Follow Their Lead: A Year of Teen Leadership

by Madeline Taylor & Kimberly Faith Waid 

At our national staff retreat in 2019, our full-time staff came together to focus on teen leadership and the ways we could empower our young writers within our community and beyond. We’d run programs in the past, and we were ready to take it to a new level: to guide writers to contribute their ideas, help produce events, and be the voice of the messaging that, after all, defines their passions. Our discussion centered primarily around the needs of our teen community; many of our teens had been involved in Writopia for many years and were ready for a new experience, in the midst of a world full of new challenges. We wanted to center our programs around our young writers’ passions and ideas so that we could provide the scaffolding and tools while allowing them the freedom to express their creativity in new, impactful ways.

Writopia Lab at Pride 2019

Our Enviroactivism club began after a teen entered the workshop space devastated by the impact of climate change and that conversation drew compassion and concern for the room at large. It became clear that this was a conversation these teens would like to be having but also a concern they were motivated to pursue actionable change to achieve. The group is student-led, instructor-mentored, and aims to empower kids and teens to use their voice to become leaders and environmental activists in their own neighborhoods. Originally bi-weekly meetings, the structure expanded to a monthly event series. In the past year, participants have brainstormed advocacy efforts to raise awareness around climate change, written thank you letters to firefighters and advocates, written urgent letters to representatives and corporate social responsibility managers, and engaged in the replies! They’ve probed outside of typical “environmental stresses” and explored urban planning and housing for the homeless with a guest speaker who educated them on the intersection of public health and sustainability. These topics informed them as citizens who will care for the health of any city they inhabit. Local participation and advocacy is vital and how wonderful that it was born from their creative writing workshop where they can tackle words and ideas without censorship but rather with wholehearted empathy and cultural consciousness. 

One of the best things about teen leadership is watching it grow and evolve as the teens themselves grow up from passionate youth into smart, strong, well-equipped young adults. A favorite example is the way that Writopia’s LGBTQ+ community has flourished thanks to teen leaders who committed to forging a space not just for themselves, but for their whole Writopia family. During the summer of 2017 at WriCampia (our sleepaway camp), we started Plus, a discussion/writing/hangout space for LGBTQ+ campers and anyone who wanted to have a place to learn more about gender and sexuality in a friendly, low-key environment. Over the next several years, we grew beyond WriCampia and into our school-year programming as well. For Pride 2019, a particularly significant year that marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, we ran three different programs to reach more young writers than ever. From a queer movie night with poster-making, to an art and writing field trip at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, to the NYC Pride March itself, Writopia teens created powerful, fun, thoughtful spaces. 

As we reflected on our queer community’s evolution and the growth of our Enviroactivism group, we saw that in order to truly serve our kids, our role as educators must be to teach kids the toolkit they need to empower themselves; it’s incredible to watch how these empowered and equipped kids can take those tools to lift the needs of others as well.

A year after our initial conversations, when we gathered for our 2020 staff retreat, we had presentations prepared on the teen engagement programs we had started over the past year. Our retreat, however, turned into a huge planning session for Writopia Lab’s transition to online programming, which had to happen fast, as more cities started shelter-in-place orders. A few weeks later, once we had moved workshops on to Zoom and were getting in the groove of this strange time, we had a moment to stop and remember our teen leaders. Our next challenge: how could we continue to support our teen leaders and activists via online channels? How would Covid-19 affect these kids’ goals and plans?


