Education

Writopia Gets Kids to Tell Their Stories

Providing motivation, encouragement, and space to write can change lives.

by

In 1997, I interned at the Village Voice for Ron Plotkin, the legendary longtime Letters page editor. Within a few weeks, I was pitching and writing pieces about New York’s culturally rich but marginalized, mistreated, or stereotyped children and communities. I sat behind Ron as he edited, barking questions but also praise at me while teaching journalistic concepts. What I didn’t know at the time: Ron was laying the foundation for a warm but fierce and rigorous instructional teaching method that would impact over 50,000 children in the decades to come. Ron’s kindness, passion for justice and fairness, and high standards live on long after his passing, in 2002.

It is still hard to write about Ron’s death. I returned to the office once afterward; the seat he’d occupied for years sat empty. It was hard to enter the building without hearing his ghost banging passionately at the keyboard. I was 30. My heart hurt from loss. As Joan Didion said in The Year of Magical Thinking, “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.” I walked around the vibrant Upper West Side, smelling the summer air and taking in the sea of families and children. Their banter and energy filled me with longing. How do I not know a single one of these children? Losing Ron allowed me to ask that question, and I began to look into ways I could connect with children—by asking them the right supportive and challenging questions to unlock their stories. Like Ron did for me.

A month after Ron’s passing, I started running memoir-writing workshops as a teaching artist in a public school in Queens that serves low-income, mostly immigrant families. The classroom teacher and I ran the segment on memoir writing together. The children for the first time wrote about their personal journeys—a bike accident, a long-awaited family reunification, a racist attack—that explored both subtle and direct lessons learned. Their pieces were filled with insights only they had: Only Isaac knew how a bike injury disrupted the social order of his cousin clan, and only he held the wisdom to change it back. Only Samara knew the intimate details of the long-awaited and strange meeting with her mother after four years of separation. Only Jaamal knew how it felt to be yelled at by a local deli owner who thought he was stealing when he was trying to surprise his cousin with a piece of candy he was quietly bringing to the register. They became invested in their stories, revised them until they were polished, submitted them to writing recognition programs, and won their first awards. After a class reading, one father said to me, “Thank you. This writing shows us who our children really are.” Rigorous writing workshops—a frontline of hands-on social change—were suddenly the only place I wanted to be, in the spirit of Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire and the transformative power of learning together with one’s students.

Literacy skills help our students succeed not only in school but, ultimately, in the workplace and beyond. As former New School president and Democratic candidate for the presidency Bob Kerrey writes, “Writing is both a ‘marker’ of high-skill, high-wage professional work and a ‘gatekeeper’ with clear equity implications.” I became obsessed with helping children fall in love with the writing process in order to become happier, more successful, literacy-empowered people.

Meanwhile, many public schools were implementing versions of progressive, process-driven approaches to the teaching of writing. My ideas were aligned with many aspects of these educational frameworks, which focus on content, critical thinking, and confidence-building over formulaic sentence and paragraph construction and “deficit-model” teaching, which focuses on correcting spelling and grammar. The best teachers integrate and expand both of these approaches when teaching essay, fiction, or personal narrative writing. But nearly half of American students continue to write below grade level. Meanwhile, teachers often report in national surveys that they lack the training to teach writing in any context—process-driven or traditional, creative or information-driven. It is no surprise then, that, according to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, there is little evidence that writing, on the whole, has been taught in a widespread or systematic way. A 2016 study of nearly 500 teachers in grades three through eight, conducted by Gary Troia, at Michigan State University, and Steve Graham, at Arizona State University, clarified further: Only 55% of respondents said they enjoyed teaching the subject. “Most teachers are great readers,” Troia wrote. “They’ve been successful in college, maybe even graduate school. But when you ask most teachers about their comfort with writing and their writing experiences, they don’t do very much, or feel comfortable with it.

