entire set is missing,” Chipman said. “It was a huge set.”
Indeed. The script refers to a diner, apartment, factory and underwater research station, now all gone. The props are, too.
The story takes place in real time, and while reading it you can sense the actors’ rising panic as they realize the gravity of the situation.
The only prop they can find in the theater is a case of beans. As the clock ticks away, and an audience paying $12 a ticket is about to be seated, they scramble to see how they can make the play work.
“Hey, the scene where Roberto and Alex crash the car into the recently renovated zoo?” one character says. “We can build the car out of the cans by stacking them. ... And when it crashes, we just knock them all down.”
HOW THEY HEARD
“We had both our email addresses on the script, but they only sent me one,” said Chipman, who got the message late last week.
He immediately texted Stiely with a bunch of jumbled letters that she understood to be screaming.
“I was totally confused,” she said.
Realizing she was at a loss as to the reason for his excitement, he forwarded her the email notifying them of the win.
“In the middle of dinner I read it and put my plate down — which was a big deal for me,” Stiely said.
Chipman and Stiely will go to New York City for the May staging of their play. But after that, they are headed in different directions.
Chipman plans to study computer science in college. The National Merit Scholarship finalist hasn’t decided where yet, but his top choice is California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Stiely plans to stick to writing for now and is headed to Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The liberal arts school is known for its strong writing program.
This week we hosted a reading for Writopia Lab, a national community of young writers. These young people were incredible. Their passion for writing, so unique and fresh, was inspiring to everyone passing through. Multiple customers stopped to listen to these mature insights coming from such young minds. The topics came from a wide range and included all genres. Some read touching personal essays about challenging experiences, while others wrote pieces in prose that exhibited an advanced concept of the personal voice. This was an event that our whole staff was excited about, we hope to see these young people keep up with their passions and their talents.
Writopia Lab: Fostering Joy, Literacy, and Critical Thinking in All Young People
April 11, 2013 by Dina McQueen
Writopia Lab incubated inside the active mind of founder and Executive Director Rebecca Wallace-Segall while she was teaching in the classrooms of New York City. Today, this vibrant non-profit has developed into one of our country’s premier writing programs for kids 8-18—no matter what.
In 2006, Wallace- Segall says, “I was hired by the principal of a [private] school where I was teaching on the Upper West Side to run a creative writing program that would bring enrichment to the middle school. “That year, “ she proudly says, “the kids won more writing awards than those from the top private and public schools.”
Though the reason for the students’ visible success may not at first be obvious, Wallace- Segall explains that in her program the kids were writing uncensored, fiction—serious and silly—as well as memoir. They were allowed to choose any topic they wanted. She treated her kids as writers (not students), and she was their editor. Without the externally imposed hierarchy of the regular English class curriculum, they wrote with freedom of expression. Wallace- Segall is certain that this formula, so to speak, is the reason, “it yielded such tremendous writing.”
Then, a new principal marched into the hallways and announced that the following Fall the program was going to be dropped. That was September 2007, and parental outcry was loud. Their children had truly come to life in Wallace Segall’s program; writing had become an active, meaningful, empowering experience.
At this time, as the parents battled it out with the private school’s administration, Wallace-Segal realized she actually wanted to take her program into the public sector so that a broader range of kids could get a chance to experience the program’s magic. It was the parents in those early classrooms that eventually helped Wallace-Segall found Writopia. Now, nobody is turned away. Tuition is based on a sliding scale model. Currently, 40% of the Lab’s participants are paying a lower fee, and 10-15% are on full scholarship. There is a no-questions-asked, no-application, pay-what-you-can policy. “And it’s done,” says Wallace-Segall.
Perhaps the most wonderful part of this story (non-fiction), is what the instructors witness daily, and the feedback parents provide. Low-income kids that enter the Writopia Lab perhaps fearing or loathing the act of writing, dramatically shift their points of view. “They develop a positive association with writing,” says Wallace-Segall. “And the quality of their writing is unbelievable,” she adds.
And, while statistically speaking there is not hard evidence, what can absolutely be observed is an increase in the numbers of low income and minority Writopia writers on stage accepting writing awards. And, this is news to shout about.
Writopia Lab is funded in part by the parents who are able to pay for their kids to participate, which enables those who need scholarships to get them. In addition, David Letterman is an annual donor; this year, Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, gave $60,000.
Writopia Lab has expanded its reach outside New York City. Today, programs are found in Greater New York, Washington D.C. and some surrounding towns, as well as Los Angeles. All labs are led by professional writers who have been trained in the Writopia Lab method.
Children have rich imaginations and they use it to dream up their own stories and plays. Guided by professional writers and playwrights from a group called Writopia Lab, dozens of children around the United States, from New York City to Washington and Los Angeles - are creating new works of fiction. As Faiza Elmasry tell us, the non-profit encourages passionate young writers to imagine, express and get published.
A Case for More Creative Writing—and Less Standardized Testing
By Rebecca Wallace-Segall
In this op-ed, Writopia founder Rebecca Wallace-Segall shares why we must create more safe spaces for kids to write.
March 18, 2013
Writopia Lab gives kids the change to express themselves through creative writing. (Photo c/o Writopia Lab) Each week last month, I packed six laptops into a backpack and traveled to the Clason’s Point Library in the Bronx to run a free writing workshop. At first, I had only planned on coming to the first session to help set up and oversee the workshop. That was until I worked with David Garcia, a teary-eyed eight-year-old, who wrote about a boy whose home was destroyed in a hurricane, and Zania Cousins, a 13-year-old African-American girl who is saddled by three younger sisters.
Zania wrote about running free through the city streets, in love, “with no sisters no waer in site.” Neither had heard of “quotation marks”—but both had vision and voices—and a profound need to reflect and write. I changed my schedule and co-ran the workshop over the following month.
We integrated literacy support into four weeks of rampant storytelling. We laughed and cried. There was a line out the door of kids who wanted to join us. Why?
“Because we can write whatever we want,” explained Zania. There is shrinking space for kids to write—and even read—fiction and memoirs during their schooling years. Teachers are increasingly forced to teach to the tests, and students are under more pressure than ever to focus only on testable materials.
And the truth is, even when given space to write in the past, that work was for the most part heavily censored by the school or self-censored by self-protective students.
Recently, a parent of an 11-year-old child at a top public school wrote on her Facebook page: “My son is losing 11 points on a science fiction writing assignment because it involves a serial killer... Except: It's only about a serial killer in that it's about a trio of students who use their chemistry smarts to make a truth serum that gets an evil vice principal to admit that he's a serial killer... Story has no guns, no gunplay, no corpses, no killing, no details about methods of killing—just the fact that a serial killer exists.”