It didn’t come as any surprise when we realized that these young leaders had continued their projects and started new, timely projects, all through their determination and hard work. Turning the Page, a group dedicated to writing about and destigmatizing mental health issues, has continued to meet every weekend; they are creating an anthology as well as sharing ideas for mental health support on their Instagram. The Next Chapter, a teen-led gun control advocacy group, continued to meet once a week to discuss future projects, including their involvement with the “Enough” plays project. They’re also accepting submissions for a zine about gun violence. Diatom, our new teen-run literary magazine, took the initiative to write acceptance letters and start curating their new issue, outside of meetings led by Writopia Staff. In our debate club, our older teens who are nationally ranked debaters are working with us to develop a new debate culture and format that goes beyond argument and rebuttal and celebrates problem solving as well. Enviroactivism has met monthly to process the impact of the virus on issues they’d covered prior like housing and climate. They’ve collaborated on earth day social media posts, a recipe exchange of common pantry items, and they traveled the Earth while staying home this month thanks to a Zoom viewing party of Our Planet. Our kids had the tools they needed to maintain their activism even — especially — during the most challenging time many of them have ever faced.

Covid-19 showed us clearly that the future of youth activism programs is dependent on our efforts as instructors and mentors to be alert to the questions of young people, reminding them that their voice is needed and deserves to be heard. In a time when young people are feeling weighed down by anxieties about the future, it’s vital that we foster literacy through creating spaces for writers to engage with their ideas, beliefs, and passions beyond the written page. Collectively, all of these programs will bring confidence and deep awareness to our young writers. Now is the time to hear and celebrate their passions, angers, and curiosities. Our present and our future will be filled with their voices.

Telling the Story, No Matter What by Yael Schick, Director of Programs

Growing up, Passover (Pesach) overtook the spring curriculum in my school. Weeks were spent studying the Haggadah, creating our own, learning the laws and practices that had been passed down through generations.

“The most important thing is to tell the story of the Exodus,” I remember one teacher explaining. “Even if one is having a seder alone, they should still tell the story, read it to themselves and speak what happened.”

I remember the image that came to my mind, a forlorn adult sitting at a beautifully set table, whispering the words all alone. I remember the pang of sadness that came over me, and how I comforted myself, dismissing the image with the knowledge that no one was really alone, that Pesach was a time of family and community, that surely everyone had someone to tell the story to.

The Seder is a time for togetherness. After all, the story we tell is not a story of an individual, but of a people. It was through the Exodus, the horrors and the miracles, that the Jews became a nation. They grew united through their days of affliction, through the splitting of the sea, through taking their terrified steps into the unknown.

But more than that, the seder is a time for stories.

I’ve thought about those early lessons from elementary school over the years; I just never got it. Why should an individual observing alone have to tell the story to themselves? Can’t they just have their wine and matzah and call it a night?

I see it differently now. Because within the story of the nation is the story of individuals, thousands, now millions, of people who weathered those hardships, took leaps of faith, saw the world change before their eyes.

And when you tell yourself that story, when you are both the narrator and the listener, you and the story are one. The story becomes part of your being, and it shows you who you really are, the incredible deeds you are capable of.

Today we are alone and not alone and we need stories desperately. I feel beyond blessed to be celebrating with my immediate family, and though we’ll be telling the Pesach story together, I am going to make sure I tell myself the story too.

I am wishing everyone stories of hope and courage and love, to those who celebrate and to those who don’t. Tell yourself your story, and may it strengthen and nourish you for the days to come.

Two Weeks Later by Lena Roy, Associate Creative Director of Programs, and Rebecca Wallace-Segall, Executive Director

It’s the first day of the staff retreat, 2020, March 12 to be exact. We are in the middle of nowhere in a beautiful retreat center in Connecticut, trees starting to bloom, purple crocuses pushing up their heads, reminding us that spring indeed does follow winter. COVID-19 still seems far enough away, and the impulse to come together as a team is strong enough that we haven’t canceled. We’re a small, close-knit group. Still, one of our regional managers is Zooming in because of a preexisting condition, and our team from Los Angeles has flown into the city and then turned back around and flown back home. There is passion to be together along with tension around what is to come.

We use staff retreats to look at the big picture — how can we further engage kids and our communities, how can we reach and impact more people? Last year was about meeting the demand for more Youth Leadership. This year’s retreat will be about our new Writopia Publishing Lab platform. During the retreat, we will also carve out time to develop our own writing, workshopping memoir, one act plays, poetry, and fiction.

