August 14, 2019

HEALING THROUGH STORY

(First published by the Columbia University School of Social Work)

Sheeler leading workshop

Danielle Sheeler (in red T-shirt) with a group of her writing students at Writopia (taken with their permission).

At Writopia Lab, Danielle Sheeler (MSW’19) has created an innovative narrative therapy program for youth.

It’s late afternoon, and inside a nondescript building on the Upper West Side, a number of teens are settled on couches in a homey, casual room outfitted with donated furniture, laptops balanced in their laps. Their writing teacher, Danielle Sheeler, sitting in the middle, is encouraging them to reflect on how they came to be here. What was their personal journey that led them to this after-school program? Soon, she says, each of them will have a chance to tell their story of how they came to this particular crossroads.

The students are all enrolled in Narrative Therapy, a course of Sheeler’s own design offered at the Manhattan branch of Writopia Lab, a New York City-based nonprofit whose mission is “to foster joy, literacy, and critical thinking” through creative writing. A 2019 graduate of the School of Social Work, Sheeler was already working for Writopia when she entered Columbia’s MSW program. Designing the course counted as part of her field work.

Before coming to Writopia, Sheeler was an experienced teacher of writing—and was also a produced playwright with a masters in Humanities and Social Thought from New York University’s interdisciplinary Draper Program. But she now thinks she has found her true calling in narrative therapy—a method that combines her love of writing and teaching with her passion for helping young people tell, write, and rewrite their own stories in ways that can help them better their lives.

What Is Narrative Therapy?

Narrative therapy is an approach that centers on the stories people tell about their own lives, along with the stories of gender, class, race, culture and sexual identity that are told within the broader social context and help to shape individual life stories.

Sheeler first encountered this method in a first-year Family Therapy class at Columbia School of Social Work. She was assigned to read the work of Michael White and David Epston, the founders of Dulwich Centre in Adelaide, Australia, considered to be one of the main homes of narrative practice.

White and Espton are credited with coining the term “narrative therapy” when developing a practice that would help people facing trauma and hardship tell their stories in ways that make them stronger.

SEE: “What is Narrative Practice? A free course,” created by Dulwich Centre Foundation

Intrigued by what she read, Sheeler—who, as a reduced residency student, was able to continue her work at Writopia—proposed to create a new type of Writopia workshop based on Epston and White’s concepts, as part of her field placement. She would also draw on the methods of cognitive therapy (CT), a type of psychotherapy developed in the 1960s by American psychiatrist Aaron Beck. CT encourages clients to come up with alternative ways of thinking and behaving and thereby reduce their psychological distress.

Sheeler did not know it at the time, but she was contributing to an already rich Columbia University tradition. Columbia University’s School of Medicine was first to develop educational programs for narrative medicine, an interdisciplinary field that brings the narrative skills of radical listening and creativity from the humanities and the arts to address the needs of all who seek and deliver health care.

Social workers, too, have become involved in the narrative method, with former School of Social Work professor Ann Burack-Weiss (she now teachers in Columbia’s Program in Narrative Medicine) leading the charge. Weiss co-edited the book Narrative in Social Work Practice: The Power and Possibility of Story (Columbia University Press, 2017), a collection of testimonies from social workers about their success with incorporating narrative techniques into their work—from processing their own responses to clients’ trauma to running a narrative workshop for mothers whose children are in foster care.

A Comfortable “Third Space”

Sheeler describes Writopia as a unique “third space”—neither home nor school—where her young clients feel relaxed and safe. “Normalization” is an important aspect of her approach, she says. Because narrative therapy is just one of many writing workshops listed on the Lab’s website, the therapy is not stigmatized but becomes “just a different form of expression.”

Many of the children and teens Sheeler sees are having behavioral problems related to social anxiety, low self-esteem, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Parents enroll their children in ten-week-long group workshops and sometimes in private sessions as well.

Once the youth get in the door, Sheeler chooses from a range of treatment approaches, and not everything she suggests involves writing. When people hear “narrative therapy” in the context of Writopia, “they think it’s solely writing, but I have to reframe it a bit,” she explains. Some of the younger children may tell their stories aloud, and sometimes Sheeler will tease out their stories by asking them questions while they are doing a physical activity such as throwing a ball. “It’s like play therapy,” she says. “We focus on another task so the child feels comfortable revealing what’s going on.”