How nerve-wracking for a child. An allusion in his writing caused him to be penalized. In one fell swoop, this once-enthusiastic writer immediately felt discouraged and disconnected from his school community.
In all fairness, teachers are under constant surveillance by their administration, the Board of Education, and their parent body. Censorship is embraced by all because most parents and teachers become anxious by the dark corners of youth experience and by the slim chance that anything horrific should happen at their school or to their child.
But it is possible to allow youth the deep pleasure of exploring character, aspects of themselves, and human behavior within narratives even in the confines of a school.
In 2006, I ran my first in-school, uncensored workshops and the participants won more Scholastic Writing Awards that year than any other group of writers in New York City. Since 2008, Writopia writers have won more national awards than any other teens in the entire country.
The secret is simple—a safe space. Writopia is a place where silly ideas are taken seriously and where serious ideas do not cause alarm. Because authentic, inspired writing is better writing. All writers know that when we feel pride in our work, we become more enthusiastic about revision and mechanical precision.
When visitors come to Writopia, they say: I had no idea that kids could write so well. This is because no one lets them.
And, after it all, the participants reap the greatest reward: a written record, documenting exactly how they were feeling, thinking, imagining at a certain moment in their lives. Most of us do not have such a thing because censorship of youth experience is as old as the Bible. But it's more urgent than ever that we encourage kids and teens to imagine new possibilities, and to write their thoughts and reflections in the form of fictional and personal narratives.
There is a literacy crisis at hand. American tenth graders place close to the bottom among developed nations on literacy exams, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education's 2011 Policy Brief. This is alarming for the U.S. as it compromises the nation’s capacity to compete in a knowledge-based economy.
Writing is a gatekeeper to the most promising jobs. According to a College Board report, “in today’s workplace writing is a ‘threshold skill’ for hiring and promotions.”
The answer is not additional standardized tests and monotonous test prep. Finland, for example, has managed to educate their youth and avoid a test prep culture. So can we—in our own, culture-appropriate way.
When visitors come to Writopia, they say: I had no idea that kids could write so well.
This is because no one lets them.
Once upon a time. . . young writers put on the prose
Tomorrow’s J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or Toni Morrison might be in a room at Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church, near Tenley Circle. That’s where you will find the Writopia Lab, an organization devoted to helping kids from 8 to 18 give voice to their inner novelist.
It’s Tuesday afternoon and Kirsten Vanderhorst, 9, is working on a story about Annoy Girl, so called because the protagonist is constantly begging for stuff. (“She asks her parents for an iPad 8, even though she already has an iPad 1 through 7,” Kirsten explains.) Paul Medina, 8, has added a new action scene to “Monster Book 1” and is already thinking about its sequel, “Monster Book 2.” Isabella Carre-Diaz, 8, is deep into a story about a magical pond whose inhabitants are dying. Eight-year-old London Lawson’s story is about a woman who turned evil after being bullied as a child. His sister Jasmine, 9, says she’s working on three tales at once.
And Sophia Lager, 9, is almost done with her first short story, “The Very Odd Birthday,” about a girl named Anna whose little brother, Max, bugs her endlessly.
The 8- and 9-year-olds are tapping away on laptops.
“Who is stuck?” asks instructor Kathy Crutcher, the D.C. director of Writopia and a published writer herself, with an MFA from the University of Arizona.
“I’m not stuck,” Paul says.
And, in fact, nobody is stuck.
You will not find writer’s block in this room. The kids are little plot engines. They haven’t developed that doubt and self-loathing common to many writers, that fear that your work stinks, that you’ll be found out, that your approaching deadline will suffocate you, that there is nothing more horrible than a blank screen, with its pitiless cursor blinking like an unforgiving eye. . . .
Sorry. Where was I?
Perhaps the kids are comfortable just because they’re kids. But there’s also the careful way that Kathy and 11 other instructors work, helping but never leading. This isn’t a rigid class, more like a workshop where the budding writers learn by reading one another’s work and hearing theirs discussed.
“What are some of the big principles?” Kathy asks.
“Setting, plot,” says London, sprawled on a blue beanbag.
“A climax,” offers Paul, scrunched in the corner of a couch.
Many of the Writopians carry notebooks and scribble in them endlessly: natural writers. Others are struggling at school and need more help.
“We’re trying to create a trusting environment,” Kathy tells me. “They write about anything they want. There are no prompts they have to answer. Nothing is off limits, no story can be too silly.”
The program started in New York in 2007 and came to Washington in 2009. Since then, its students have won all sorts of honors, including at the Scholastic Writing Awards, a sort of teenage Booker Prize.
Such attention isn’t inexpensive. The 10-week writing workshop, held at several locations in the District, is $525, although there is a sliding scale for families who can’t afford that.
“Some pay the full fee and go to the fanciest schools in D.C.,” Kathy says. “There are lots who pay a lower tier. If someone calls me and says, ‘My 10-year-old son wants to write screenplays. I don’t have the money to pay for this program,’ I say, ‘Okay, great. Bring him in.’ We don’t turn anyone away for financial reasons.”
Toward the end of the workshop, Kathy reads the afternoon’s output aloud. In Sophia’s story, Anna sees her birthday sleepover ruined when Max gets sick. But Anna finds herself worried about him, too, saying in the words Sophia has written for her: “And even though he sometimes wasn’t very nice to me, I still cared about him.”
When Kathy is done reading, Paul says: “I liked the emotion. It’s so . . . loving.”
Isabella pipes up. “For me, instead of ‘loving,’ I’d say ‘caring.’ But I’m also wondering what will happen the next day.”
One story is over, but lots more are beginning.
Bands on the run
There’s a fundraiser Friday night at the Black Cat for Writopia and Reach Inc., a charity that enlists D.C. middle-schoolers to mentor younger kids. Six journalist-led bands are competing in the fifth-annual Journopalooza. My band, the Stepping Stones, won last year with our tribute to the late Monkee Davy Jones. We’ll be back to try and retain our crown. Other bands include Butter, Cheaper Than Therapy, Dirty Bomb, Suspicious Package and Nobody’s Business.
Tickets are $30 at the door. For information, visit journopalooza.com.
Youngsters expand their imaginations under the guidance of professional writers in this nonprofit organization’s summer programs. Kids work with a published author to create a piece of fiction, a memoir or a poem, or opt for the Playwriting and Performance session, where they spend time with a playwright, composing an original play. Camp runs June 10–Aug 30, Mon–Fri 9am–4pm, 9:30am–noon, 1–4pm or 4–7pm. Two-week session $1,600 (full day), $1,020 (half day); one-week session $850 (full day), $560 (half day). Ages 6 to 18.
