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Writers in the Schools

The Cabin

The Writers in the Schools (WITS) program brings professional teaching-writers into Treasure Valley schools and juvenile detention centers. Each residency is tailored for the individual site needs, with consideration of the Idaho Arts Education framework, the Common Core Standards, and our internal Education Outcomes and Objectives. The Mission of WITS is to provide in-depth writing instruction and promote self-discovery for Idaho youth through creative and active writing, reading, and discussion experiences.

The Essential Question that guided our projects’ focus was:

Did we cultivate a love of writing and reading through our WITS residencies?

Teaching-writer Danny Stewart provides a good answer to this essential question from his residency at the ACJDC:

“J. came into the creative writing class with an obvious attitude, joking and trying to get other students off-task. As class was ending I told J. he wouldn’t be invited back if he was going to distract other students, who took the class seriously and were engaged and enjoying writing and analyzing poems.

The next week he came back, but was attentive, and participated in the discussion. He also wrote a wonderful piece that highlighted his voice and created an experience in the reader’s mind. Each week his writing improved, finally producing a piece worthy of publication in Cambia. He was quite excited when I told him he’d be published. When he left, one of the staff told me he was happy J. was gone because he was such a handful; I told him how much I enjoyed working with him, and how his writing improved.

When the staff let me in the classroom I found a note from J. He admitted he initially came to poetry just to get out of his cell, but that he found himself writing in his room. He said writing helped relieve his anxiety, and he realized writing was tool he could use in his life ‘on the outs’ to deal with stress. I had never received a thank you note from a student that wasn’t written as a request from a teacher. It was incredibly gratifying.”

At the conclusion of the project, students responded to questions related to the identified Standards:

Some of the student’s comments about what they have learned and enjoyed during the residency are listed below:

  • I learned more about metaphors and similes.
  • I learned about personification.
  • I think creative writing is important because it gives you a growth mindset, expands your brain, helps you relax, and most important, expresses your feelings.
  • I think creative writing is important because you can learn who/what your personality is.
  • My favorite part of WITS is writing long stories and just the feeling of my pen moving across the paper.
  • I’ve learned a new way to revise during this residency.
  • My favorite parts of WITS were sharing and using my own ideas.

Impact

One of our longest-tenured teaching-writers, Laura Roghaar, had a particularly compelling experience in her residency at the Southwest Idaho Juvenile Detention Center this year. She describes it below:

“For one lesson, wanting students to have a little empathy exercise, I brought a stack of poem-dreams the poet Mathias Svalina wrote for me and my children. They are second-person dream-stories, the idea of being that Mathias dreams for you. Each student read a lot of dreams, sharing their favorites, and then they wrote a few for themselves and for other people.

One of my students, with homemade Arthurian-ish-font knuckle tattoos, is a gifted writer with a firehose of startling imagery and a fat brain file of lively vocabulary. But I know, even without knowing the details of his incarceration, that he is not going to be leaving the detention center, except to move to prison. The person he wrote a dream for is a corrections officer in the JDC. In the dream, the officer finds a vine dying in a castle parapet. Nearby there is a separate crate of wilting vegetables. The corrections officer frantically tries to reattach the vegetables by pushing them out of the crate to walk, kind of limping, over to the vine. He wants the vegetables to reattach themselves. In the dream he understands that if the vegetables can get back on, they’ll revive, and the vine will thrive again too.”

Reflection

The Writers in the Schools (WITS) program, which this grant helped fund, was cut short due to school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, WITS residencies ran as planned through the fall 2019 semester but only about half of the spring 2020 semester. In spite of this abbreviated schedule, our teaching writers submitted their final reports, though we were unable to collect student surveys for the Spring 2020 semester. Overall, WITS reached 563 youth (43% within underserved communities) across nine locations, including two juvenile detention centers and two high schools focused on at-risk students.

We would also like to note that we made the decision to pay our teaching-writers through the end of the school year, in spite of the shortened academic calendar. As the budget was already in place and our writers depend on this income, we felt it was important to do what we could to support them during this health crisis and period of economic instability.

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