Noting that the Manhattan Writopia has a room equipped with a keyboard and electric guitars, Sheeler adds that some of her young clients play instruments and spend half the session in “band mode.”

Teens, however, tend to respond well to writing exercises. “A lot of what they’ve been experiencing is framed in their writing, so I get a lot within an hour.” She often has them write in response to a writing prompt such as “I hate it when…” or “I feel motivated by…” Many of them also thrive in a group setting. “They know somebody else is doing it, and it’s not as high pressure,” she says.

By the same token, she adds, young people benefit from peer feedback, not only on their writing but on their behavior in the group. They “reflect to each other and call each other out in a way that’s better coming from them than from me.”

When she sees that a young client is having trouble revealing what’s troubling them, she might ask the student to rewrite a first-person story in the third person. Developing a character can help them reframe experiences and provide detail and nuance, she says, noting that Epston and White found that externalizing the situation helps clients be less judgmental.

What outcomes has she seen thus far? Although the program hasn’t been running for long, Sheeler says she’s noticed some of her students seeming less anxious. Also, some of those with learning disabilities have been showing signs of improvement. Likewise, parents have told her that their offspring’s school grades and literacy scores have risen since the child’s involvement in her course.

Growing the Program

As Columbia graduation approached, Sheeler documented her curriculum so that another Columbia MSW student could continue the work in September. According to Writopia’s founder and executive director, Rebecca Wallace-Segall, Sheeler’s narrative therapy workshop is a perfect fit. Despite having a clinical goal, she says, “it’s still essentially a creative writing program.” The difference is that “it’s a deliberate processing of our lives through the writing. Whereas in our regular workshops it’s therapeutic, but not deliberately therapeutic.”

Writopia already draws students and graduates from Columbia and Barnard writing programs for its internships and instructor positions. Now Wallace-Segall hopes that the new field placement will create a pathway for Columbia-trained social workers to contribute their skills and perspectives.

Sheeler for her part is pleased that Writopia will continue to offer both group workshops and private sessions to its existing clients, as well as reaching out to community-based organizations that could benefit from the program. Sheeler’s MSW degree, with a concentration in Advanced Generalist Practice and Programming, has equipped her to look broadly at policy and research related to therapeutic writing, and she would like to see the popularity of the program spread. “I would love to just grow this,” she says.

July 9, 2019


ED Week logo




Is teaching writing as important as teaching reading?

When we think of literacy, we tend to think of reading. Schools, literary nonprofits and philanthropists often focus on encouraging students to be strong readers with solid comprehension skills.

While those skills are crucial, many experts say critical and creative writing skills are equally important, and are too often overlooked.

Compared to reading, writing is more active, encouraging students to be independent thinkers, take ownership over their own stories and ideas, and communicate them clearly to others, says Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, executive director of the National Writing Project, which offers resources for teachers who want to encourage students to write.

"Unless we want an education system just focused on making people consumers and not focused on helping them be producers, this emphasis on reading only, which does happen in so many places, is very short-sighted," she says.

Even when students are given writing assignments, she explains, the work tends to focus on assessing a text, rather than on presenting a new idea. Writing, she says, should be "the central thing you're learning. Not writing on a test, not writing to demonstrate you're learning what someone has taught you, but also really writing as an author writes."

Reading, of course, contributes immensely to one's personal growth. But teaching it together with writing nurtures both, says Rebecca Wallace-Segall, executive director of a New York City writing center, Writopia Lab.

"Writing impacts your ability to read," she says. "Over 90% of our kids who come in as reluctant writers, parents have reported they become more engaged readers as they've fallen in love with the writing process."

From a practical standpoint, writing is more important than ever; we depend on it for personal and professional communication.

"We see this from employers all the time. They're looking for folks who can write," says Eidman-Aadahl. "Certainly with digital tools right now, think of what we're all doing all day. We're probably interacting with the internet through writing."

Kids are already writing all the time, in texts, emails and social media posts.