But after the first day of the retreat, we sleep uneasily because we have heard about so many more school closures in the New York Metro Area. In the morning, we change our agenda and schedule. There is no longer space and time for big-picture thinking and lovely writing breaks. We need to immediately move from long-term visionary thinking and creative reinvigoration to short-term organizational crisis planning. 

We come together in a circle, some of us teary-eyed, everyone wanting to be part of the solution. We realize that this might be the last time together in a physical space for a long time. We realize that we won’t be with our writers in our cozy writing labs for months to come. What will this mean for those of our kids who rely on us as their main social outlet? What will it mean for our children from low-income backgrounds who don’t have laptops and reliable internet at home — and whose families may not be able to stay home with them and support homeschooling, or would face greater financial stress? What will it mean for the viability of Writopia Lab as an organization, and for the livelihood of the 27 people sitting in the room together?

We turn our agenda and attention for the day on moving to an on-line platform so that we can not only stay afloat, but also serve our mission of fostering joy, literacy and critical thinking through creative writing to kids and teens of all backgrounds. How will this work? Feeding off each other’s commitment and drive, we break into small brainstorming groups— the tech and systems people in one group, the programs people divided into others—to re-imagine and design an entire new Writopia world. When we come together a few hours later, we understand that, together as a team, we have the potential to not only keep our community intact, but also to reach new people across the country and even the world — especially those who don’t have access to a Writopia Lab brick-and-mortar lab. Zoom is going to  become our new best friend. 

A few hours later, we hear that New York City and NY State have both declared states of emergency. It won’t be long before the New York City public schools close. We have accomplished all that we can together, now it’s time to get ready to put it into practice. We pack up and leave that night, a day early. We have too much to do. We need to prepare our homes for long-term social distancing and sheltering-in-place. And we need to prepare for the immediate learning and launching of the new Writopia Lab era: online, emotionally connecting, intellectually stimulating writing workshops.    

Two weeks later, we have worked with almost 900 kids and teens across the country, and have received just as many warm smiles and relieved faces. We have loaned out laptops to those in need, extended our sliding-scale fee structure to the online space, and have developed a new a la carte online program that makes Writopia Lab especially financially accessible to those in need. We haven’t figured out how to reach every student we know; but we are reaching more and more each day.  

Two weeks later, most of us are in states that have shelter-in-place orders, and the number of those who are affected by the Novel Coronavirus has increased tenfold. We have learned of several Writopia Lab students from schools we taught at who are diagnosed with COVID-19, and some Writopia Lab students from our labs living with ill parents, fighting for their lives against COVID-19. While most of our community is healthy at home, self-quarantining without symptoms, we are listening to each other, supporting, inspiring, distracting, and entertaining each other — coming together as  an unbreakable community of creative writers and thinkers.

Two weeks later, despite the dramatic, successful move to online workshopping, we are financially hurting like so many others. But we will continue to grow and connect, finding new ways to be together and accessing the best of ourselves, even when we are processing the chaos around us. We need our creativity —  whether it be expressed through writing, dance, music, or art to connect us as humans, and we are blessed to be able to serve in this way.

Thank you to our full-time team, our instructors, our writers, and our writers’ parents for not only bearing with us, but for participating in this life-affirming movement, and for continuing to bring on the bloom of spring.

The Horror! : On Encouraging Young Writers to Dig into Fear by Jacquelyn Stolos, Program Coordinator

Jacquelyn Stolos is a new staff member at Writopia Lab in Los Angeles

As a new staff member at Writopia, I was thrilled to spend two weeks at WriCampia teaching, thinking, and exploring alongside the world’s most literary campers last August–what a dream! And more, I had the opportunity to fully embrace the eerie atmosphere of our home-away-from-home in the misty Poconos and lead a new horror elective, creating a space where WriCampians could feel safe and supported as they explored their darker, more sinister story ideas.

Now, as Halloween approaches, I’m excited to dig back into horror with my young writers for Frightopia, Writopia’s Halloween inspired writing program!  

