February 27, 2013

Once upon a time. . . young writers put on the prose

By John Kelly

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.


January 30, 2013

Writopia Summer Camp

Time Out says

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.

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10/4/2012

A Passionate, Unapologetic Plea for Creative Writing in Schools

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?


March 12, 2012

10 Best New NYC Summer Day Camps for Kids

mommypoppins

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.


September 14, 2011

By Gidon Belmaker

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.


June 15, 2011

Shelf Awareness

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.


June 10, 2011

By ERIK PIEPENBURG
Jenny Richards

In the week leading up to the Tony Awards on 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 years 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.

Q.

You chose How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying for best revival of a musical. What did you like about it?

A.

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.

Q.

Are you a fan of Daniel Radcliffe?

A.

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.

Q.

What other musicals did you see this year?

A.

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.

Q.

How about the best plays? What stood out for you?

A.

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.

Q.

How do you get to see so many Broadway shows?

A.

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.

Q.

Do you want to be onstage someday?

A.

When I was younger I used to like to act but not so much anymore. Now I m a writer.


May 25, 2011

By Clarissa Pharr

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.”

It looks like he is well on his way.


May 16, 2011

By JAMES BARRON

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’s Best 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.

Kitrosser

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.’ ”


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