Writing Club Turns 13!
It’s the start of a new school year. We are half way through the fourth week of our thirteenth year at Hart Middle School. That means Writing Club is now a teenager–an eighth grader. It wears a black uniform and no longer thinks any of my jokes are funny. We are about to ban it from dating.
We have gained so many new followers, here and on Facebook, that I thought it would be good to do a new introduction to the Workshop, in case anyone is still confused about how amazing we are. Last month I had to give a presentation to the DC Arts and Humanities Commission about our organization. As it turned out I didn’t get to say a tenth of what I had planned, but the notes shape up into a decent blog post.
So here it is. Written as though I were going to be heard rather than read, this is how I see the identity of the Writing Workshop.
At Our Core…
We are currently the only nonprofit operating an extracurricular program at Hart. There are other organizations that have come in and out for brief periods of time—we have been in these schools, serving this community, since 2000. Nancy’s actually been there since 1995. We’re the only creative writing program for Congress Heights students, and except for the marching band, we’re the only arts opportunity that Hart students have. There’s no chorus, there’s no art teacher. Up until last year there wasn’t a library in the school. We as an organization have a library, and so we were their only source of books.
Basically, the students in these schools have very very few chances for self expression. Almost none. And we are there to provide them with this one vital outlet when otherwise they would have nothing.
I see us as having a twofold mission, basically. The first part is to provide a high quality, professional arts education experience to our students. It’s not like they have other subpar options. They have no other options. So that gives us an incredible responsibility to be really good, to ensure that the way we teach them to approach creativity and think about language, and the way we instill in them the idea that these things are integral to life—we have to be very thorough and very thoughtful & have very high standards for ourselves.
The second part is to draw on the tradition of the arts as a refuge, as a place to cement your sense of self and take power over your experiences and traumas. That’s where we serve the kids who need it the most, the kids who maybe aren’t going to turn out to be poetry prodigies but who need that basic catharsis that writing provides. They need a place that tells them negative emotions are okay, that accepts and takes seriously the intense angers and sadnesses that they feel, as eleven and twelve year olds. That’s a really important part of what poetry can do.
We’re constantly balancing those two missions, which are slightly different but are also very intertwined, and we’re trying to serve a wide range of ability levels while providing each student individually with the things they need and the best possible experience.
What Makes Us Unique
There’s the fact that we’re the only after school arts opportunity for kids at this school (Hart). There’s the fact that we’re the only organization that works with teachers in these schools on a regular basis, goes into classrooms and makes a sustained commitment to growing students as artists.
But besides that, there are two things that make us, in my view, a unique organization, and are why I wouldn’t want to be working anywhere else in the city. The first is the population we serve and the second is the methods we use to deliver our programs.
Population – I’m sure you already know a fair amount about the demographics of Ward 8. 88% of students at Hart qualify for free lunch. The graduation rate at Ballou is around 60%, the drop-out rate is around 16%.
A lot of people know facts like this, a lot of people are eager to help, and to work with kids, but with the push to produce measurable results, we see more and more organizations who are only willing to work with the students who are going to show really incredible gains. There will always be a few children in a neighborhood like this who are exceptional, who manage to make astonishing achievements – artistic and academic—despite the overwhelming odds against them.
But there are also a lot of ordinary children, who are not prodigiously talented in any one area, who nevertheless face disproportionate disadvantages. And there are children with learning disabilities and behavior problems and anger problems who are never going to become professional writers. They can’t even really control themselves in group setting –that’s why we always have such a high adult-to child ratio, some kids have to have their own adult to physically restrain them and keep them paying attention—but they still benefit TREMENDOUSLY from being in a positive community environment, and they benefit TREMENDOUSLY from having an outlet for self expression, (and the outside community benefits TREMENDOUSLY from having those kids with us) and in terms of enjoyment of those opportunities offered them, they are just as excited, just as enthusiastic.
We have kids who are below basic on their test scores, who really physically can’t sit still and listen to a lesson for more than 60 seconds at a time, but we’ve taken them to plays at Arena Stage, and they drink it up. They beg us for theater trips. It’s something that’s completely outside of their everyday experience, and they are enthralled. And no one would look at that kid and say, he would really enjoy theater. But they do. And so while we welcome any kid who comes to us, that’s a population that I think we have a special mission to serve.
We have a lot of students come to us who have been kicked out of other programs. We have—honestly—a lot of students who come to us not because their passion is writing but because they’re looking for a refuge (even though they might not know that’s what they’re looking for). And we give them that and along the way we make them into writers. We build artists out of people who previously would not have given the arts a second thought.
The second thing that makes us unique is the way we take these kids in and instruct their imaginations. We do not rely on volunteers for program delivery. We have volunteers helping in the classroom, helping with events, helping with field trips, but all of our classes are taught by our professional writers in residence. And every day our after school program is taught by a professional writer in residence. And all these writers are DC artists who we are both employing, which is a good thing, and bringing them into to creating the next generation of DC artists.
Completing the Cycle
The other thing is that there are a lot of organizations who are dedicated to helping the exceptional children get out into the wider world—and that’s where their mission ends.
We go farther than that. We maintain connections with the students who leave our middle school program and go to high school, with the students who leave our high school program and go to college. And because we’re rooted in the community, becoming involved with us is another way for our students to become involved, to put down roots in their community. All that interconnectedness pays off—we have kids who write with us, go off to college, and then come back. Both the football coach and the assistant coach at Hart right now are former writing workshop students. A former student who’s at the University of Maryland right now came back to visit us last spring—he’s almost done with his degree in music education, and when he’s done he plans on coming back to Hart to teach music.
That’s what our program does. We strengthen commitments to working with youth, to working with youth in the arts, and to coming back to that neighborhood that gave you so much, that needs so much, and continuing the cycle of giving back.