Kayla likes to sit near the front of the room, where all the light falls on her. She stays out of the corners. Her closest friends in Writing Club are Ty’Shea and Steve, both sixth graders like her, but she’s just as comfortable playing tag with the eighth grade boys or talking about the presidential election with the adults. She’s quiet but not shy. Her poems are ferocious in their imagination and painstakingly careful in their form. When you speak, she listens with such solemn concentration that it makes you slow down and reflect more carefully on what you’re saying.
Last week Kayla got up to read her poem, but one boy was being so smart-alecky that she eventually put down her paper and walked out of the room, visibly upset. The whole class was outraged. Two older students jumped up to make the boy apologize. We told him to take the rest of the day off. When Kayla returned to the room and walked back to the front, the applause was deafening.
Here’s Kayla in her own words, telling us about her experience in the Workshop:
How did you find out about Writing Club?
I found out about Writing Club because of Ms. Nancy. Every time I went to Busboys and Poets, Ms. Nancy would say, “I hope to see you next year.”
What is your favorite book?
My favorite book is Matilda because I like what it is about and I can relate to Matilda in a way.
What do sixth graders know that other people don’t?
Sixth graders know the ages of two of the teachers, and the feeling of silent lunch. [Note: Can I just say, she went super literal here, and I’m impressed 🙂 The silent lunch thing refers to the fact that a couple sixth graders were being disruptive at some point in the past, and in punishment the entire sixth grade is now required to have lunch without talking. Ironically it’s the sixth graders who least deserve the punishment, like Kayla, who are most likely to obey the terms.]
What is something you want to have done by the end of sixth grade?
Something that I want to do by the end of sixth grade is memorize everything I’ve learned. I also want to make the Honor Roll.
If you could change one thing about Writing Club, what would it be?
One thing I would change about Writing Club is chicken wings for snacks. That’s all. I would also change the color of the classroom because the color needs to be bright like the sun, so I can remember that my future depends on Writing Club.
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. Read the rest of this entry