By Rebecca Wallace-Segall, Founder and Executive Director of Writopia Lab
Some fiction and memoir programs are a waste of classroom time. Others sharpen students' thinking and provide them with unmatched insight. Good teachers know the difference.
"I'm not sure if eight-year-olds should be permitted to have death or murder references in their short stories," said a New York City public school principal to me at the end of the day today. "But I'll set a meeting with my teachers tomorrow to discuss your views and theirs and see where we get."
Three hours later, I am still moved and humbled by the principal's thoughtful consideration of a topic so new and strange to her. We had just started a residency in her school. We had discussed a no-censorship approach for this workshop and the children had immediately come to life when they were told they could write a fictional story about anything they wanted.
But by week two, some of the teachers were concerned to see the heavy material that emerged, here and there, throughout the grade, from the special ed class to the "gifted and talented." Human beings young and old love exploring dark, fantastical themes. But what are we supposed to think when our youngest members do it? When should our admiration turn to worry, and when does it become a school's responsibility?
It is not easy to teach creative writing within the confinement of school. It is not easy to tackle the issues that arise, and it's not easy to learn how to teach fiction and memoir writing well. But it is possible. And many teachers are doing it, and doing it well, across the country.
David Coleman, the cynical architect of the new curriculum that will be imposed on public schools in 46 states over the next two years, is trying to reverse an education trend "that favors self-expression and emotion over lucid communication." But skilled teachers of creative genres have always known that all good writing requires lucid communication. It is impossible to teach any form of writing without applying and celebrating analytic concepts and mechanical precision.
If young people are not learning to write while exploring personal narratives and short fiction, it is because we as educators need more training -- or the specifics of the curriculum need development. It is not because those forms of writing in themselves are of no use.
Where will we be if we graduate a generation of young people who can write an academic paper on the Civil War but have no power to convey the human experience?
There's a reason fiction and narrative nonfictionoutsell all other genres in the U.S. It's the same reason there are 56 million WordPress blogs and 76 million Tumblrs. Human beings yearn to share, reflect, and understand one another, and they use these reflections to improve the state of things, both personal and public. If we want our students to have this kind of impact, we have to teach them to express themselves with both precision and passion.
My own non-profit partners with schools on serious fiction and memoir writing programs. We know it is possible to implement high-level creative writing instruction for young people because our students win more Scholastic Writing Awards each year than any other group of children and teens in the nation. Not all creative writing curricula are created equal, and we stay true to our vision as we help eight-year-olds learn to write compelling, coherent short stories with creative transitions, character wants, obstacles, climax, dialogue, and resolve.
In our work, we're reminded again and again that fiction writing is as important as any other genre for children and teens as they learn to write. It not only provides them with a safe space to make sense of the human dynamics around them, but it teaches them writing at the highest level, going beyond lucidity into the realm of literary tension, and then further into humor, narrative complexity, abstraction, and metaphor.
Our writers put arguments forth, embedded within well-organized, linear narratives in various voices. The themes of their fiction then inspire the deepest of dialogues in the classroom, spur debates about race and class assumptions and other social issues, and invite empathy. As we like to say at Writopia, plot builds character. This type of dynamic discourse helps our students grow as people and thinkers -- and of course, as writers.
And, on top of it all, it's engaging. When we work with students on creative pieces, they become riveted by their stories before the end of the first lesson. Children with class-based literacy issues love trying their hand at fiction; elite children of famous authors love it as well. Students across America should write fiction before anything else, and they should continue to work on it side-by-side with academic writing. They should be given creative assignments as a reward for writing a fabulous research paper.
What's more, a piece of fiction can be persuasive, and a memoir can be informative. Educators who are serious about this kind of writing make sure each piece is workshopped until it is compelling. And honest. And revealing of human nature. And sometimes funny, but always surprisingly complex to the outsider. As at New Dorp, the high school profiled in a recentAtlantic article, our students learn transition words, or "coordinating conjunctions," as they write. In some cases, they begin to grasp these concepts as young as eight years old.
Creative writing can be vulnerable work, so we usually dive into story first and analyze sentences and structure toward the end. But literacy issues necessarily come up along the way, and they are addressed. How can one write an impactful story without properly using "although," "but," and "unless," or without considering if/then, why, and how? How can anyone write an award-winning or even publishable story without establishing a strong sense of character or providing illustrative evidence?
Creative writing also provides something that no number of expository assignments can. The insights and challenges that arise when we face when teaching uncensored fiction are surpassed only when we teach uncensored memoir writing. When I first started teaching creative writing in schools, Rami, one of my light-hearted 7th grade boys, had been working on a memoir with me for a month and finally decided to share it with a small workshop of his peers. It was about not feeling masculine. We were all stunned. I caught sight of one girl holding his hand for support.
These moments of self-awareness are rare in a typical classroom, and all it takes is one adult to shatter them. When the principal of Rami's school became privy to the memoir, she simply scoffed, "Oh, Rami, trying to get attention again." Rami turned pale; he didn't write again for months. Thankfully, later that year, he won a regional Scholastic Award for his memoir.
When David Coleman remarked that "no one gives a shit" about how kids think and feel, perhaps he was only exaggerating to make his point -- which was that thoughts and feelings don't make an impact unless they're bolstered by skill and evidence. But there truly areeducators, like Rami's principal, who don't care about self-expression. Their detachment is not helping students become better writers. Instead, it is sending a message that nothing they have to say is worthwhile, especially if it is about something personal.
For now, children across the country continue to write personal narratives within schools. Some of them are engaged in it, some are bored by it, and some hate it. Some write well-crafted, reflective pieces, while others speak superficially about the minute details of their lives. Some struggle with basic literacy issues. Others struggle with psychological barriers that keep them from writing. Some teachers have made an art of teaching narratives. Others are frustrated because they've been stuck with a curriculum that they know is not best for their students.
Coleman and others may have this last kind of classroom in mind when they argue that writing memoir is a waste of young people's time. But while depriving young people of basic writing skills does them a disservice, silencing their personal voices may hold them back as well. How much harder will it be for a student who has only written academic prose to write a fluid, reflective, and engaging personal essay for college admittance?
And where will we be as a nation if we graduate a generation of young people who can write an academic paper on the Civil War but have no power to convey the human experience? If Frederick Douglass had stopped writing his narrative on slavery because he felt he could not be at once a lucid communicator and an expressive, emotional being, where would this world be?
This has been a busy month for Rachel and Gillian Page (Deal Middle School) and Sarah Cooke (Sidwell Friends School.) Over the course of three weeks, these talented young writers have given a reading at Politics and Prose, had their plays produced Off-Broadway in New York City, and this Friday will be celebrated at Carnegie Hall as National Medalists in the Scholastic Writing Awards.
