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Writers in the Schools

Log Cabin Literary Center

The Cabin’s Writers in the Schools (WITS) program places professional writers—poets, playwrights, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers—in schools, juvenile detention centers, and community learning centers throughout the Treasure Valley for up to 24 weeks during the school year. This year, 11 writers served 27 classrooms at 12 different sites.

WITS provides students with in-depth experiences with professional writers who model authentic and positive life choices. The program invites students to participate in creative activities that foster their academic skills and simultaneously create a safe space for them to explore their experiences and ideas. Writing a poem or a story, or perhaps the start of a larger work, once a week with a local professional author might seem to some like only a small step, but it is actually a vital and potentially life-changing achievement.

Students each had one piece published in a site-specific anthology, distributed to them at no charge. Primary classroom teachers also selected certain works from all 12 sites to appear in Cambia, the program-wide anthology. The Cambia release party provides an opportunity for students to shine as writers, thinkers, and creators and is always a highlight of the year for teachers and participants alike.

The Essential Question that guided our projects’ focus was:

Why does creative writing matter?

Having been part of The Cabin’s programs since 1997, WITS is a mature program built on sustainable relationships with local partners. For nearly 20 years, WITS has shown the benefits of literary arts education. When they work with a mentor, students see positive adulthood modeled. When they read texts, they become more observant. When they write works of literature, they exercise creativity. While WITS focuses on language arts skills, it also focuses on developing students as artists.

Below are a few recent comments about WITS’ benefits:

From a primary classroom teacher (student’s name has been changed): “Bob is a very intelligent boy, but due to his difficult home life he struggles with school attendance and motivation. For Bob, WITS was a bright light of hope and inspiration. He loved poetry days and would go to great lengths to always attend. He aspires to be a poet, and he experiences creative writing as perhaps the single most important thing to believe in and for which to persevere.”

From a Cabin teaching-writer: “[My students] learned the power of narrative, and what it means to tell a story effectively. They learned about figurative language and metaphor, and how poetry can transform the messiness of experience into something moving and transcendent. Maybe most importantly, they learned that their own stories, their own lives, were worthy subjects of expression.”

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

Students address several questions posed by National Core Arts Standards.

For example, VA:Cr1.1 has as its first Essential Question, “What conditions, attitudes, and behaviors support creativity and innovative thinking?”

Students responded:

– “Choose what you want to say and do in your writing. I think this gives you an unlimited space to write whatever you want.”
– “You can imagine anything you want and make it your own.”

MA:Cr1.1 asks, “How do […] artists generate ideas?”

– “Creative writing keeps your childhood imagination large; it keeps your brain going and ideas abundant. It prompts you to think for yourself, which is important.”
– “Metaphors and ideas written down […] connect us as humans.”

VA:Re7.1 asks, “How do life experiences influence the way you relate to art?”

– “Creative writing can express feelings but it allows others to feel an experience.”
– “Creative writing can inspire or touch people. You can share your feelings through writing. Someone who’s never written is like a chair with three legs: out of balance.”

Quantitatively, 79% of students surveyed reported that WITS made them a better writer. 86% said they exercised independent thought and creativity in crafting their own works of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and drama. In addition to taking the national standards into account, we consult with classroom teachers to best design our lessons.

Impact

As was mentioned above, we had another successful year of WITS qualitatively and quantitatively. Students, primary classroom teachers, and Cabin teaching-writers alike responded with high praise. This fulfills our mission, which targets youth enrichment primarily, but also involves introducing teachers to new practices for arts education and employing working artists at a fair wage. When Jane Chu, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, visited The Cabin in August 2015, she commended our ability to benefit “the whole ecosystem” of literary arts in the Treasure Valley through our programs–particularly WITS. From students writing their first poems, to instructors seeking lesson plans for literary arts, to widely published authors having the opportunity to share their wisdom with younger generations, WITS supports literature in our community at all stages.

Most significantly, students emerge from WITS having composed new, fresh, and original works of literature across several genres. Below is one poem that demonstrates the concrete imagery, intentional tone, and self-reflection customary of WITS writing.

IN THE DOORWAY
Emma
Idaho Distance Education Academy

The sun crests above the horizon.
The air tastes fresh and clear.
The sovereign rooster crows loudly,
splitting the silence I once heard.
I can see the water wheel turning,
the grass smells clean and new.
I can feel the cool breeze kiss my skin
as I open the door into the world.

Reflection

While some of the students we serve come from socioeconomically stable backgrounds, many fit the criteria for being considered at-risk. Aside from the students in juvenile detention, we serve pregnant and parenting teens, many of whom are refugees; children from low-income families; students who have dropped out of the traditional school system, have been involved with the juvenile courts system, are homeless, and/or have been expelled from the traditional school system; and more. While WITS makes a difference in all students’ lives, it is especially vital for these individuals.

WITS has been a cornerstone of the Cabin’s programming for nearly 20 years. We are committed to its continued impact on the community, including many of its most vulnerable members. At its best, creative writing nurtured early in a child’s education can flourish into a lifelong practice of self-reflection, intentional decision-making, clear communication, and conscious artistic creation. We believe WITS sets students on this path, and it is with immense gratitude that we thank the Idaho Commission on the Arts for its support of this program.

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