April 18, 2011

On Thursday, April 14th, 122 teen writers from Greater Washington — 19 of whom are from Alexandria, were honored at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre as regional winners in the Scholastic Writing Awards, the country's largest, longest-running, and most prestigious writing competition for teens.

14 local writers were also celebrated as National Medalists in the competition, which means that they will be honored at Carnegie Hall in New York City on May 31st.New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has declared this day Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Day, and the top of the Empire State Building will be lit gold in honor of their accomplishments. Of the 185,000 art and writing submissions received across the country, only 1500 (less than 1%) received National Medals.

Two of these National Medalists live or attend school in Alexandria. Katherine Mitchell, 17, Silver Medalist for her Senior Portfolio of creative writing, lives in Alexandria and goes to the National Cathedral School. Rachel Kim, 17, won a Silver Medal for poetry. Rachel attends Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria and lives in Burke.

Throughout the programs 88 year history, this is the first time that the Scholastic Writing Awards has had a presence in Greater Washington. Writopia Lab, a nonprofit organization that holds creative writing workshops for kids and teens, brought the program to the area, with the help of the DC Area Writing Project.

"We are thrilled to bring this outstanding program to Greater Washington, said Kathy Crutcher, DC Director of Writopia Lab.Students who excel in academics or sports have ample opportunities for recognition.This is the chance for talented, creative kids to show their stuff."

Writopia Lab will hold week-long creative writing workshops in Old Town Alexandria this summer for writers ages 8-18. In these workshops, published writers serve as mentors for small groups of 4-6 writers and help them prepare for competitions like the Scholastic Writing Awards and/or to develop their creativity and writing talents.

At the Regional Awards Ceremony, all writers introduced themselves and their awards on-stage. DC area poet and Book-in-a-Day founder Kwame Alexander gave the keynote address, and author Danielle Evans, American University professor of creative writing and one of the Head Judges for the Regional Awards, honored the top regional winners. To close the program, DC actors Catherine Frels and Kait Manning performed dramatic readings of the National Gold Medal winning works.

Regional Award recipients come from public, private, and home- schools throughout the Greater Washington region, which included the District of Columbia; Montgomery County, MD; Arlington County, VA; and Fairfax County, VA. 122 teen writers won 183 regional awards, including 32 Gold Key winning works, which went on to national adjudication. 16 of these works, by 14 different writers, were selected for national awards.

This years National Award recipients from Greater Washingtonare:

  • Mary Salmonsen (17), Olney, MD — American Voices Medal
  • Sofia Laguarda (12), Washington, DC — Gold Medal
  • Lillie Lainoff (15), Washington, DC — Gold Medal
  • Maria Brescia-Weiler (14), Washington, DC — Gold Medal
  • Andrea Mirviss (18), Potomac, MD — Gold Medal
  • Luisa Banchoff (15), Arlington, VA — Gold Medal
  • Isaac Stanley-Becker (17), Washington, DC — Gold Medal, Silver Medal
  • Annie Rosenthal (13), Washington, DC — Silver Medal
  • Christine Miranda (17), Germantown, MD — Silver Medal
  • Ruthie Prillaman (16), Potomac, MD — Silver Medal
  • Rachel Kim (17), Burke, VA — Silver Medal
  • Olivia August (16), Arlington, VA — Silver Medal
  • Grace McNamee (18), Bethesda, MD — 2 Silver Medals
  • Katherine Mitchell (17), Alexandria, VA (Silver Medal)
Katherine Mitchell

These students join the ranks of some of our countrys most revered artists and writers who have received Scholastic Art & Writing Awards when they were high school, including Robert Redford, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, John Lithgow, Joyce Carol Oates, John Baldesarri, Philip Pearlstein, Zac Posen, Sylvia Plath, Richard Avedon, Robert Indiana and Abdi Farah(winner of the Bravo reality showWork of Art: The Next Great Artist).

Since 1923, the Awards have recognized more than 13 million students and made available over $25 million in scholarships. They continue to be the nations largest source of scholarships for young artists and writers. The program is generously supported locally by Profit Investment Management, Busboys and Poets, and Charles P. Rogers, and nationally by Scholastic Inc., Maurice R. Robinson Foundation, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Command Web Offset, AMD Foundation, The New York Times, Dick Blick Co., Ovation, and New York Life Foundation.

April 13, 2011


Teddy Becker-Jacob speaks quickly and voluminously about writing, hinting at an obvious passion for his craft. He describes a recent play he has writtenabout a middle-aged man, frustrated with his lot in lifein abstract terms that are reminiscent of a young Samuel Beckett or Edward Albee. Although his eloquence is an obvious sign of this playwrights talent and curiosity, there is one fact about this New Yorker that makes his wisdom so surprising: he is 14.