"Whether they're actually being provided with the opportunity to learn to write, whether schools are addressing it or not, they're already writing and publishing," Eidman-Aadahl says. "Every young person is an author today if he or she is connected to the Internet. So we have to help them do it in the best, most responsible, critical, prosocial way."

Advocates of teaching writing say it is empowering.

"When students own their voices and tell their stories, they become not only stronger and more confident writers, but also stronger and more confident individuals," says Ali Haider, executive director of the Austin, Texas-based creative writing center, the Austin Bat Cave.

Wallace-Segall says writing also helps students work through difficulties.

"Creative writing, it's a lifeline for us," she says. "We're watching kids work through their greatest challenges, subconsciously. They're not writing a story about a difficult father or directly about a bully in class, but they are creating a fictional scenario that might feel distant enough for them to go deep into it."

And teaching students to write can have an impact on the larger world, notes Dare Dukes, executive director of Deep Center, an organization in Savannah, Georgia, that works with young writers to share their stories with policy makers, judges, politicians, police officers and the like.

"So those adults can see that the stories they're telling themselves about those young people are often wrong and doing a lot of harm in the world," says Dukes.

Copyright 2019 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Nov. 15, 2018

CONTESTS

Out of the Classroom and Into the World: 70-Plus Places to Publish Teenage Writing and Art

By Katherine Schulten

NY Times Student Voices Image

Writopia Lab’s 10th AnnualWorldwide Plays Festival

An annual Off-Broadway festival of one-act plays written by playwrights ages 6 to 18 and produced, designed, directed, and acted by New York theater professionals.

Jun. 2, 2018

Eyes on Rockridge: Writers -- Young and Older -- Pursue 'Good Storytelling'


By Judith Doner Berne

Rockridge news

Rockridge News2

May 14, 2018

Fourth annual YALLWEST event comes to Santa Monica


By Lily Richman

Who said the printed word is a dying art form? Thousands of southern California teens flooded Santa Monica High School on Saturday, May 5 to prove them wrong.

The atmosphere at the fourth annual YALLWEST Festival for young adult literature was celebratory. Celebrating creativity and imagination. Celebrating language and ideas. Celebrating a place where reading is cool. Blue and yellow balloons, loud music and bright sunshine greeted visitors. And books. Tents and tents and tents of books.

Author and festival co-founder Margaret Stohl said, “This was our fourth and biggest year! The best part is always the community. It’s the feeling in the air, the joy, the love that everyone in our YALL empathy army has for each other.”

Long lines of enthusiastic book lovers of all races, ages and sizes spiraled across walkways, quads and parking lots.

Tents featured book publishers like Penguin Teen, writing programs like Writopia and Interlochen, book sellers and specialty shops like Hi De Ho comics and Book Beau for reading accessories. In addition to panels, book purchasing, signing, and games, like Family Feud, there was also an organized game of quidditch.

Almost 50 panels and discussions were held throughout the day, covering a wide range of topics. “This was the most diverse author list we’ve ever presented, and we are super proud of our festival for prioritizing inclusive paneling,” said Stohl.

At the “Basketcases” panel, authors shared intensely personal stores about depression, self-esteem and creativity, as well as navigating LGBTQ+ issues amidst a heteronormative culture. “Something about the honest acknowledgment of how hard it is to be human in 2018 just really appeals to me,” said Stohl.

During the “YA Goes Hollywood” panel, authors Becky Albertalli, Jenny Han, David Levithan and Angie Thomas discussed the highs and lows of having their books turned into major motion picture movies.

In the “Ripped from the Headlines” panel, authors shared their insprirations for writing. Jay Coles talked about Trayvon Martin’s death being a galvanizing force, while Kody Keplinger talked about school shootings, explaining how her own experience in a lockdown influenced her writing. Many panels celebrated publishing’s new interest in marginalized writers and voices.

People came together united in their appreciation of literature. Authors Tomi Adeyemi, Marie Lu, Gayle Forman and Veronica Roth were exceptional draws for the crowd.

But mostly, YALLWEST offered teens a community where they can gather with other people who share their passion for characters and stories.

In a climate where libraries are closing and we are told that teenagers would rather watch a show than read a book, festival attendees’ passion for literature was abundantly clear. At YALLWEST, authors are revered like celebrities, and readers are treated to swag, signings and tasty food.