In 2010, the architects of the Common Core Standards—our country’s first national education policy—believed that the solution was to dramatically reduce the amount of creative or personal writing in the curriculum, replacing it with information-based writing and rigid standards, rather than to dramatically increase funding and pathways for teachers to receive training in writing education. The result: In 2012, when NYC rolled out Common Core, some teachers became so anxious that, in one school where I was teaching, they walked around the room criticizing the kids’ creative writing frameworks and ideas before students even had a chance to develop them—prompting pens and heads to fall to the desk. By 2017, Common Core had received so much pushback from teachers and parents for its lack of “developmentally appropriate” standards and for “squeezing out literature in favor of nonfiction” that policymakers in New York created their own version of the program, adding some “play-based” curricula into early childhood standards and more literature into the English Language Arts curriculum.

The issue goes beyond public education, though. In 2006, I was invited to teach in an elite progressive Manhattan private school, stepping in because the classroom teacher was struggling with teaching writing; this experience ultimately allowed me the inspiring space to develop an instructional framework and the network to share it with children of all backgrounds. I was able to see the inner workings of a private school. I discovered dreamy team meetings of 15 educators discussing the well-being of one child, and found that social-emotional writing empowerment benefitted all children—not just those in the margins.

 

=====    Michelle Qiao   ======

Fuse

the girls / that live / in 444S / seldom make noise
with the sun. But / as the beams / trickle down
in rivets / through the carpets / down the windows,

one girl etches cracks / with her teeth / in the bathroom sink
and the other / eats cherries / spitting the pits
in a bowl; they hit / the porcelain / and sound

of bones. Cherry girl / watches / the TV
and Mirror girl watches / her. The brick walls
breathe / and decay / with each exhale, with each
body fused / into earth. Heavy, warm. Another exhale

and the bones / in the foundations
begin to creak. Mirror girl goes nextdoor
to talk to the dead woman. They hold hands / and chat
about the dog upstairs / lost mailbox keys / 444S / death
and how / they still / breathe.

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“I have one very smart, bored, disengaged seventh-grade girl who is in need of something—some kind of challenge—she’s not getting,” the principal of the private school had said to me on the phone before I started. A few days later, as I walked into a pristine classroom, I saw Noa’s glassy eyes and knew she was the one. I looked around further and spotted a bespectacled boy who was also checked out of the class discussion, doodling a comic on his paper. I asked if I could collect him as well. The principal agreed, saying, “Peter is addicted to video gaming. Maybe you can get him into something else.…” Soon, Noa, Peter, and I were walking down a hallway to a nook folded inconspicuously into the basement. I had just received an email from a teaching artists network about the Scholastic Writing Awards, the nation’s most prestigious and longest-running writing recognition program for teens. The two kids perked up at the suggestion of submitting something to Scholastic, and brainstormed some fiction and memoir ideas. Peter produced a fantastical tale that explored a battle between two armies, the Pencils and the Erasers, in “A School Supply’s World.” Noa wrote a poetic, fictional narrative. I eventually added Milana, an eye-rolling cynic, to the group, and she ended up writing a deeply reflective memoir on her Russian immigrant family experience. Each child dug deep into backstories and motivations—Noa won a National Gold Medal for her story, and the other two kids won regional Scholastic Writing Awards. Peter made a plan to write a new memoir the following year, “The Positive Effects of Video Games on My Life,” and Milana revised her memoir. Both won national recognition the following year. For perspective, fewer than 1% of young writers who submit work receive national recognition from the Scholastic Awards each year. Hundreds of Writopia teens have won since that first group, such as Michelle Qiao, 16, who got national recognition for her writing this year. (Milana went on to focus her master’s thesis at NYU in 2017 on “memory studies,” Peter became a science teacher at the same school where I met him, and Noa is now a data scientist.)

Meanwhile, the leadership at the private school where I was working had trouble stomaching the intersection of creativity and rigor. Despite the dramatic success the students had with the Scholastic Writing Awards over the next few years, outperforming every other school in the city, a new principal came in and shut down the pathway to  submissions—because the school was “philosophically opposed to competition.” The problem is, most middle and high schools—progressive or not— celebrate their athletes with trophies and their thespians with annual theater productions, leaving writerly teens feeling unseen or uncool. The Scholastic Writing Awards program seeks to counter this by offering trophies for writers. The local Barnes & Noble had agreed that year to have the writers stand at the store’s author podium to receive their moment in the spotlight, and inspire others to write. But that would be the last year those students could submit to the Scholastic Awards through their school.

