Now is the Perfect Time to Get Kids Writing
By John Koenig
Wendy Thompson wants you to know one thing. The Young Writers Program will be back for the fall 2020 semester—although online, not live. Now retired after a long teaching career, she will be leading the YWP into uncharted territory as schools learn to reopen in the time of COVID. Last spring, it survived the retirement of its founding director, the school lockdowns, and funding cuts that left essential staff positions unfilled.
As the new executive director, she is focused on returning with the projects that have been a part of Santa Cruz education and a part of her life—Word Lab, Cornerstone, and Hablamos Juntos (Together We Speak).
“I need people to know that it’s happening—to be excited about it and to be part of it,” says Thompson. “I don’t want anyone to think there’s not a program to give to, and I don’t mean just financially.”
Young Writers Program is an independent nonprofit that has served over 3,000 Santa Cruz students in grades 4 through 12 since its creation in 2012. It has survived and thrived for eight years with the help of private contributions and grants, volunteer writing coaches, and a staff of devoted teachers. Over 500 volunteers from the community have contributed to supporting students with their writing, by working in the classroom, in the after-school Word Lab, on the Advisory Committee, and in fundraising capacities.
According to Thompson’s information from the Santa Cruz City School District, it’s a near certainty that school will begin in August totally online. If this is still the case in September, the Word Lab and Cornerstone will also be virtual.
Writing Project Assistants will meet with young writers in “breakout rooms”— smaller sub-groups within online class meetings — to offer advice and encouragement as always. When the pandemic is over, Branciforte Middle School’s Dedicated Writing Room and Chamber of Heart and Mystery will once again be the creative centers of the program.
The sudden loss of public funding from the Board of Education changed the playing field, but not the goal.
Thompson calls Young Writers Program a mini-version of 826 Valencia, a San Francisco-based program for supporting student writers with a four-point mission that guides the YWP’s course: —to build confidence and pride through writing —to promote leaps in learning with individualized support —to cultivate wonder and inspire imagination and creativity —to provide free services to those who would not otherwise have access.
With the beginning of the new school year, the program moves to Branciforte Middle School where master teacher Thompson will lead all eighth graders in creating a published anthology of their work as well as guide the after-school Word Lab, a place where local students can come on their own, volunteer to participate, and write in whatever genre they want to write in.
The students’ published work is the product of Cornerstone, a project that began at Branciforte and grew to include 150+ eighth graders from other schools. Each semester’s Cornerstone students produce their own book, meticulously designed, edited and professionally printed.
“We named it Cornerstone,” Thompson explains, “Because we have always had essential questions that we develop at the beginning of the year for our students to be able to hang their ideas on.” She plans to suggest “the poet as witness” as the theme of the fall project. Last semester’s focus was “our moral compass,” and produced “Path to the Unknown,” a journal of students’ poems and prose, that can be found at Bookshop Santa Cruz.
The new world of remote learning and “Zoom rooms” has challenged Thompson to create the best possible learning environment. She has been meeting with former YWP director Julia Chiapella and her eighth-grade team to talk about what next year will include, and expectations run high, even with now-limited resources.
“I’m hoping for three publications next year and we’re used to doing nine, so that’s what happens when your largest donor pulls out,” Thompson says. She is grateful for the past help from the Board, philosophical about the changes, and hopeful about the future. Her biggest fear is that loyal supporters and volunteers may think the program is no more, when the need is greater than ever.
“I don’t want the people who traditionally gave of their time and donated over the last eight years to stop doing that because they think it’s gone — it’s just smaller, you know?”
Thompson describes the importance of the Young Writers Program during the pandemic. “Many of these children are very traumatized by this experience. I don’t want to say that writing is therapy because that’s not our job as teachers. But it offers a way for children to feel powerful, bring that power back, like, ‘I have some control over my life.’ We know that when children need to express themselves and they can’t do it verbally, they need to write about it.”
She also describes the positive effect the program has for bi-lingual children.
“We have so many children who are second language learners who feel silenced every single day, and this is a way for them to not feel silenced. It’s a way for them to be able to write in both languages and be honored for that, and feel proud that they have made the effort to write in English and Spanish and have it be an OK thing instead of, ‘Oh no, you don’t want me to write in Spanish.’ That doesn’t happen in Young Writers Program, or in Word lab.”
