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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

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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.

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