The young Becker-Jacob is one of hundreds of young writers that each year pass through the doors of Writopia Lab, a nonprofit workshop series that offers young people ages eight to 18 the opportunity to practice and share their work. With locations stretching from a brand new facility on Court Street to Washington, D.C., Writopia is helping budding wordsmiths express themselves in ways they wouldnt be able to otherwise.

Kids come to class afraid to express themselves, said Becker-Jacob of his experience at high school. At Writopia Lab, he said, it is different.

Each workshop at Writopia has a maximum of six students and is taught by a published author; their accomplishments range from Off-Broadway productions to bohemian fiction journals in Brooklyn. The personalized attention given to Writopia students is designed to provide them with an experience unavailable in the mainstream educational system. And the effort has paid off from 2008 to 2011, Writopia students have won more Scholastic Art & Writing awards on both regional and national levels than any other organization.

Its incredible to see the sense of community that develops here, said Jeremy Wallace-Segall, director of operations at Writopia Lab.

The non-profit organization has offered creative writing workshops to budding Shakespeares since 2007, when Writopia was started by Wallace-Segalls wife, Rebecca Wallace-Segall, then a New York-based journalist for theVillage Voice. The program grew out of a small group of New York City students who showed talent and an urge to further their writing skills outside of the mainstream educational system.

This year, Writopia Lab invited both current students and other young people to submit works to Best Playwrights' Festival, a contest that very well might uncover the next Tennessee Williams. Best Playwrights' Festival challenged young writers from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to submit a work for consideration. After a rigorous judging process by a panel of published authors, six pieces will be produced professionally and shown onstage in May. Twelve other pieces will receive recognition, and an established writer will critique each submitted work. The categories for submission included Monologues, Short Plays, and Full-Length plays. Musicals and screenplays were accepted in all categories.

A grant from Worldwide Pants, the television and film production company owned by David Letterman, allowed Writopia Lab to expand the contest to include over 100 submissions and provide professional production to the winners.

This summer, budding literary-types in Park Slope will have the chance to check out the program for themselves when the brand new Brooklyn location opens shop, in the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation's building on Court Street.

In each class, students spend their time writing very diligently. A teacher helps the youngsters with proper story structure and doles out advice the pedagogy is designed to ensure the kids produce finished pieces. When they are done, they get to write the name of their story/play/poem, with their name, on a wall with a bookcase painted on it. The name of the story goes on the "spine" of a faux book in the faux bookcase.

Students leave the program not only having sharpened their literary skills, but having produced an impressive body of work.

Writopia fills a gap left by a lack of public availability of creative writing education," said Wallace-Segall.

This years Best Playwrights' Festival celebration will be held May 17-22 at the Abingdon Theatre in Midtown Manhattan. Plays will be performed each night of the festival, along with an awards ceremony recognizing all of the Best Playwrights' Festival participants. For more information on Best Playwrights' Festival and Writopia Lab, visitwww.writopialab.org or call 212-222-4088.

Febuary 10, 2011

Time Out New York

By Raven Snook

We've written about Writopia Lab before we highlighted the spot as a great place for after-school classes just last year. Launched by seasoned journalist and Upper West Side mom Rebecca Wallace-Segall back in 2007, the nonprofit runs creative writing programs for kids ages 8 to 18 in Manhattan and, as of this month, in Brooklyn, too. In addition to its intimate workshops (in fiction, nonfiction, film scripts, plays, poetry and even college essays), Writopia also curates live performances, like its second annual Best Playwrights' Festival, which showcases the work of young playwrights and screenwriters. Last year, only Writopia students could submit their work for consideration.

This year, the contest which is being sponsored by David Letterman's production company, World Wide Pants is open to all Big Apple writers in grades one through twelve. Eighteen finalists will be chosen, and six talented winners will see their scripts performed onstage by working actors at an-as-yet-to-be-determined Off Broadway theater on May 22 and 23. Any kind of "play" can qualify monologues, one acts, full-lengths, musicals and screenplays and hopefuls may enter multiple works. Entries can be e-mailed or sent via USPS, and must be received by April 5. Click here for details or call 212-222-4088. And if your aspiring author needs a little inspiration or feedback, bring him to the free Best Playwrights' Festival Open House (155 W 81 St between Columbus and Amsterdam Aves, suite A)on March 12 from 2 to 5pm, where he can have his work reviewed by pros or craft a brand-new piece in three hours. To secure your child's spot, e-mail Kathleen@writopialab.org. Break a leg or a pencil!

August 2010


July 10, 2007

Contrary to popular trend pieces, not all urban parents dream of their tween joining a punk band. Some of them would rather raise a little novelist and should probably be introduced to WritopiaLab founders Rebecca Segall and Dan Kitrosser. This journalist and playwright lead a workshop tomorrow as part of Bryant Park's summer outdoor literary program, teaching the elements of storytelling to both kids and curious parents.

May 20, 2010


Writopia Lab's Best Playwrights' Festival, which featured plays by Writopia Lab students produced and performed by professionals, was mentioned in the New York Times!