WriCampia is Writopia Lab’s annual writing retreat and sleepaway camp. Find out more information here.

So why create a space for darkness? Each day at WriCampia, as we drew the blinds in our workshop space and cued up our eerie music, we asked ourselves just this. What exactly is horror? What makes fear an important emotion for writers to explore? We began each horror writing session sitting in a tight circle on the floor discussing personal fears such as spiders or dark water. As a community of curious, respectful horror writers, we posed questions, found common ground, and drew conclusions about what our fears told us about our ourselves, our lives, and our world. 

Get your copy of the WriCampia Horror and Mystery Anthologies this October on Amazon.

In an interview with The Paris Review, the feminist horror writer Carmen Maria Machado explains: “when you enter into horror, you’re entering into your own mind, your own anxiety, your own fear, your own darkest spaces.” At WriCampia, our horror writers challenged themselves to do just that. They wrote towards what they feared, shining light on the unsettling, cobwebby corners of their imaginations. Their stories filled with murders, sinister doubles, unexplained disappearances, and strangers creeping in. They allowed their writing to become a window into their subconsciousness, using blood, gore, and nightmare logic to ask big questions and dig into big anxieties.  

And what fantastic, horrific writing they produced! In the horror stories composed at camp, knives grow into swords, lakes continue down into icy eternity, and camp counselors aren’t quite who they seem. The work challenges readers by questioning what comes after death–Is it a cafe? A shopping mall?–and chill readers through tales of friends and relatives swapped out for something more malicious. In these unsettling tales, these brave WriCampians asked: What is the world made of? Who are we? What and who can we trust? 

In WriCampia’s horror elective, we discovered that writing about fear was just another way to write about ourselves. We shone the light on the things that scared us and found community and support in the dark. During this month’s Frightopia programming, I hope to bring these discoveries and more to young writers all the way across the country in Los Angeles. Who knows what we’ll unearth this time around; when playing with horror, you can never predict what might be lurking around the next corner. 


Jacquelyn Stolos can barely contain her excitement about joining the Writopia team in Los Angeles this spring! Jacquelyn began her writing career as an elementary schooler filling up spiral-bound notebooks while perched on a mossy rock in the woods behind her childhood home. Her habits have barely changed since. She studied English and French literature at Georgetown University, where she completed an honors thesis of short stories and won the Annabelle Bonner Medal for short fiction. For her masters, Jacquelyn was awarded the Writers in the Public Schools fellowship to study fiction in New York University’s MFA program. She has also workshopped at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, and the New York Summer Writers Institute. Her short fiction has appeared in The Atticus Review, Conte Online, and The Oddville Press. Jacquelyn is an ardent believer in the power of story and is always looking for ways to spread the love through education. She previously worked as a teaching artist at Teachers and Writers Collaborative, leading creative writing workshops in elementary and middle school classrooms, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University. Jacquelyn’s first novel, Edendale, will be released by Creature Publishing, a feminist horror press, in the spring of 2020.

Reflections on the 2018-2019 Year at Writopia Lab

 This has been such an incredible school year at Writopia across the country! We served over 5,000 invigorated kids and teens in safe space, censorship-free writing workshops at our labs, in schools, in partnership with community-based organizations, and at our sleepaway camp.
    Every day, we witnessed the key to effective writing instruction: inspiring student investment. Dozens and dozens of parents asked us this year: What is your secret? Why does my child love spending hours beyond her school schedule writing? The answer is simple: we help our kids and teens clear their minds of all the noise and expectations around them, and slowly identify what they want to write, and how they want to write it. During this process, our writers take more and more risks, as they explore elements of story-building, form, structure, and dimensions of craft. In other words, we treat them as any writer would want to be treated, and lo and behold, they begin their transformation into writers. 
    As curricular constraints become more onerous in many schools, kids and teens at our labs often complain about their disconnectedness from their in-school writing. During this past year, we have been invited into dozens more classrooms than in the past, forging and deepening partnerships with schools and teachers, joining forces to reawaken children’s love of writing. Students literally cheer as our instructors enter their classrooms. When they’re with us, they know they can be themselves; they can write to meet their goals, rather than write to meet someone else’s expectations. 
    Often, the only way adults can get kids to write is with a set of extrinsic rewards and punishments. But inspiring children and teens to love writing—and to want to learn how to do it better—wins them more than the possibility of an A. It transforms them into lifetime writers and confident thinkers, full of possibilities. Thank you for giving us the pleasure of going on this fun, often surprising, and always fulfilling journey with your children and students!
Click here to take a look at our 2018-2019 impact.


