By Rebecca Wallace-Segall, Danielle Sheeler, and Yael Schick
As literacy curriculum developers, we enjoyed the New York Times article “Why Kids Can’t Write.” But we were surprised by the limited view it provided into the cultural landscape of literacy education. While the writer acknowledged the importance of the synthesis of personal voice and direct grammar lessons, she profiled only educators who either resist teaching direct grammar lessons altogether or, on the other extreme, who flat out reject student-centered learning that promotes joy and the development of personal vision and voice.But writing education can easily combine the two approaches, imbuing lessons with the layered values of meaningful, coherent writing. What is an essay without prepositions to stand on? What are prepositions without content to hold up? What is a college essay that reveals nothing honest and moving about the writer?
We work with hundreds of educators on bridging the gap between student-centered creative writing and a rigorous revisions process; between fiction writing and academic essay writing; between under-funded and well-resourced schools. We bring our salon-like workshop culture into the classroom and work side-by-side with educators across the country and have begun to shrink these gaps with more flexible approaches than the ones depicted in this article.
This fall, we are working with the NYC DOE, offering a professional development class to public school teachers to help bridge these gaps.
Motivated school leaders and educators in schools like PS 276, with a highly literate student body, have been implementing this method for four years; the principal of the nearly failing school Sojourner Truth in Harlem brought us in last year to begin to reshape the school’s literacy culture. We measure our impact in various ways in these schools and in many others schools throughout the New York, DC, LA, and Chicago. Nearly 100% of our writers’ parents report that their children are happier since they started expressing themselves through writing. Principals report that once reluctant writers are writing enthusiastically, engaging their school assignments with more rigor. (We are waiting to see if literacy scores were improved at Sojourner this year after one year of literacy support.) At our own workshop spaces, over 75% of the parents of reluctant writers say that their kids’ grades and even test scores have improved since becoming immersed in our rigorous creative writing program alone. And we are proud to report that each year an increasing number of our writers from low literacy backgrounds from across the country receive recognition from the Scholastic Writing Awards.
We are dedicated to helping kids from all backgrounds fall in love with writing while raising their literacy levels–this pleasure should not be reserved for the privileged. Nor does it need to be.
And the most important impact of all? Our teens, from rich and poor families with various literacy backgrounds, receive phone calls and letters from admissions officers each year thanking them for their stand out, deeply moving, or funny college essays. The end is a powerful piece of writing with personal vision and voice. A gateway to the soul. A connection between two people–and ultimately between thousands more. Enough to make an exhausted college essay reader laugh or cry–and stop and write you a “thank you” email.
Apparently, kids can write. We just have to let them.
Rebecca Wallace-Segall founded Writopia Lab in 2007 and serves as the Executive Director.
Danielle Sheeler joined Writopia Lab in 2012. She is the Director of Camps and Curriculum.
Yael Schick joined Writopia Lab in 2012. She is the Director of Programs.