 

=====   Milana   =====

Framing the Past; Envisioning the Future (excerpt)

I sit upon a chair looking at this photograph. I touch it: It is thin but surprisingly sturdy despite the fact that it has no frame, no protection, no shield from time. Every crease in it has a story. It sits upon the armoire looking back at me, reminding me who I am and what I’ve done. It is intriguing, like a wise elder, grown with age. It is an image stuck in time. In this photograph is a world I used to be a part of, a world I do not know. In this photograph is someone I hold so dear—my mother—but who sometimes seems so far.

I was born in a small town near Tashkent, Chir Chik. In its busy central streets, people crowd around in groups and gossip. The babushkas with their scarves intact go to the market to get fresh, fat, juicy strawberries and peaches passing their neighbors saying Prevet (Hello) and Kak te pazchelaieesh (How are you?). It is cool with a hint of humidity, and everyone is waiting for the winter to envelop the town in its ironic warmth. The grandfathers play a friendly game of chess betting with rubles. The streets are small but seem big enough for the small apartment complexes that pave them.

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Their parents would look elsewhere—beyond school walls—for a robust creative writing outlet and comprehensive instructional support system. But there were families and schools a few blocks away, and many more a few miles away, that could not afford to look elsewhere for enrichment programs. According to a 2016 Georgetown University study, “Born to Win, Schooled to Lose,” over the past few decades the income gap between rich and poor has been widening: Families from the highest income bracket spent about $8,600 per year on child enrichment activities, while families in the lowest bracket spent closer to $1,700.

In 2007, I began researching how to found and build a new nonprofit, where I could bring all the young people I knew into one space, together. I called it Writopia Lab. This was a heavy lift. Influential educator Lisa Delpit has warned over past decades that the most extreme takes on both progressive and traditional approaches to the teaching of writing—the former neglecting to teach kids basics such as how to spell, craft, and structure their writing, the latter dismissing the integrity and personal history of voice and dialect—often particularly fail to serve children of color. Indeed, they serve few children well: The traditional skills-driven approach can result in culture and dialect shaming and disconnect from the endeavor of writing, while the progressive, hands-off approach can leave students with low standardized testing scores and a stigmatized language ability that inhibits entry to college and professional-level jobs. Meanwhile, every writer—academic, fiction, nonfiction—knows that it takes all of the above to make a great writer: personal investment, authentic voice, craft, and skill.

Within two years, Writopia’s mission was refined: “To foster joy, literacy, and critical thinking in children and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing.” Within five years, Writopia was serving thousands of children and teens each year, through partnerships and writing “labs,” and was hiring passionate, fun-loving, published writers in droves. By 2011, a team of fiction writers, playwrights, comedy writers, poets, memoirists, journalists, social workers, and educators emerged, several of whom have contributed to a book, Plot Builds Character (which parts of this article are excerpted from). From the beginning, the team has met in small circles to brainstorm games and exercises and theories of change, allowing Writopia to emerge as an actual laboratory of sorts. An open space was created that welcomes diverse communities of children ages 4 to 18 into creative writing workshops, annual playwriting festivals, essay-writing conferences at the New School, an annual sleepaway camp in the Poconos, international newspaper and debate programs, and irreverent college-essay workshops. As part of further reducing barriers to entry, since Writopia’s founding, approximately 40% of parents or guardians coming to our labs have paid reduced fees on an honor-based sliding scale, or have received full funding to attend. And the program goes to those who can’t come to it. Approximately another 1,000 per year receive free access to our programs at community-based organizations such as Homes for the Homeless and Goddard Riverside, and at schools through Department of Education Community School funding or through foundation funding. (Since 2015, the Pinkerton Foundation, among several other institutions, has helped fund Writopia’s community-based organization initiatives.) Writers from all of our sites come together at large seasonal events such as the Pride Parade and spoken word and theatrical performances at the Nuyorican Cafe and Bryant Park, sharing their diverse works to supportive choruses of snaps for their spoken word pieces and claps for their plays.