-Rebecca Wallace-Segall

The Safety of Stories in an Unsafe World by Madeline L. Taylor, Registration Coordinator

My bus ride to work, down Columbus Avenue in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is frequently crowded with parents and young children en route to school. I love when I end up on the same bus as one particular mom and her two elementary-school-aged daughters. As the bus bumps along in its morning daze, the mom reads aloud in a quiet voice to the girls, who sit on either side of her and lean in close to listen. The first time I saw this family, the mom was reading A Wrinkle In Time — my childhood favorite, one that has endured into my adulthood — her voice intoning L’Engle’s wise and fabulous words as her daughters listened with bright, albeit slightly sleepy, eyes. My own eyes glistened a little as I was touched with memories of my own encounters with the book. I felt bereft when they closed the book and jumped off the bus; it’s hard to return to the mundane realities of our world when the enticements of another world await.

This morning, the family was reading the third book in the series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet. They were a few pages in, and when I sat down next to them, I overheard a quiet conversation. One of the girls asked what would happen if the book’s antagonist, a cruel dictator, started a nuclear war as he threatened to do. The mom responded that a nuclear war would destroy the entire world; that if one country attacked, another would attack in turn, and we would all be completely ruined. But the mom was quick to reassure them: this wouldn’t happen to us today. There are good people who will stop nuclear wars from happening.

They returned to reading; they returned to a world where nuclear war was a construction of fiction and where peace has a fighting chance of prevailing. But of course, the mom knew — as I do, as every adult knows, as increasingly more children know — that nuclear destruction is altogether too real a possibility. L’Engle wrote the book in 1978, when Cold War anxieties abounded and seeped into the collective cultural consciousness. Its relevance, one would hope, would have decreased by now, forty years later. But the storyline has only warped and developed and shifted into new, horrendous realities. We’ve had many valiant peacemakers, but the antagonists still overwhelm us. Continue reading “The Safety of Stories in an Unsafe World by Madeline L. Taylor, Registration Coordinator”

Bridging Creative and Essay Writing for Literacy by Milana Meytes, Essay Writing Curriculum Developer

In the era of Trump’s disdain for the humanities and Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’s unnerving tenure, educators are forced to defend the efficacy of the humanities, while finding new spaces and educational models for the humanities to thrive. Literacy education in America has been compartmentalized into two categories: uniform writing composition instruction or the untethered and elite world of the creative writing workshop. But can creative writing, the workshop as space and pedagogy be integrated into writing composition classrooms en masse? The mythical dichotomies between composition and creative writing are not serving either teachers nor students or the future of literacy in America. The respective pedagogical approaches to teaching each genre and form must be re-examined.

In 2007, an energetic and brazen new teacher entered my 7th grade ELA classroom on the Upper West Side. The agenda was grammar and composition, subject matters that were closely intertwined with my shame for my mother’s accented English and my self-consciousness of possessing a second rate tongue. Despite receiving extra reading and vocabulary lessons provided to me by the privilege of attending a private school in Manhattan — Grammar and composition were familiar foes. And this ELA teacher was no different, as I proceeded to disrupt the whole composition class with audible yawns and comments interspersed between the rigidity of the rules of a language that I was trying on. However, this teacher was not having it. As a first generation immigrant from the Soviet Union with a lucky scholarship and a blunt attitude, this teacher saw a story waiting to be told and written not just a pupil or tongue waiting to be put into submission. Rebecca Wallace-Segall pulled me aside and encouraged me to write a memoir based on my family’s immigration journey. A year later I had won recognition for my writing from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and found a sense of self and empowerment through language. As for Rebecca, she had left the classroom to embark on a journey based on a wild notion: to offer literacy through creative writing and the creative writing workshop to kids all across America. Continue reading “Bridging Creative and Essay Writing for Literacy by Milana Meytes, Essay Writing Curriculum Developer”

