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Writers in the Schools

The Cabin

The Cabin’s Writers in the Schools (WITS) program brings professional teaching-writers into Treasure Valley schools, juvenile detention centers, and community learning centers. For sites under this grant-excluding those with the primary purpose of reaching under-resourced and at-risk populations-WITs served 550 students in 21 classrooms at Boise High School, Riverglen Junior High, Rose Hill Montessori, Sage International, Riverstone International, BSU Intensive English, and White Pine, Valley View, Adams, and Riverside Elementary. 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, promote self-discovery, and foster mental and emotional well-being 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, promote self-discovery, and foster mental and emotional well-being?

Given the diverse set of needs at each site, there were various approaches to meet the program’s objectives.

“Our goal was to get students excited about creative writing and to provide them with a range of craft knowledge and techniques,” says teaching-writer Hannah Phillips. “This particular residency [at Valley View Elementary] was mythology-themed, so we gathered all of our writing samples from the mythologies of different ancient cultures. Students drew comparisons between these myths, identified core elements, and ultimately created their own.”

Teaching-writer Ayotola Tehingbola notes, “Students practice the process-oriented approach to writing: discovering one’s material; crafting that material into the most suitable form according to the intended emotional effect upon the target audience; revising as often as necessary.”

At Rose Hill Montessori, Elizabeth Barnes’s focus is to ignite creativity within students. “I approach writing in a playful, joyful manner in an effort to open students to engage and connect with their own creative selves. My first goal is to foster the ability for students to find their own flow. My second goal is to explore a variety of genres so that students are exposed to many types of writing.”

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

Creating
-I learned to use my senses.
-When I put my words and thoughts down on paper, it creates this amazing thing.
-I write to make my ideas come to life.
-I write because it lets me go beyond the impossible.

Responding
-It helped me learn how to look at things in a different way.
-My writing teachers helped me see writing in a new way.

Connecting
-I write because you can just let out all of your emotions.
-I write to clear my mind.
-Writing helps me listen to myself.
-I love pouring out all the stories and ideas that get stuck in my head.
-Writing is a gift.

Performing/Presenting/Producing
-I learned editing is different from revising.
-The best part was listening to other people’s interesting stories.
-We got to introduce our minds to new things.

Student Writing
-My feelings are exploding like bombs in the cold night sky.
-I also happen to be the frantic wasp in hiding, / and the bag of chocolate chips on the pantry shelf.
-I want a book that can help escape the ruthless murders, / The fights, / The forest fires, / The normalization of suicide.
-Raindrops stick on the leaves like glue. The sun is so bright you can barely see what’s right in front of you. The stream so slow that a turtle could walk faster than it.

Impact

“Before we started the residency, we were told that there were two students with ADHD and that as long as they were not interrupting the class, we should let them be,” says Ayotola Tehingbola, teaching-writer at Valley View Elementary. “One of these students was consistently not writing. He believed he didn’t have any ideas, and when he did, he was unwilling to execute them to the finish. He mostly didn’t participate in writing exercises/prompts. I was really worried that he would have no final piece for the class anthology. I kept asking how I could help, how we could work together, and what he was interested in writing. This went on for weeks. Then when I taught the class, I asked students to create mythical objects and creatures and draw them. This changed everything. He was able to write a story about a giant spider and a spider-creator gadget because he could enter his story world through the backstory and functions of the creature/object.”

Reflection

What Worked
-65% retention rate is higher than we’ve seen since before the pandemic.
-Increased reach to high schools.
-Partnership with ArTPack, a project that aims to give backpacks of free art supplies and lessons to students who do not have access to arts education. These residencies have a huge impact; art and drawing are often a gateway to motivating reluctant writers to write.
-Expanded presence outside of Ada County with two residencies at Sage International School’s Middleton campus with renowned poet Kerri Webster.

Do Differently / Recommendations
-Some of the classrooms we worked with last year were not able to participate in the program because of lack of funding / the end of their additional COVID funds. While schools that serve primarily under-resourced and historically marginalized populations only pay about 10% of the total cost, this is still too much for many schools. We need to figure out a more sustainable way to keep WITS in these schools.
-Encourage students to be creative and imagine their own characters, not incorporate social media characters.
-Back-up lessons for when there is a substitute classroom teacher.
-Focus earlier on the basic building blocks of description and story writing.
-More specific prompts with line-by-line guidance.
-Invite classroom teacher and TA to join the lesson.
-Set classroom expectations early so the students can have fun and be creative.
-Incorporate more drawing with the writing
-More time for revision.

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