All three students are members of a growing community of young writers in Greater Washington formed by the non-profit organization Writopia Lab, which is based locally in Tenleytown. At Writopia Lab, writers ages 8-18 gather in small peer groups to work with published writers on their own short stories, memoirs, and plays.
It was through Writopia Lab's Worldwide Plays Festival in New York City that these writers' plays were produced last week in 59e59 Theater by professional actors and directors. Rachel and Gillian, along with fellow Writopians Eva Shapiro (Deal MS), Sofia Laguarda (Deal MS), and Jen McLish (Maret), wrote and submitted their play as a group to the competition, and their one-act drama about a family going through a divorce was selected for the two-week-long festival. Sarah Cooke's play about a woman saving a man's life was also selected for full production.
Through the Scholastic Writing Awards, administered locally by Writopia Lab, these writers plus ten more from Greater Washington were named National Medalists, meaning that their short stories, plays, poetry, and essays were among the top 1% selected to be honored from over 200,000 submissions nationwide. Locally these writers were celebrated via a reading at Politics and Prose on May 12, and this Friday, June 1, they will be commended in a National Awards ceremony at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Earlier this spring, Writopia Lab honored 225 local teens on the regional level for the Scholastic Writing Awards and published a collection of DC's Best Teen Writing, on sale at Politics and Prose as well as Busboys and Poets.
"We are thrilled to support and encourage these young writers," says Kathy Crutcher, DC Director for Writopia Lab. "We take the writing of kids and teens seriously, and every day we are inspired--and humbled--by the power of their voices."
Congratulations to Rachel, Gillian, and Sarah, as well as the other playwrights and Scholastic Award winners from Greater Washington.
To learn more about ways to get involved in next year's WorldWide Plays Festival, Scholastic Writing Awards, and/or Writopia Lab workshops, contact
. Summer programming is available.
Still shopping for a summer camp for your kid? We realize the number of choices can feel overwhelming. There are literally hundreds of NYC day camps to choose from, and it seems like new ones pop up every year.
That's why we've rounded up the ten most innovative and enriching new summer camps making their debuts this summer. At these cool new camps, kids can create awesome robots, make like Jeremy Lin on the basketball court, start on the great American novel, commune with nature, or grab a hammer and nails and start building. These camps sound so awesome we want to go!
Writopia Lab Summer Camp– Upper West Side 155 West 81st Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues Monday, July 9-Friday, July 20, Monday, August 6-Friday, August 17, 9am-4pm Ages 9-18 $850 per week, $1,600 for two weeks. Extended hours available for an additional fee. This veteran writing program for school-aged kids is hosting its first-ever summer camps. In Fiction and Fun, kids work on fiction, memoir, poetry or scripts with the help of a published author. In Playwriting and Performance, dramatists help children pen plays and musicals, with a final performance for family and friends. There will also be lit-themed field trips to publishing houses like Penguin Books and "character" kickball in Central Park.
NEW YORK—Writopia Lab is located in a home-like office in the Upper West Side, nearly unnoticeable from the outside. Only a few placards in the windows indicate that something special is happening behind the door.
Writopia is a community of young writers, aged 8–18, who learn together to bring out their voices and creativity. Writopia, founded by Rebecca Wallace-Segall in 2007 has since grown to other cities, offering children and teens opportunities to polish and showcase their work—whether it be a poem, a play, a novel or a short story—with the help and guidance of accomplished professionals.
Segall's writing career started in journalism. For 10 years she reported for The Village Voice. After leaving the newspaper she began teaching creative writing in public and private schools in the city. A private school then hired her to develop a creative writing program. But a change in management brought about a dispute over the necessity of the classes, driving Segall to found Writopia.
The Epoch Times: Looking at what you have accomplished over the past years, how do you feel about the work you are doing?
Rebecca Wallace-Segall: I feel like the luckiest person in New York City. I either get to work with the most creative, engaged kids, who are so happy to be here—everyone is happy here—or I get to work with kids who are struggling, that their parents sent them here, and we get to watch them change and grow.
Epoch Times: Are there any common themes in the kids' work? Maybe themes inspired by the city or other things?
Segall: Very dark. I don't know if that is just adolescent in general [or something unique to New York City]. We are talking about middle school and high school; everyone dies [in their work]. I read this one amazing play a kid submitted to a competition that we ran. No one died. It was this beautiful father-son relationship—really subtle. At first they were disconnected, by the end they were connected or understood each other. I asked: “What inspired this beautiful play?” He answered: “My father died.”
It was interesting to me that our kids here, who have not experienced this pain, are imagining the pain, doing it in a crude way. They are exploring it. The kid who really experienced it did this wonderful, subtle play.
They are excited to come to a place they can be dark. In school if you write a dark theme you are sent to the guidance councilor. We do not censor at all. We process, we talk, but we do not censor.
Epoch Times: How have you changed since you founded Writopia?
Segall: It is hard to be meta on my own life. ... I did not have enough therapy in the last few years to answer that. My life changed. Everything in my life changed so it is hard to answer. I got married a few months after we launched Writopia. My whole life has change: we got married. I had kids.
At this point, Segall shouts to husband for help: “How did I change since Writopia?” “You became a more confident public speaker,” he replies.
As a journalist, it was the worse thing in the world if I was asked to talk on the radio for example. Real panic responses. Part of the problem was that I never really felt like an expert. Now I speak once a month at least. I speak regularly and I love it.
Just having to be a role model for kids ... that is the real answer to your question. I moved from being an adult that is really a child—running around NYC having a great time—not really responsible for anyone or anything, now I have all these eyes on me of these amazing young people. Now I have the responsibility to them to be strong, to be weak, to be honest.
Public speaking is a huge thing, but it is part of all of that.
Last Saturday the Voracious Reader, Larchmont, N.Y., celebrated the grand opening of its new café, called "a proper cup." Owner Francine Lucidon and Mayor Josh Mandell cut the ribbon as readers/tea drinkers looked on. Besides free chocolate, free posters and craft making, events included signings by Rob Sharenow, author of Berlin Boxing Club (HarperCollins); New York Times columnist Alina Tugend, author of Better by Mistake (Riverhead Books); Charise Harper, author and illustrator of Cupcake (Hyperion); and Lena Roy, author of Edges (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Roy, who is a granddaughter of Madeleine L'Engle, is also director of Writopia Westchester, which offers writing workshops for kids, some of which will be held at the Voracious Reader this summer.
Lucidon commented on why she opened the café: "In these rapidly changing times almost everyone seems to be selling books, from the local hardware store to the super market. The answer to these changes is not to sell more stuff, be it toys or T-shirts, but to look at the larger picture.