How to Talk About The Scholastic Awards’ Results by Writopia Founder Rebecca Wallace-Segall and Program Directors Yael Schick & Danielle Sheeler

This year’s results for the Regional Scholastic Writing Awards are intended to be announced in most regions on Friday, January 31st (this info was updated in 2020). Many of our writers will find out that their pieces were honored with honorable mentions, silver keys, and/or gold keys! We are so, so, happy for all of our teens who received positive feedback this year. It feels great to work hard and be heard and celebrated by people other than our own parents and Writopia instructors! Of course, not everyone wins recognition each year. Below, please find tips on what to say to your writer no matter the results. 

The Writer Who Wins Recognition

After big hugs and cheers, be as thoughtful as your writer is about what words you use to celebrate his or her success. I would like to urge you to praise the hard work, dedication, and courage that your writer invested into his or her writing this year. Carol Dweck and a growing body of researchers recommend refraining from praising children’s raw talent. Their research suggests that praising hard work and dedication leads to … more hard work and dedication! Continue reading “How to Talk About The Scholastic Awards’ Results by Writopia Founder Rebecca Wallace-Segall and Program Directors Yael Schick & Danielle Sheeler”

Writing & Dance: A Leap of Faith by Léna Roy, Westchester Regional Manager

A student of mine spontaneously leapt up and started moving to a peer’s piece of poetry during a summer camp workshop this past summer. This inspired a whole session of interpretive dance to poetry. Right away I thought of my daughter’s dance company, the Isadora Duncan Youth Ensemble, directed by the innovative Carrie Tron. I visited Carrie that week at the studio and shared my excitement and delight. Her response? ”Let’s collaborate!”

We decided that the Isadora Duncan Youth Ensemble would be a part of Writopia’s December Reading at the Katonah Library, and that I would pick three poems from three different Writopians to share with her, so that her students would have a chance to do their own original choreography. The IDYE is comprised of both kids and teens, thirteen girls ranging in age from 7-18. The dancing is about clearing away inhibitions and internal conflict so that the dancers can authentically respond to the music and to each other. It is about being true to yourself. Interpretive or improvisational dance is much like what we do in Writopia Lab to excavate the rich, interesting and varied thoughts of our students. Continue reading “Writing & Dance: A Leap of Faith by Léna Roy, Westchester Regional Manager”

Notes From an Anxious Camper by Bianca Turetsky, Brooklyn Regional Coordinator

Camps are already filling up their early spots for the summer. And the yearly debate between parents hoping their kids will open up to new adventures and kids nervous to leave home has come hot on its heels. I was one of the nervous kids. In fact I had my first panic attack when I was in the 7th grade. I didn’t know what it was at the time, I just assumed I was dying. It wasn’t until I was in college at Tufts and saw my first therapist that I realized these symptoms had a diagnosis and a name, anxiety disorder.

By that point I was already an English major; writing stories in my notebooks during class was the only way I could get through some lectures without feeling like I needed to escape the room. I never shared these stories with anyone at the time–I didn’t have a safe place to do that. Instead I had closets stacked with these secret notebooks, my history, written in tight blue ballpoint pen. Some of these notebooks ultimately turned into my three Time-Traveling Fashionista books, fantasy books, about a girl from CT who wants to escape her life, not so unlike myself. (Unfortunately I never got to time travel my way out of Fairfield Woods Middle School!) Continue reading “Notes From an Anxious Camper by Bianca Turetsky, Brooklyn Regional Coordinator”