April 28, 2010

Cornwall Senior Wins National Writing Award

Writopia student Lena Beckenstein was congratulated in the Cornwall-on-Hudson News for her accomplishments in receiving a 2010 Scholastic Art & Writing Gold Medal Award and a Creativity and Citizenship Award. Congratulations, Lena!

April 9, 2010

Radiant Windows

Our Radiant Windows community project was covered by Time Out New York, with an article featuring Danielle Haas Freeman, and a picture of her and her family. Congratulations Danielle! And thank you for being part of this great project.


December 23, 2008


November 28, 2007

In Praise of 'Thought Competition'


November 28, 2007; Page A23

Monday: After a long day at his New York City private school, Ben, 16, heads to my creative writing lab to work on his heartfelt memoir about his parents' bitter divorce. Tuesday: Alison, 15, rushes from her elite private school in the Bronx to work on her short screenplay about a gifted, mean and eccentric boy. Lily, 13, pops in whenever she can to polish her hilarious short story narrated by an insomniac owl.

Ben, Alison and Lily, along with another few dozen who attend my afterschool writing program, also attend top-notch New York private schools that cost upwards of $25,000 a year. So why, one might wonder, do these kids need an extracurricular creative writing coach? The answer is simple, though twisted: Their schools — while touting well-known athletic teams — are offshoots of the "progressive education" movement and uphold a categorical belief that "thought competition" is treacherous.

Administrators of these schools will not support their students in literary, science or math competitions, including the most prestigious creative writing event in the country: the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. So we at Writopia Lab help these kids to join the 10,000 young literati from across the country who are hurrying to meet the event's January deadline, as well as deadlines for other competitions.

For decades now, psychology and pedagogy researchers have been debating the impact of competition on young people's self-esteem, with those wary of thought competition taking the lead. Most New York parents of public or private school students have felt the awkward reverberations of this trend — which avoids naming winners — when Johnny takes home a certificate for "participation" in the school's science fair. (Do you hang that one up on the wall?)

But some, and ironically those who attend some of the most desirable schools in the region, feel the reverberations in deeper, more painful ways. "Two years after my son left a school that prohibited him from entering a national math competition," says one mother, "he still writes angry essays about why the jocks in his former school were allowed to compete throughout the city while he wasn't allowed to win the same honors for his gifts." Sam, her son, felt uncool in the eyes of his peers, and undervalued (and sometimes even resented) by the administration.

"We don't want kids to compete individually, put themselves in vulnerable positions as individuals," explains a leading administrator. "They can compete within teams," explains another. "So the focus is on community building rather than on personal value."

But what about Sam's sense of personal value? Aren't human beings fabulously varied in their gifts and sensibilities? Excellent teamwork can be important, but is it the only admirable achievement? Should any school in the United States prevent broader acknowledgment of a young, creative mathematician?

Mel Levine, a professor at the University of North Carolina and one of the foremost authorities in the country on how children learn, believes the impact of the collaborative education movement has been devastating to an entire generation. When students are rewarded for participation rather than achievement, Dr. Levine suggests, they don't have a strong sense of what they are good at and what they're not. Thus older members of Generation Y might be in for quite a shock when they show up for work at their first jobs. "They expect to be immediate heroes and heroines. They expect a lot of feedback on a daily basis. They expect grade inflation, they expect to be told what a wonderful job they're doing," says Dr. Levine.

What is most surprising about the brand of educational progressivism that denies creative and innovative teens the right to compete for public acknowledgment is the seeming lack of interest in distinguishing between positive or negative competitions. Positive competitions award a good number of entries with a range of awards, and, in some cases, send constructive comments back with the manuscripts. Negative competitions, on the other hand, may charge high fees to enter or award only the top three entries.

Last January, 28 of my students rigorously workshopped, edited and entered 45 submissions to the Scholastic event, and 28 pieces won recognition on the regional level and another five on the national level. In April, 24 of these students went to New York University to have honors bestowed upon them by famous writers, and another five went to Carnegie Hall to receive national awards.

Still, students would quietly ask me over the following year why one of their pieces was or wasn't recognized. We would compare how much time they put into one piece over another, the risks they took in one, the original elements of another, and how new a genre was to them. But most importantly, the conversation turned to a defining aspect of an artist's world: the reign of arbitrary judgment. My students know that they don't each share the same response to their peers' work, and they proudly tout individually refined sensibilities. So the real questions they should be asking themselves are: Did they try their best? Have they learned in the process? Are they excited to try again?

The goal of positive competitions is to help young people identify their strengths, overcome their limitations to the best of their ability, and process their disappointments. Luckily, there is an extraordinary range of projects — both collaborative and competitive — that inspire kids to produce their best work, bond with their peers and prepare fully for adulthood.

Ms. Wallace-Segall is a New York-based writer.

Writopia Lab in the News

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