"We want to create a hub for book culture... a place where readers and writers mingle, a community of ideas and interests, and a place where families can catch their breath and regroup from the overscheduled, hyperpaced lives the times seem to demand... a place to slow down and smell the tea."
Shelf Awareness: Daily Enlightenment for the Book Trade, is a free e-newsletter for booksellers, librarians and others in the book business that keeps them up to date on everything they need to know to buy and lend books most wisely.
In the week leading up to the Tony Awardson June 12, ArtsBeat is asking several New Yorkers who are not Tony voters to pick their favorite shows, actors and designers in The New York Times’s interactive Tonys ballot.
Today’s ballot comes from Jenny Richards, a 12-year-old who attends the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Jenny was a participant in this year’s Writopia Lab’s Best Playwrights Festival, a weeklong Off Broadway presentation of more than 40 plays and 8 monologues by writers in grades 1 through 12. (Her entry was a play called “Two Tailing,” about a love triangle between Aphrodite, Hephaestus and Ares.)
Jenny recently spoke with ArtsBeat about her favorite nominated shows and actors, including Daniel Radcliffe’s J. Pierrepont Finch. (She filled out her ballot with the help of her mother, Nancy Richards, a former theater producer who now runs a marketing and promotions company.) Following are excerpts from the conversation.
You chose “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” for best revival of a musical. What did you like about it?
I thought it was really smart and I think they cast it really well. I love the songs. It flowed really well. They had the audience really grabbed.
Are you a fan of Daniel Radcliffe?
I like Harry Potter. I think he did O.K. But I think John Larroquette did amazing. It think he definitely should win feature actor in a musical. He’s very funny.
I think Daniel Radcliffe did a good job trying to do his American accent. But his singing was O.K.
What other musicals did you see this year?
I saw “Catch Me if You Can.” I thought it was O.K. The lead male was very smart and you really gravitated to him. I think he was very interesting to watch. I think I really enjoyed the period in which it took place. I haven’t seen the movie but after seeing the show I definitely want to.
I also saw “Priscilla.” It was very fun. I loved the costumes first of all. It made you want to dance in your seat. I also love the song “I Will Survive.” I sort of forgot that Tony Sheldon plays a woman. I really started caring about him. I think he could win.
How about the best plays? What stood out for you?
“War Horse.” I loved what they did with the horses. They seemed so real. I really cared about them. It wasn’t my favorite because it was a little sad, too sad, for me. But I thought it had a really great concept. It put my heart out there and made me really feel the emotions.
I also saw “Brief Encounter.” I loved the direction and the ensemble. The stage effects were also amazing. Also when the characters walk into the movie, the scene becomes wonderful. I became very involved.
How do you get to see so many Broadway shows?
My mom used to be a marketer-slash-producer. I’m like a Broadway baby. I’ve seen many, many, many shows and plays. I really enjoy going. I feel really privileged that I get to do this.
Do you want to be onstage someday?
When I was younger I used to like to act but not so much anymore. Now I’m a writer.
Dan Kitrosser said the dress rehearsal had gone well.
“I knew because the lighting designer asked how old was the kid who wrote this play, and I got to say, ‘12,’ ” he said. “Every single show we go through, it’s the same question: ‘How old was the person who wrote that?’ ”
Mr. Kitrosser, the artistic director of the Writopia Lab’sBest Playwrights Festival, will be getting that question a lot in the next few days. The festival, a weeklong Off Broadway presentation of more than 40 plays and 8 monologues by writers in grades 1 through 12, begins on Tuesday at the June Havoc Theater, at 312 West 36th Street.
Most of the plays are the work of students in the Writopia Lab, a nonprofit group that runs writing workshops for children and teenagers. But this year, the Writopia Lab reviewed submissions from young writers outside its community and chose seven works that will be presented during the festival.
To stage the plays, Writopia recruited grownup actors and directors, including Terry Berliner, the resident director of “The Lion King,” and Isaac Byrne, the director of the Off Broadway thriller “Fresh Kills.”
Seeing your own play performed is a big step for would-be playwrights, and an instructive one, Mr. Kitrosser said. “They get to see how many routes actors and directors can take their words and stay true to their text,” he said. “That’s important, because there are the artsy actors in high school who get the applause during their performances and the athletes who get their cheers. But writing is a lonely business. There’s not much of a place for recognition or for socializing.”
The festival’s sponsor is David Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants. Mr. Kitrosser said that Steve Young, a writer on the “Late Show With David Letterman,” made the introduction. His daughters, Hannah Young, 14, and Rebecca Shubert, 17, have taken part in Writopia workshops.
“We asked for $45,000,” Mr. Kitrosser said. “When Rebecca called” with word that the money had come through, “she did the joke: ‘They didn’t give us $45,000, they gave us $50,000.’ ”
Grier Montgomery has had quite an interesting few weeks. Besides the excitement of the looming summer vacation and his upcoming 13th birthday, the seventh grader has just become an award-winning playwright.
This means that amid the usual challenges of homework and junior high, Grier has had to contend with a little bit of spotlight frenzy as a play written for a school assignment at middle school MS 51, the William Alexander School in Park Slope, has just found its way into the hands of a professional theater team.
The play, titled “The Assignment,” was selected from a pool of 115 works submitted toWritopiaLab's 2011 Best Playwrights’ Festival, funded by David Letterman's World Wide Pants production company. It was performed at Manhattan’s June Havoc Theater on May 22nd.
“It's been an amazing, crazy three weeks!” begins Grier, who lives in Carroll Gardens, shaking his head as if in disbelief on a recent afternoon on Court Street, where he caught up with Patch to discuss his recent success.
No stranger to the creative arts—his father is an actor and his mother is herself a writer—Grier nonetheless never saw himself winning prizes for his work.
“When I got home from school and my mom shouted 'You're being produced!' I was shocked! I thought some genius in Connecticut was going to win it.”
The 12 year old is charismatic and well spoken, and openly admits to pre-show jitters and the surreal circumstances of having a school project that quite literally took on a life of its own. In fact, perhaps the most nerve-wracking moment of this process was the opening night of May 22nd, when the young playwright sat in the front row of the June Havoc Theater.
“I was shivering and shaking in my seat. I'm a big perfectionist, a big tweaker—but it was so amazing. The producer and actors took my idea straight out of my head—it was exactly how I imagined it.”
One could hardly say that the new-found legacy has gone to his head, and he is quick to point out influences and inspiration where credit is due—particularly John McEneny, his MS 51 theater teacher.
“I have to say I owe so much to Mr. McEneny. He totally pushed me, and totally inspired me to take this further than I ever thought it would go.”
