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Writers in the Schools (WITS)

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. Wits served 270 students in 14 classrooms at Riverglen Junior High, Rose Hill Montessori, Sage International 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.

“We covered craft elements of creative writing: character development, plot, conflict, simile/metaphor, revision,” notes Teaching-Writer Kathleen Olp at Adams Elementary. “Students read story excerpts and wrote their own stories with guided writing prompts.”

Heidi Kraay, also at Adams Elementary, explains the students explored “personal detail, sensory detail, setting, character, concrete details, plot, sequence of events, story as journey, conflict and problems, personification, metaphor, simile, revision in different ways (adding/subtracting/collaborating/finishing), and practiced sharing work and giving feedback.”

The residency at Sage International focused on the basic elements of poetry and fiction, reports Chris Mathers Jackson. “Students learned to rely on their senses as they created scenes or poems, and to use figurative language to make images all the more empathetic for readers.”

Natanya Biskar at Valley View Elementary designed a mini-course on fairy tale adaptations. “‘Retellings’ provide helpful scaffolding for students who often have trouble or anxiety about what to write.”

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

Creating
I learned new styles of writing, different ways to write poetry.
Being able to do freewriting and getting my thoughts out on paper.
Getting to finally write a poem I am really proud of.

Responding
My favorite part was getting specific feedback.
Being able to talk with my group to inspire each other.

Connecting
I learned to express how I feel and to write about it.
I can let out my feelings and my emotions.
Writing about injustice and human rights.
Knowing that if I really tried, I had a creative part of me.

Performing/Presenting/Producing
The best part was hearing others’ poetry/being inspired.
That I got to share my feelings.
Others’ poems and stories and the way they portrayed them.

Student writing:
Once upon a time, there lived two little pigs named Bob and Baloney. They always smelled like strawberry shampoo, and they were so pink you could see them from outer space.

I am a donut. A jelly donut. My mother was a glazed, my father was a chocolate.

People don’t usually mispronounce my name, but people usually spell it wrong. I wish my name was Hope, or Indigo or Sage.

Our rabbit friend / Is gone. The squirrel stashes nuts in his tree. / The Hilltop is dying, but don’t you worry: / It will grow back in spring.

Impact

“There were so many success stories!” says Natanya Biskar at Valley View Elementary. “One student was really struggling with scene. He had written his whole story in summary. I kept encouraging him to add dialogue. At first, he was very hesitant-I wasn’t sure if he was confused about what I meant or wasn’t sure how and where to add in dialogue. Together, we looked at one of his favorite fairy-tale adaptations that I had brought in, ‘Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs.’ I pointed out to him the places where the author had shown the characters speaking. That made it click! He added lines of dialogue and, after one class session when he wrote nothing, the next session he added an entire Part Two to his story!”

Meanwhile, Kathleen Olp at Adams Elementary tapped into personal experiences to help a student having trouble starting a story. “He wasn’t receptive to writing prompts, and was defeatist when it came to generating ideas,” Olp notes. “After several attempts, I discovered he had lived for a time in New Zealand. He really came alive when he mentioned his time there, and then he wrote his first line about moving there. It was a cool breakthrough to see a student find an entry point into a narrative.”

Reflection

What Worked
-WITS grew despite the continuing pandemic. We provided free N-95 masks and COVID rapid tests as well as offered sick time for any sessions rescheduled or missed.
-The Cabin developed a paid teaching-writer apprenticeship program to help prepare and train writers as well as eliminate some of the financial barriers.
-We piloted our Summer WITS program. Our goal was for students to experience that writing can be fun and understand the power of telling their stories.

Do Differently / Recommendations
-More group work, striking that balance between classroom management strategies and not micro-managing an environment that is supposed to be a creative outlet.
-Take time to listen about why a student doesn’t like writing or feels blocked. It’s not just about tactics.
-Rethink revision for the younger students. They didn’t take easily to the idea.
-I pivoted to having a menu of writing options for students each time, creating a true workshop where I was a writing concierge helping students realize the unique work they envisioned.
-Even more time for students to read their pieces out loud in an attempt to normalize that. The class was very concerned with “cool,” and when one or two students determined it wasn’t cool to read, many followed suit.
-More defined classroom teacher role: present, engaged, and participating.
-Visit classroom prior to residency to get a feel for the age group and classroom dynamics.

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