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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 Tracy Sunderland provides a good answer to this essential question from her summer school residency:

`One young writer was very reluctant to start and seemed to have little interest in trying to write. He slumped over his desk during the first sessions. He told me that he never wanted to share his writing, so please don’t ask him.

But a flame was sparked by an exercise I call `fiction stew` – writers draw ingredients from a hat or other container and must use them in their writing. Having ingredients, having something to write about, ignited something in his brain and he couldn’t get enough. He was so tickled and excited when he would draw unlikely combos like `wheat field` and `shark` that he had to use in a poem. It was if the limitations sparked his unlimited imagination. His whole affect changed: he was eager to share his writing with me, started writing poems without outside prompts, started drawing alongside his writing. It was so sweet to witness his interest, happiness, and confidence bloom. He told me at the end of the two weeks that he `loves writing now,` which really is the point, isn’t it? I just want to roll him in bubble wrap and keep his newfound wonder and eagerness safe.`

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

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

– I discovered that being a writer takes practice and that you will always make mistakes. But you can always fix your mistakes!

– What I learned from writing today is that people use metaphors and similes in everyday sentences.

– What I learned about writing is that it?s not just an assignment or a way to do a project, but it?s a way for people to express themselves or express how they feel about things.

– What I discovered about writing is that it?s a way you can learn. You can learn new perspectives and different ways to look at things.

– I learned that I can write on and on about a topic that sounded too hard to even write a paragraph about. But it was easier than I thought.

– I discovered that I can think about my name and write it as a poem.

– What I discovered about me as a writer is when I free write, I have nothing, but when someone gives me a hint [guides me], I write some amazing stuff.

– I feel like the point of writing is to let stuff out. I write music to tell my story – how I grew up, the things I saw, the things I have done. When I’m done it makes me feel great.

Impact

One of our teaching-writers, Elizabeth Barnes, relayed an impactful experience in her residency at Rose Hill:

`I have been working with two students for the last three years. Camryn and Thayden were always quiet students. Camryn hated sharing her work and her writing and reading skills were at a lower level than most.

However, this year Camryn and Thayden started working together. They began by turning their weekly spelling words into stream-of-conscious stories. They shared one of these stories with the class at WITS and so the next week we talked ways to use this style of writing. Thayden and Camryn came up with the characters Cat & Dog. This poem eventually turned into a 16-page epic piece that the two of them would work on during recess.

Throughout the school year, we would get readings of the latest Cat & Dog installment. Two students who never shared their own work started developing real personas and every week begged to share their favorite. In the end, we were able to edit their epic poem into a three-page script that they shared at the final reading. Watching these two somewhat reluctant writers spend their free time dreaming up their latest version of the story truly became the heart and soul of our class.`

Reflection

The Writers in the Schools (WITS) program, which this grant helped fund, was still operating under restricted guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, some or all of classroom hours where we ran our WITS residencies were, once again, held online. We see this returning to fully in-person instruction in the 2021-2022 academic calendar.

For the first time, were able to launch an abbreviated summer WITS program at Frank Church High School, populated by Frank Church students and a number of other schools (e.g. Garfield Elementary, Grace Jordan Elementary, Whittier Elementary, Morley Nelson Elementary, and Whitney Elementary) via the Pathways to Promotion program, designed for educationally at-risk students. Overall, WITS reached 600 youth across six locations, including two juvenile detention centers and two Title I schools. Additionally, our WITS program is on-track to continue growing next year, reaching more Title I and non-Title I schools, and expanding its summer WITS offerings.

In terms of possible improvements for the program, we?re looking into having assistants for some or all of the classrooms (particularly those with ELL students) and setting up more time between teachers and teaching-writers to meet before the start of the residency to discuss classroom culture, expectations, and goals.

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