As for the piece itself, Grier describes it as somewhat autobiographical. “It's about a boy who's about 12 years old, like me, who is pretty smart but doesn't try very hard, like me. And in writing class he writes an awful play about dodge ball – which I actually did.” After being mocked by fellow classmates, the boy is given a final chance to redeem himself in the class, describing an argument he overhears between his parents—and “The Assignment” is born.
The play soon departs from real life with some very dark turns. Murder and scandal make for a gripping plot, and Grier again credits his teachers for allowing him to explore the sinister side of theater. “My writing teacher Ms. [Felicia] O'Hara, she’s great. She let me go where I wanted to go. She allows us to use language we want to use, and she doesn't repress [the students].”
The piece is effectively a play within a play, where perspectives shift between a boy experiencing serious troubles at home, and watching real life circumstances come to life through a homework assignment. The sophisticated use of the power of perspective lenses, how we cope with emotional troubles, and the changing capacity of the creative arts to alter our own sense of reality are strong themes throughout “The Assignment,” and it is no wonder that the work caught the eyes of WritopiaLab's contest judges.
On how writing has influenced his life so far, Grier admits that he was not always enthusiastic. “I didn't really discover writing stuff until this year—I always grouped it together with school.” And now? “Now writing almost seems like the whole of my life...it's made me look at the world differently. You can fill up thousands of pages about anything—it’s crazy. I feel like I should always have a pen and pad on me, because anything can be an idea. I've learned that if you look into yourself – if you really look, you can find something you are really good at, something you already have.””
The middle schooler reflected on the challenges of writing—dread of deadlines, fear of audiences not understanding, or approving, of his work. But still, he plans to stick with writing for a little while—including an upcoming summer WritopiaLab workshop he plans to attend.
As for the future, Grier Montgomery hopes to one day be “a successful person in theater—wherever I can fit. Moving equipment, editing—anything to do with the with arts.”
Weekend Feature: City Nonprofit Helps Nurture Young Writers
Writer, performer and artistic director of the Writopia Lab's Best Playwrights' Festival Dan Kitrosser recently sat down with NY1's Kristen Shaughnessy to discuss the non-profit's workshops for kids in grades one through 12.
For the first time in 88 years, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards came to the Washington metropolitan area on Friday, April 15 to acknowledge work by local students. The awards are administered nationally by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and locally by the new regional affiliate, Writopia Lab, with the help of the DC Area Writing Project.
Works are evaluated according to the following criteria: technical skill, and emergence of a personal voice. This year’s jurors included professional writers and DCPS teachers associated with the DC Writing Area Project. Sponsors for the program include: Eugene Profit, the founder of Profit Investment Management, Busboys and Poets and Charles P. Rogers.
Fourteen local students won National Writing Awards, 48-plus regional winners live or attend school in Alexandria including the two national winners. The regional award winners were chosen from submissions that include the District of Columbia; Montgomery County, Md.; Arlington County; Fairfax County, and the City of Alexandria.
"We are thrilled to bring the Scholastic Writing Awards to Greater Washington," said Kathy Crutcher, director of the Writopia Lab, at the ceremony. "Surprisingly, Washington D.C. had not had a local affiliate for this recognition program since 1990, and even then only for art. This meant that our creative teens had limited opportunities to be honored at a high level for their artistic abilities."
For more information visit http://www.writopialab.org/parenthetical/
Writing students that were regionally honored include: Noir Abdel-Ghani of Marshall High School, Munawwar Abdulla of Fairfax High School, Nathan Ammons of Oakton High School, Eli Auerhan of Thomas Jefferson High School, Olivia August of H-B Woodlawn, Luisa Banchoff of Washington-Lee High School, Julie Brooks of Washington-Lee High School, Anne Budway of H-B Woodlawn, Emily Cali of Robinson Secondary, Mircea Cernev of Thomas Jefferson High School, Danna Chavez Calvi of Falls Church High School, Samantha Clark of Langley High School, Meghan Coyle of Hayfield High School, Emily Crowe of Thomas Jefferson High School, Michael Crumplar of Thomas Jefferson High School, Jenny Davis of Yorktown High School, Araba Dennis of Lake Braddock Secondary, Samantha DeStefano of Thomas S. Wooton High School, Kateri Gajadhar of Gunston Middle School, Haley Hassell of St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School, Julie Hirschorn of Edison High School, Lisa Junta of Thomas Jefferson High School, Tiffany Keung of Winston Churchill High School, Sarah Khan and Rachel Kim and Sung jin Kim and Elizabeth King of Thomas Jefferson High School, Hannah Kwon of Herndon High School, Nadia Laher of Lake Braddock Secondary, Nayan Lamba of Thomas Jefferson High School, Anna LeValley of H-B Woodlawn, Hall Libby of Thomas Jefferson High School, Maggie Lin Of Oakton High School, Lucia Liu and Ronit Malka of Thomas Jefferson High School, Marwan Lloyd of Nysmith School for the Gifted, Audrey Michels of The Madeira School, Andrea Mirviss of Winston Churchill High School, Vy-Anh Nguyen of Fairfax High School, Molly Norrbom of H-B Woodlawn, Macara Oshida of Woodson High School, Han Raut of Madison High School, Sierra Sanchez of Yorktown High School, Sara Suarez of Thomas Jefferson High School, Melissa Vasquez of H-B Woodlawn, Katherine Werner of Oakton High School, Amanda Whitehurst of Woodson High School and Amy and Angela Woolsey of Madison High School.
Regional winners of the scholastic writing awards (Courtesy Photo)
On Thursday, April 14th, 122 teen writers from Greater Washington--19 of whom are from Alexandria, were honored at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre as regional winners in the Scholastic Writing Awards, the country’s largest, longest-running, and most prestigious writing competition for teens.
14 local writers were also celebrated as National Medalists in the competition, which means that they will be honored at Carnegie Hall in New York City on May 31st. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has declared this day “Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Day,” and the top of the Empire State Building will be lit gold in honor of their accomplishments. Of the 185,000 art and writing submissions received across the country, only 1500 (less than 1%) received National Medals.
Two of these National Medalists live or attend school in Alexandria. Katherine Mitchell, 17, Silver Medalist for her Senior Portfolio of creative writing, lives in Alexandria and goes to the National Cathedral School. Rachel Kim, 17, won a Silver Medal for poetry. Rachel attends Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria and lives in Burke.
Throughout the program’s 88 year history, this is the first time that the Scholastic Writing Awards has had a presence in Greater Washington. Writopia Lab, a nonprofit organization that holds creative writing workshops for kids and teens, brought the program to the area, with the help of the DC Area Writing Project.
"We are thrilled to bring this outstanding program to Greater Washington,” said Kathy Crutcher, DC Director of Writopia Lab. “Students who excel in academics or sports have ample opportunities for recognition. This is the chance for talented, creative kids to show their stuff."
