May 10, 2013
See the original article here
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Co-artistic director of the Writopia Lab's Best Playwrights' Festival Kara Ayn Napolitano recently sat down with NY1's Kristen Shaughnessy to discuss Writopia's annual Best Young Playwrights Festival.
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.
By Gidon Belmaker
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.