March 18, 2013

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.

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.

April 11, 2013

Writopia Lab: Fostering Joy, Literacy, and Critical Thinking in All Young People

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.

August 25, 2013

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July 31, 2013

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July 13, 2013

DC Student Writers' Plays Produced Off-Broadway, Stories Celebrated at Carnegie Hall

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.

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.

June 13, 2013

See the original article here.

May 10, 2013

JC 11-Year-Old’s Play ‘9/11’ Showcased in New York Festival

By Summer Dawn Hortillosa

Siena Malmad may have been a mere babe when the World Trade Center was attacked in 2001, but that didn’t stop her from writing 9/11, a play which reflects on the event. This weekend, Siena’s play will be one of 47 by kids ages 8 to 17 showcased in New York City.

Siena, 11, is a fifth-grader at the Learning Community Charter School (LCCS) who is already a prolific playwright. Her oeuvre includes a revised version of Rapunzel called Blondie, an homage to Annie called Homeless Pursuits and a menagerie of whimsically named plays like >Two Cannibals and a Game Show or Restraining Orders and Dead Sisters.

“I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a pencil,” says Siena. “I discovered my passion for creative writing in the end of second grade and the summer before third grade.

“I do have slight interests in forensic anthropology and architecture as far as my interests and goals reach, but my main aspiration in life is to be a writer,” she says.

Her play, 9/11, which she says was also in part inspired by the Newtown school shooting earlier this year, is one of three winners in the elementary division of a nationwide playwriting contest held by Writopia Lab. It will be her first produced play when it premieres at the Worldwide Plays Festival this Saturday at Theatre Row on 42nd Street in NYC.

“The best part of my play being produced was seeing the support from my family and friends, and also seeing the enthusiasm from the people working with me on the play,” says Siena, who plans to continue honing her craft.

Her mother, Gabby Creery, who is also a writer (she’s the woman behind JCI's Foreclosed column and has written a one-woman show on the subject of foreclosure), says the program has been rewarding not just for her daughter, but for all the kids involved.

“The festival is a platform for young writers to show off their talents and move towards living their dreams. Pretty amazing! I would say even life changing,” says Creery. “This has been a wonderful, inspiring journey for Siena…who knows the kind of impact it can make in these young creators’ lives?”

9/11 will be performed on Saturday, May 11 [2013] at 6 pm at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St., New York City, in the Clurman Theatre.

May 10, 2013

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May 8, 2013

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March 29, 2013

Program Nurtures Young Writers

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.

Writopia Lab in the News

Our Mission

Writopia Lab fosters joy, literacy, and critical thinking in children and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing.

We have never turned away a student whose family was unable to pay for workshops. Fifty percent of our students attend on either partial or full scholarships.

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