Throughout the day, many festival-goers retreated from the action to do what they love most: book in hand, they found a shady spot to read.

May/June 2018 Issue

Town Vibe

Wrinkle Free: Penning a biography of a celebrated grandmother––Madeleine L’Engle author of "A Wrinkle in Time"


By John Roche

The first half of this year has been one long magical moment for the classic novel A Wrinkle in Time, and Katonah resident Léna Roy has been at the heart of it.

Although first published in 1962, the science fantasy novel by Madeleine L’Engle, beloved by young readers around the globe, is perhaps more popular than ever these days, thanks in large part to a film adaption released in March starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and other top-tier stars, as well as a new biography of L’Engle, Becoming Madeleine, written by Roy and her sister, Charlotte Jones Voiklis.

While millions of young readers have fallen in love with A Wrinkle in Time over the past half-century, along with the other 59 books L’Engle wrote before her death in 2007, Roy and her sister have an even deeper bond with the author: L’Engle was their grandmother. “Working on this biography of our grandmother was such a gift,” says Roy, who has called Bedford home for nearly a decade—first living in Bedford Hills before moving to the hamlet of Katonah.

Roy, a local writing instructor and the author of a young adult novel, Edges, and her sister, who manages L’Engle’s literary legacy, tapped into never-before-seen photographs, letters, and journal entries spanning from L’Engle’s childhood until just after the publication of her first novel to tell their grandmother’s personal and professional story. “Being able to incorporate her own voice into a narrative about her life was priceless,” Roy explains. “We really felt that she was with us every step of the way, and it brought us all closer. Working on Becoming Madeleine also brought me to a deeper understanding about death and how we never really lose the people we love. Even though we knew her in her 60s, 70s, and 80s, the voice in her journal entries from when she was 12, 14, 17—or even age 31—was so familiar and endearing to us. It was so her!”

A Wrinkle in Time follows the adventures of a young girl, Meg Murry, who along with her younger brother and a friend travel through time and space in search of Murry’s father, a notable scientist, who has been imprisoned on another planet by evil forces. At its core, the fantasy novel is a story of good versus evil, with Murry and her two traveling buddies battling against a looming darkness called the “Black Thing.” But Roy believes it’s much more than a coming-of-age story. “It’s not a simple story about self-actualization,” Roy says. “Yes, each one of us has the capacity to do great things, but why and how does Meg rescue her father? Because he loves her and she loves him. Meg eventually learns that there is much more at stake than her own problems, and that she needs to find what’s truly inside her, including her faults, to overcome the darkness and evil.”

Becoming Madeleine, like L’Engle’s iconic novel and the star-studded Disney film adaptation still in theaters, is largely targeted to middle schoolers and high-school-aged kids. Roy has plenty of experience with that age group, as she’s been working with young people through the non-profit Writopia Lab since 2009, first in New York City and now in Bedford and beyond.

Roy says her work with the national program that centers on helping young people find their own voice through writing helps her find her own writing voice, and is something L’Engle would surely be proud of. “My Gran believed that tapping into our creative juices is the way we become empowered, and it is through writing that we learn to communicate our thoughts and feelings effectively,” explains Roy, who as a regional manager of Writopia helps run four labs for kids and teens in Bedford Hills, Hartsdale, and Nanuet in New York, and another in Stamford, Connecticut.

“Writopia Lab’s mission is to spread joy, literacy and critical thinking through creative writing,” Roy says. “I feel so fortunate that I get to provide a space where young people feel safe to explore and expand their thinking.”

As to why her grandmother’s debut novel has not only stood the test of time but is currently going through such a resurgence in popularity, Roy pointed out that the metaphor of hope and light overcoming the threat of evil and darkness is as relevant today as when A Wrinkle in Time came out more than 50 years ago. “We always need stories that give us a sense of hope and purpose,” she says. “We always need reminders that we are part of that cosmic struggle, and that we matter.”