Programs like Writopia are in demand because people are storytelling, communicative creatures, or “story-telling animals,” as evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Gottschall puts it.  In an article in Education Forum, Writopia director Danielle Sheeler elaborates: “Cultivating wholehearted teaching and learning is much like cultivating a meaningful conversation with a friend. There are three necessary elements. First is play … witty banter, games, puns, shooting hoops.… Second is authenticity. Far from an exchange of pleasantries and small talk, a wholehearted conversation is full of processing worries, venting complaints, talking about scary decisions. Third is listening and giving feedback. One person recognizes what the other person is saying … nodding and saying, “good point! Other times, it may be telling your close friend something they may not want
to hear.”

With the focus on process rather than product, the joy of writing lends itself to endless possibilities. Here’s one example: A few years ago, a family court employee called Writopia to share a story about an incarcerated teen from a residential treatment facility, which she had just witnessed. “When asked by the judge what progress he had made, the teen said that he had written a play that explores family and addiction that was chosen for production by Writopia’s Worldwide Plays Festival. The judge, typically severe, was ‘really happy’ for him,” the court employee said.  Clearly, creative writing is not a superfluous discipline to be marginalized; it is integral to youth development and improving literacy. According to a 2013 study published in Mind, Brain, and Education, there is a well-established link between joyful play and academic and social-emotional growth. But we all need more than games and encouragement to learn to write effectively. Highly engaged participation and rigorous feedback lead to improved critical thinking and writing skills.

 

===== Peter =====

A School Supply’s World (excerpt)

Once, there was a pencil who lived in a store. It was Staples at 82nd and Broadway. His name was Cil. One day, he was bought and taken to a far away place. It was one of the Humans’ apartments. It was relatively small, and there was an awfully cluttered desk that was his new home.

While he was exploring one day, he stumbled upon a group of four Pens chatting quietly behind the primitive human computer. Cil froze. At the store, the Pens were down the aisle, so nobody he knew had ever met a Pen. He was probably the first of his kind who had ever met a Pen.

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This academic year was the 10th anniversary of the Common Core rollout in New York City, the 15th anniversary of Writopia’s founding, the second anniversary of the international pandemic caused by Covid-19—and the 20th anniversary of Ron Plotkin’s passing. I thought about Ron a lot during the pandemic—how concerned he would be for his neighbors, his community, his colleagues. The stories he’d insist we research and write. An outspoken recovering alcoholic, he’d be upset to witness kids’ mental-health diagnoses spike. Indeed, our students needed us more than ever, as they navigated a variety of emotions from anxiety to loss, loneliness, and trauma. The pandemic saw heavily reported learning losses across the nation, especially among youth from low-income backgrounds. “My students had lost years of fluency in writing and need an infusion of joy and inspiration and skills,” Charlene Reid, co-CEO of the nonprofit Excellence Community Schools, tells the Voice. Writopia started working with her students this spring. “The students are writing even when they’re out sick now. Writopia is more than a curriculum. It’s a revolution,” she reports. James Pennebaker, a psychologist and expert in the field of “Expressive Writing,” emphasizes that writing is good for our well-being. According to his research team, writing strengthens the immune cells called T-lymphocytes; it is associated with a drop in depression and anxiety and an increase in the quality of close relationships. Reflective writing can help us all get through periods of stress, isolation, and instability—and bring us closer together.

So, the next step: Knock on Mayor Eric Adams’s and New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks’s doors and try to get much-needed, widely available writing workshops as part of teacher training and classroom time slipped into the administration’s Department of Education summer and fall agendas. Musicians teach music; artists teach art. Let’s give those English teachers who feel disconnected from writing the chance to feel like writers, so they can teach their field with confidence and passion.

Ron would give me a side-eye and a half-grin at this notion, and start pounding away at the keyboard.  ❖

Rebecca Wallace-Segall founded Writopia Lab in 2007, and serves as its executive director. In 2015, she established Writopia’s Training Institute. She has won multiple teaching awards and has written for The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and The Nation, among other publications. She is currently completing her master’s in Urban Education Policy at CUNY Graduate Center.

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