The Word Lab is a free after-school writing program that operates separately from school curriculum. It offers writing instruction a creative, low-pressure environment from community writing mentors, for students from elementary to high school age. Some are already prolific writers, and some are seeking support to improve their writing skills. Word Lab students read short stories, poems, and watch videos of readings and talks from authors to gain more insight into the writing process.
Parent involvement is important to Word Lab, and many volunteer as Writing Project Assistants after they have had students participate in the program. The Word Lab is scheduled to allow time for students to finish creative writing pieces without adding to their homework load. It will be rejoining the Chamber of Heart and Mystery and the Dedicated Writing Room at Branciforte Middle School, transitioning from its former home downtown in the Museum of Art and History.
Thompson sees Word Lab as a place where kids can feel a sense of belonging.
“What I have found is, at least at the middle school level, many of these children are kids that are on the fringe. That don’t feel like they fit,” she says. “They go to Word Lab and they fit. And they have a group.” As a result, many of the middle school Word Lab kids continue into the high school Word Lab. “I believe that for students like that, Word Lab saves them. They’re not silenced.”
The quality and the eloquence of that writing on display in the books these young people write is a result of their creativity and sensitivity, and the devotion of the Writing Project Assistants who mentor them.
“We focus on what kids want to write,” says Thompson, “And we dig deeper, and then we work on the beauty of the revision process which is what Writing Project Assistants do. We have children for whom writing anything, doing anything at school is really difficult for them. Finishing anything, going from process to product is unheard of. The Writing Project Assistant volunteers make it happen. And you know, my main cry is that every single kid is in the book.”
Thompson’s pride and amazement at her students comes through as she describes what led her to devote herself so completely to her mission.
“I’ve been an American Studies teacher, so I have a million interests. I taught art for eight years. I taught PE and science in elementary school. I taught all these things, but the one thing that has held me and kept me believing in the change that can be made, regardless of age, is the writing. Eighth graders have a voice and sometimes they don’t know it. And they are the most beautiful writers I’ve ever experienced.”
Billy Butler began his time with YWP as a volunteer Writing Project Assistant, became Word Lab Coordinator in Fall 2018, and served until County funding was cut. He was constantly impressed by how some students who began the program as reluctant or slow-starting writers would finish a 9-week session in Word Lab with an impressive short story, and by the variety, skill, and imagination of their work.
What surprised Butler most was the number of middle school students who were working on novels. Wendy Thompson encourages that kind of ambition in her students. “We don’t have space in our curriculum to have kids write an entire novel,” she says. “Although I do NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] every year, the finishing up of it and making it clean and beautiful and almost publishable is because of Word Lab.”
Butler feels that patience and clarity of purpose are the most important qualities for writing project assistants. “I started out thinking that my responsibility was to teach students everything they could possibly want to know about writing,” he says. “Over time, I realized an important part of my role was to make sure that the writing environment was safe and comfortable for all students, and to help build writing skills and strategies to carry with them, even after Word Lab.”
Thompson and Butler both speak of how enriching being a volunteer writing assistant can be.
“I want kids to challenge me every single day,” Thompson says. “They challenge their Writing Project Assistants and they challenged Billy all the time in Word Lab. It was a wonderful thing to see and it made me grow as a person. Any adult that’s part of this program learns something.”
Julia Chiapella is working with Wendy Thompson to make the Young Writers Program viable and rich in the coming year. She was executive director of YWP from its creation in 2012, but recently stepped down from that position to focus on her own writing. She continues to be involved from the sidelines, offering help, advice and connections when needed.
Chiapella looks back on her time with the program with insight as to why it is so essential to continue.
“Writers are crucial to an informed democracy,” she says. “Writers are thinkers who work to tease apart the particulars of an idea, create platforms for ideas, and transport us to places we’d never considered. We need those people more than ever”
“What’s been most remarkable about this eight-year journey is the change in writing attitudes we’ve seen as students explore their thinking and creativity as they write. This is exactly what needs to happen for people to become writers.”
For Chiapella, it is an act of hope to think about the students who passed through the Young Writers Program, and she wonders about their future.
“Now that many of them consider themselves writers, how will they work to change the world?”
Visit youngwriterssc.org to learn more about the Young Writers Program, to volunteer and to donate.