Apr. 10, 2018

Oakland Magazine

Best Of Oakland and the East Bay 2018: Coolest New Writing Lab for Kids


By Julie Anderson

Who says that writing can't be fun? Certainly not Writopia Lab, a nonprofit that just started a Bay Area chapter. Like its name suggests, Writopia brings a playful even whimsical approach to writing where professional writers encourage students to find their voices by engaging them in creative exercises. Kids and teens in small, age-appropriate classes write stories, craft plays, compose poems, and generally express their own creative visions. The main classroom is a cozy, wood-paneled space in Rockridge with comfy, dark green swivel chairs and a marble-topped table, but workshops are offered as far afield as San Francisco, Campbell, and Walnut Creek. Prices for the 10-week workshops are on a sliding scale, and no one is turned away for lack of funds. Contact RegisterBayArea@writopialab.org for more information.

Apr. 4, 2018

Washington Post

On Parenting: My son is an introvert. Should I encourage him to socialize more?


By Meghan Leahy

Q: My son, a fifth-grader, is a sensitive, thoughtful kid who gets along with just about everyone but has no best friends. We used to do after-school play dates, but we have largely stopped them because when I ask whether he wants to have a friend over, he routinely says no. His preferred after-school activity is to read for a few hours. I am worried that he is missing out on bonding with his peers. I, too, am an introvert, so I also worry that I am adversely influencing him because I am all too happy not to have to actively arrange his social life. Should I step up my efforts and invite friends over? My son usually has a very good time one-on-one with people, although it wears him out. He is involved in some activities, so he interacts with peers elsewhere.

A: I am frequently asked about sensitive and thoughtful children. Parents, it seems, worry that these children are not being “socialized,” and they feel guilty as a result. The parents who seem to have the most guilt are the ones who tend to be sensitive and thoughtful themselves. That’s because introversion has only recently been recognized as an acceptable and even normal temperament (thanks to the work of Susan Cain, among others). Many introverted parents were raised thinking they needed to get out there and make more friends.

It’s rare to find adults in their 30s or 40s who were raised as accepted introverts. Most of them have endless stories of feeling pressured or being bullied into an extroverted lifestyle. And even though they were miserable growing up, they will often raise their own introverted children this way. It doesn’t sit well in their hearts, but introverted parents often give in to the social pressures that dominate our culture and push their children to be the perfect American go-getter.

On the other hand, I hear you. Learning how to get along with and be around others is an important life skill. Even in our increasingly digital and remote world, we want our kids to be able to work in groups and communicate with a variety of people. Watching your child sit quietly at home understandably evokes worry that he will be left behind socially, academically and even romantically. I would agree with the validity of these worries if your child were suffering mightily in school and refusing outside activities. But from your note, it sounds as if your son is engaged in school and otherwise. Although our culture appears to value deep friendships, many people have only one or two good friends throughout their lifetime, with many acquaintances. So when you mention that he “gets along with just about everyone” and that “he is involved in some activities,” I don’t worry.

Your key question is whether you should invite your son’s friends over.

I say no.

If he doesn’t want the friends to come over, you don’t want to arrange it and he is functioning well in his life, there is no need to make both of you miserable. It sends the message that your son isn’t good enough and that we should go against our nature to fit in with what we think the world wants. Although forcing an introvert to become an extrovert is a tale as old as time, it often leads to depression and anxiety.

If you begin to feel as if your son is spending too much time alone, look into programs such as Writopia Lab, where children who love to read and write can spend time together, working on an assortment of projects. These classes are communal and quiet, fulfilling the needs of introverts quite nicely. You could also plan a monthly activity for him, such as inviting one friend over for pizza and a movie on a Friday night. In fact, you could venture out of your own comfort zone and have some friends over, too. Nothing dramatic or fancy, just a simple get-together.

Finally, although this may not be an issue, research has shown that children who spend a tremendous amount of time alone and playing video games can quickly begin to exhibit addictive behaviors. Because games — especially online multiplayer ones — affect the reward centers of the brain and make it feel “connected” to others, many parents have a hard time helping these children interact with the real world. I am not saying that introverted children always become addicted to screens; it is just something to keep in mind as your son gets older and screens become a bigger part of his world.

For more information about introversion and children, read “Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids” by Susan Cain. To learn more about screens and children, read “i-Minds” by Mari Swingle. And no matter what, remember that the world needs thoughtful, sensitive children to grow into thoughtful, sensitive adults. As long as you keep exposing your son to the world and having interesting conversations with him, he will grow into the man he is meant to be. Be confident (in an introverted kind of way). Good luck.

