Students in our after-school program Write On Poetry! tell all about it
Identical twins Jared and Josiah arrive at The Writers Place and toss their backpacks onto chairs. The only way to tell the two thirteen-year-olds apart is by their clothing: Jared’s khaki pants and a bulky coat contrast with his brother’s black Nehru-style jacket. They greet their classmates Paul and Destiny, then move on to devour the bananas and containers of yogurt on the food table. Tabatha and Danny, both 17, join them. Nearby, quiet Aquila, 12, peers out from beneath her head scarf.
Soon, more students from several urban and suburban schools arrive – including Sarah in her high school uniform, and Aidan, a Wiccan who wears a black cape.
They may look like they’re here just to hang out, but they’re not. They’re here to write.
Every Wednesday afternoon, The Writers Place transforms into a classroom for Write On Poetry!, a free, after-school writing workshop for students ages 13 to 18. Launched in October 2013, this grant-funded program quickly filled to 15 students.
“We worried that, after seven hours of school, kids wouldn’t want to take another class, but once they’ve been bitten by the bug, writing doesn’t feel like work,” says Mary Bunten, The Writers Place Executive Director. “On the first day, we had kids walk to get here from their school at 34th and Paseo for a chance to work on their poetry.”
For Tabatha, a senior at Paseo Academy, The Writers Place has become a second home.
“The environment here lets me know I can keep on writing. At first, I was cautious. Now, it’s like I wish I could live here. I wish these kids were at my school. I wish I could come to The Writers Place more often instead of once every week.”
Like Tabatha, many of these students also participated in The Writers Place’s in-school program In Our Own Words, which serves students from some of Kansas City’s most troubled schools. Each April, In Our Own Words brings its students to The Writers Place for a day of writing. Professional writers lead break-out sessions and everyone comes together at the end for a reading.
“Writing is an art best developed over time, but for students who love it, Kansas City offers few opportunities for long-term engagement,” Bunten says. “I’m confident that Write On Poetry! is the best program in the city of its kind. We’re offering writing instruction equal to or better than that experienced by more affluent students.”
The writing program doesn’t just teach students the art of writing. It gives students the benefits of mentorships, which don’t have to be one-on-one to be effective. Instructors Natasha Ria El-Scari and Theodore “Priest” Hughes are caring adults who are also writers. With their unique perspectives, they inspire creativity and nurture the growth of students’ imaginations. No subject is forbidden. Natasha is a self-described “bender of words…a fearless writer who believes in the power of do.” Priest performs widely as part of the spoken-word duo The Recipe.
“I like the way Priest can perform out of nowhere and he shows us what he means. Mrs. El-Scari tells us what she means. They are like the north and the south – opposites – and they make a good team,” Josiah says.
“They put things in perspective that I can understand and make my poetry better and better,” Tabatha adds.
Studies show that workshops like these can improve self-confidence, boost test scores and raise grades. One girl credits the in-school program with helping her get a college scholarship. But the kids aren’t thinking about these goals as they bend over their spiral notebooks, trying to use synecdoche and metonymy in their poems about such topics as the father they never knew or how they cope with bullying because they may be different from their peers. They write about the their struggles and challenges. Some have lived in foster care or with extended family during times of crisis. One young woman, with beautiful blonde hair, ivory skin and hazel eyes, writes about what it’s like to be an African American with albinism.
“The kids act differently here,” says Janice Yocum, a teacher at Lee A. Tolbert Academy, who stopped by one afternoon during an afterschool session. “Several students are very shy at school, but they interact and laugh here. They seem relaxed – even though they write for one and one-half hours with only a ten-minute break after being at school all day.”
Paul-Allen, a Tolbert student, agrees. “I more than enjoy it,” he says. “The Writers Place is a safe haven for me. It lets me forget about the outside world.”
“Writing at an off-site, after-school program also allows students to be in a space dedicated to serving writers,” El-Scari says. “Much like a gym to athletes and a studio to a visual artist, The Writers Place offers young writers a cove to be cool within their group.”
“Creative writing provides a foundation for well-rounded individuals whose innovative thinking will have an impact on our future,” Priest adds.
Transportation has been a challenge, however. After the twins walked on the first day, Bunten resolved that would not happen again. “I’ve been struck by how serious this is,” she says. “My friends and I drive hundreds of miles each week shuttling our kids to activities. Many of these children don’t have that luxury. They’ve told me that if they weren’t here, they’d be at home alone.” The hours between school and when parents arrive at night are a vulnerable time for this age group. For now, The Writers Place relies on cabs and volunteers to give the kids rides, but Bunten is determined to find a long-term solution. “Bottom line, if they want to come, I’ll find a way to get them here,” she says.
In April, students will begin editing their work to publish in an anthology, which will be available for sale at a reading and celebration at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 10 at The Writers Place. El-Scari wants the students to keep the proceeds from sales. “It’s another way for them to experience the power of writing,” she says.
For now, students are concentrating on a visual poetry project that deals with the power of word placement, as well as on writing poems and continuing to have fun.
“I love The Writers Place,” Josiah says. “It’s my favorite place in the world.”
Funding for Write On Poetry! comes from Andrews McMeel Foundation, Francis Family Foundation, the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency, and Writers Place members.
Write On Poetry! Reading & Celebration
Saturday, May 10, 2014, 2:00 p.m. at The Writers Place
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