Writopia Lab will hold week-long creative writing workshops in Old Town Alexandria this summer for writers ages 8-18. In these workshops, published writers serve as mentors for small groups of 4-6 writers and help them prepare for competitions like the Scholastic Writing Awards and/or to develop their creativity and writing talents.
At the Regional Awards Ceremony, all writers introduced themselves and their awards on-stage. DC area poet and Book-in-a-Day founder Kwame Alexander gave the keynote address, and author Danielle Evans, American University professor of creative writing and one of the Head Judges for the Regional Awards, honored the top regional winners. To close the program, DC actors Catherine Frels and Kait Manning performed dramatic readings of the National Gold Medal winning works.
Regional Award recipients come from public, private, and home- schools throughout the Greater Washington region, which included the District of Columbia; Montgomery County, MD; Arlington County, VA; and Fairfax County, VA. 122 teen writers won 183 regional awards, including 32 Gold Key winning works, which went on to national adjudication. 16 of these works, by 14 different writers, were selected for national awards.
This year’s National Award recipients from Greater Washington are:
Mary Salmonsen (17), Olney, MD -- American Voices Medal Sofia Laguarda (12), Washington, DC -- Gold Medal Lillie Lainoff (15), Washington, DC -- Gold Medal Maria Brescia-Weiler (14), Washington, DC -- Gold Medal Andrea Mirviss (18), Potomac, MD -- Gold Medal Luisa Banchoff (15), Arlington, VA -- Gold Medal Isaac Stanley-Becker (17), Washington, DC -- Gold Medal, Silver Medal Annie Rosenthal (13), Washington, DC -- Silver Medal Christine Miranda (17), Germantown, MD -- Silver Medal Ruthie Prillaman (16), Potomac, MD -- Silver Medal Rachel Kim (17), Burke, VA -- Silver Medal Olivia August (16), Arlington, VA -- Silver Medal Grace McNamee (18), Bethesda, MD -- 2 Silver Medals Katherine Mitchell (17), Alexandria, VA -- Silver Medal
Katherine Mitchell (Courtesy Photo)
These students join the ranks of some of our country’s most revered artists and writers who have received Scholastic Art & Writing Awards when they were high school, including Robert Redford, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, John Lithgow, Joyce Carol Oates, John Baldesarri, Philip Pearlstein, Zac Posen, Sylvia Plath, Richard Avedon, Robert Indiana and Abdi Farah (winner of the Bravo reality show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist).
Since 1923, the Awards have recognized more than 13 million students and made available over $25 million in scholarships. They continue to be the nation’s largest source of scholarships for young artists and writers. The program is generously supported locally by Profit Investment Management, Busboys and Poets, and Charles P. Rogers, and nationally by Scholastic Inc., Maurice R. Robinson Foundation, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Command Web Offset, AMD Foundation, The New York Times, Dick Blick Co., Ovation, and New York Life Foundation.
Teddy Beckebersr-Jacob speaks quickly and voluminously about writing, hinting at an obvious passion for his craft. He describes a recent play he has written—about a middle-aged man, frustrated with his lot in life—in abstract terms that are reminiscent of a young Samuel Beckett or Edward Albee. Although his eloquence is an obvious sign of this playwright’s talent and curiosity, there is one fact about this New Yorker that makes his wisdom so surprising: he is 14.
The young Becker-Jacob is one of hundreds of young writers that each year pass through the doors of Writopia Lab, a nonprofit workshop series that offers young people ages eight to 18 the opportunity to practice and share their work. With locations stretching from a brand new facility on Court Street to Washington, D.C., Writopia is helping budding wordsmiths express themselves in ways they wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
“Kids come to class afraid to express themselves,” said Becker-Jacob of his experience at high school. At Writopia Lab, he said, it is different.
Each workshop at Writopia has a maximum of six students and is taught by a published author; their accomplishments range from Off-Broadway productions to bohemian fiction journals in Brooklyn. The personalized attention given to Writopia students is designed to provide them with an experience unavailable in the mainstream educational system. And the effort has paid off – from 2008 to 2011, Writopia students have won more Scholastic Art & Writing awards on both regional and national levels than any other organization.
“It’s incredible to see the sense of community that develops here,” said Jeremy Wallace-Segall, director of operations at Writopia Lab.
The non-profit organization has offered creative writing workshops to budding Shakespeares since 2007, when Writopia was started by Wallace-Segall’s wife, Rebecca Wallace-Segall, then a New York-based journalist for the Village Voice. The program grew out of a small group of New York City students who showed talent and an urge to further their writing skills outside of the mainstream educational system.
This year, Writopia Lab invited both current students and other young people to submit works to Best Playwrights' Festival, a contest that very well might uncover the next Tennessee Williams. Best Playwrights' Festival challenged young writers from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to submit a work for consideration. After a rigorous judging process by a panel of published authors, six pieces will be produced professionally and shown onstage in May. Twelve other pieces will receive recognition, and an established writer will critique each submitted work. The categories for submission included Monologues, Short Plays, and Full-Length plays. Musicals and screenplays were accepted in all categories.
A grant from Worldwide Pants, the television and film production company owned by David Letterman, allowed Writopia Lab to expand the contest to include over 100 submissions and provide professional production to the winners.
This summer, budding literary-types in Park Slope will have the chance to check out the program for themselves when the brand new Brooklyn location opens shop, in the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation's building on Court Street.
In each class, students spend their time writing very diligently. A teacher helps the youngsters with proper story structure and doles out advice – the pedagogy is designed to ensure the kids produce finished pieces. When they are done, they get to write the name of their story/play/poem, with their name, on a wall with a bookcase painted on it. The name of the story goes on the "spine" of a faux book in the faux bookcase.
Students leave the program not only having sharpened their literary skills, but having produced an impressive body of work.
“Writopia fills a gap left by a lack of public availability of creative writing education," said Wallace-Segall.
This year’s Best Playwrights' Festival celebration will be held May 17-22 at the Abingdon Theatre in Midtown Manhattan. Plays will be performed each night of the festival, along with an awards ceremony recognizing all of the Best Playwrights' Festival participants. For more information on Best Playwrights' Festival and Writopia Lab, visitwww.writopialab.org or call 212-222-4088.