Mar. 14, 2018

Teens from SEED in Southeast Honored for Writing


By Sarafina Wright

Four young ladies from the SEED School in Southeast were recognized at this year’s Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for their contributions to the country’s longest-running and most prestigious writing recognition program for students in grades 7-12.

The poetry and stories written by the SEED School students — Shakayla Williams, 10th grade; Aaliyah Valentine, 10th grade; Mariama Dieng, 10th grade; and Jasmyne Bradford, 12th grade — received honorable mentions, and the girls were awarded writing scholarships from the Edward P. Jones Scholarship Fund.

“These writers are on fire! I am truly inspired by all of the amazing teens who wrote such vulnerable, funny, honest and amazing pieces — which were outstanding,” said Jocquelyn Downs, regional director for Writopia Lab and Scholastic’s D.C. Metro coordinator. “Writopia Lab is thrilled to produce these awards locally and loves being able to honor the next generation of writers in this way.”

Valentine said social issues of today inspired her poem.

“What inspired me to write this poem was because our class topic was community issues, and I felt as though police brutality was one of those problems,” she said. “Writing matters to me because it is a good way to get out your feelings.”

D.C. had its own regional ceremony on Sunday, March 4 at the National 4H Conference Center in Chevy Chase, Md., during which more than 300 teens from the greater Washington area received recognition for their writing from the 2018 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

Award recipients received Gold Key, Silver Key or Honorable Mention. Gold Key pieces are submitted to the national level of competition and the top five submissions in the region were named American Voices nominees.

Other recognized writers from D.C. and Maryland include Isabelle Levine, 11th grade, of Potomac, who won an American Voices recognition; and seventh-grader Barbara Weaver of Bethesda, who won the Writer’s Center $100 Humor Scholarship.

Jan. 24, 2018

Writopia Lab's Seeks Submissions for Worldwide Plays Festival


By BWW News Desk

Writopia Lab's Worldwide Plays Festival is an annual Off-Broadway festival of plays written by playwrights ages 6-18 years-old and produced, designed, directed, and acted by New York Theater professionals.

Plays can be any genre-comedy, drama, horror, polemic, tragedy, historical, docu-drama, solo-play, interactive, sci-fi, or any other you dream up.

One challenge is that all plays must take place in ONE of the following places in a school:

School Classroom (can be any type of classroom--science lab, English classroom, kindergarten class, etc.)

School Office (can be any type of school office--teachers' lounge, principal's office, guidance counselor's office, etc.)

School Auditorium, Gym, or Sports Field

School is where people come to learn and come to teach, but it's also where people fall in love, come out, protest, and pray. It's where friendships are formed, where trust is broken, where people make the team and get cut from the play, where teachers are fired and heroes are made.

The competition is divided into the Elementary School division, the Middle School division, and the High School division. In all divisions, Off-Broadway productions will be awarded in the following categories:

Best Play/Musical Set in a Classroom

Best Play/Musical Set in a School Office

Best Play/Musical Set in a School Auditorium/Gym/Sports Field Scholarships

The top play in each division will be awarded the following scholarships:

High School: $1,000
Middle School: $500
Elementary School: $250

(Submission Deadline)
THURSDAY, 1 FEBRUARY 2018

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES:

Plays must be no more than eight minutes long (this is roughly eight pages, but all plays must be eight minutes or shorter, no matter the page count).

The play must contain no more than three characters.

Standard playwriting format NOT required.

The action of your play must take place entirely inside ONE space in a school. The space can be ONE of the following:

  • School Classroom can be any type of classroom (science lab, English classroom, kindergarten class, etc.)
  • School Office can be any type of school office (teachers' lounge, principal's office, guidance counselor's office, etc.)
  • School Auditorium, Gym, or Sports Field

There can be NO set changes. The entirety of the play must take place in ONE of the rooms listed above.

  • There can be NO narrator in the play who is not emotionally invested in the story (i.e. Ramona can tell her story to the audience, but an unnamed narrator cannot tell the audience the story of Ramona)
  • Writers may submit more than one piece.
  • Writopia Lab in the News

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