We've written about Writopia Lab before—we highlighted the spot as a great place for after-school classes just last year. Launched by seasoned journalist and Upper West Side mom Rebecca Wallace-Segall back in 2007, the nonprofit runs creative writing programs for kids ages 8 to 18 in Manhattan and, as of this month, in Brooklyn, too. In addition to its intimate workshops (in fiction, nonfiction, film scripts, plays, poetry and even college essays), Writopia also curates live performances, like its second annual Best Playwrights' Festival, which showcases the work of young playwrights and screenwriters. Last year, only Writopia students could submit their work for consideration. This year, the contest—which is being sponsored by David Letterman's production company, World Wide Pants—is open to all Big Apple writers in grades one through twelve. Eighteen finalists will be chosen, and six talented winners will see their scripts performed onstage by working actors at an-as-yet-to-be-determined Off Broadway theater on May 22 and 23. Any kind of "play" can qualify—monologues, one acts, full-lengths, musicals and screenplays—and hopefuls may enter multiple works. Entries can be e-mailed or sent via USPS, and must be received by April 5. Click here for details or call 212-222-4088. And if your aspiring author needs a little inspiration or feedback, bring him to the free Best Playwrights' Festival Open House (155 W 81 St between Columbus and Amsterdam Aves, suite A)on March 12 from 2 to 5pm, where he can have his work reviewed by pros or craft a brand-new piece in three hours. To secure your child's spot, e-mail
. Break a leg—or a pencil!
Writopia student Lena Beckenstein was congratulated in the Cornwall-on-Hudson news for her accomplishments in receiving a 2010 Scholastic Art & Writing Gold Medal Award and a Creativity and Citizenship Award. Congratulations, Lena!
Contrary to popular trend pieces, not all urban parents dream of their tween joining a punk band. Some of them would rather raise a little novelist and should probably be introduced to WritopiaLab founders Rebecca Segall and Dan Kitrosser. This journalist and playwright lead a workshop tomorrow as part of Bryant Park's summer outdoor literary program, teaching the elements of storytelling to both kids and curious parents.
Bryant Park, Manhattans summer staple, caters a Saturday afternoon especially for young ones.
Writopia Lab, an organization that brings opportunities for literary inspiration to kids and teens, takes over the reading room after Laramee packs up his gear. Parents and elementary schoolers should register for this workshop in pairs, as both kids and guardians will be asked to engage in reflective writing. Prepare to discuss a meaningful, funny or otherwise poignant experience with your young classmate and translate it onto the page through use of scenes and dialogue. Allow the historical locale and bustling afternoon crowds to set off your imagination.
In Praise of 'Thought Competition' By REBECCA WALLACE-SEGALL November 28, 2007; Page A23
Monday: After a long day at his New York City private school, Ben, 16, heads to my creative writing lab to work on his heartfelt memoir about his parents' bitter divorce. Tuesday: Alison, 15, rushes from her elite private school in the Bronx to work on her short screenplay about a gifted, mean and eccentric boy. Lily, 13, pops in whenever she can to polish her hilarious short story narrated by an insomniac owl.
Ben, Alison and Lily, along with another few dozen who attend my afterschool writing program, also attend top-notch New York private schools that cost upwards of $25,000 a year. So why, one might wonder, do these kids need an extracurricular creative writing coach? The answer is simple, though twisted: Their schools -- while touting well-known athletic teams -- are offshoots of the "progressive education" movement and uphold a categorical belief that "thought competition" is treacherous.
Administrators of these schools will not support their students in literary, science or math competitions, including the most prestigious creative writing event in the country: the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. So we at Writopia Lab help these kids to join the 10,000 young literati from across the country who are hurrying to meet the event's January deadline, as well as deadlines for other competitions.
For decades now, psychology and pedagogy researchers have been debating the impact of competition on young people's self-esteem, with those wary of thought competition taking the lead. Most New York parents of public or private school students have felt the awkward reverberations of this trend -- which avoids naming winners -- when Johnny takes home a certificate for "participation" in the school's science fair. (Do you hang that one up on the wall?)
But some, and ironically those who attend some of the most desirable schools in the region, feel the reverberations in deeper, more painful ways. "Two years after my son left a school that prohibited him from entering a national math competition," says one mother, "he still writes angry essays about why the jocks in his former school were allowed to compete throughout the city while he wasn't allowed to win the same honors for his gifts." Sam, her son, felt uncool in the eyes of his peers, and undervalued (and sometimes even resented) by the administration.
"We don't want kids to compete individually, put themselves in vulnerable positions as individuals," explains a leading administrator. "They can compete within teams," explains another. "So the focus is on community building rather than on personal value."
But what about Sam's sense of personal value? Aren't human beings fabulously varied in their gifts and sensibilities? Excellent teamwork can be important, but is it the only admirable achievement? Should any school in the United States prevent broader acknowledgment of a young, creative mathematician?
Mel Levine, a professor at the University of North Carolina and one of the foremost authorities in the country on how children learn, believes the impact of the collaborative education movement has been devastating to an entire generation. When students are rewarded for participation rather than achievement, Dr. Levine suggests, they don't have a strong sense of what they are good at and what they're not. Thus older members of Generation Y might be in for quite a shock when they show up for work at their first jobs. "They expect to be immediate heroes and heroines. They expect a lot of feedback on a daily basis. They expect grade inflation, they expect to be told what a wonderful job they're doing," says Dr. Levine.
What is most surprising about the brand of educational progressivism that denies creative and innovative teens the right to compete for public acknowledgment is the seeming lack of interest in distinguishing between positive or negative competitions. Positive competitions award a good number of entries with a range of awards, and, in some cases, send constructive comments back with the manuscripts. Negative competitions, on the other hand, may charge high fees to enter or award only the top three entries.
Last January, 28 of my students rigorously workshopped, edited and entered 45 submissions to the Scholastic event, and 28 pieces won recognition on the regional level and another five on the national level. In April, 24 of these students went to New York University to have honors bestowed upon them by famous writers, and another five went to Carnegie Hall to receive national awards.
Still, students would quietly ask me over the following year why one of their pieces was or wasn't recognized. We would compare how much time they put into one piece over another, the risks they took in one, the original elements of another, and how new a genre was to them. But most importantly, the conversation turned to a defining aspect of an artist's world: the reign of arbitrary judgment. My students know that they don't each share the same response to their peers' work, and they proudly tout individually refined sensibilities. So the real questions they should be asking themselves are: Did they try their best? Have they learned in the process? Are they excited to try again?
The goal of positive competitions is to help young people identify their strengths, overcome their limitations to the best of their ability, and process their disappointments. Luckily, there is an extraordinary range of projects -- both collaborative and competitive -- that inspire kids to produce their best work, bond with their peers and prepare fully for adulthood.
Writopia Lab founder and executive director, Rebecca Wallace-Segall, was honored to be invited to speak at Hunter College High School's PTA meeting last month. Hunter Hilites recapped her lecture on page 9 of its latest issue:
Our Radiant Windows community project was covered by Time Out New York, with an article featuring Danielle Haas Freeman, and a picture of her and her family. Congratulations Danielle! And thank you for being part of this great project.