Writing Our Lives
Phil Haddix leads a group of students in an introduction exercise at the Writing Our Lives workshop at the South Side Communication Center held on Sept. 11. | Dominique Hildebrand

Writing Our Lives

Workshop inspires students to communicate through creative writing

One by one, students in a group pondered a question a volunteer put to them: What do you want your career to be? One girl wanted to be a teacher; another student wanted to be a writer. Finally, the last student at the table asked someone to beat a drum roll on the table before he delivered his response.

“And I want to grow up to work at Burger King,” the student said, grinning, as his peers burst out laughing.

“I’m just kidding,” he said, struggling to contain his laughter. “I want to be a technologist and a game
creator.”

The scene took place at the Writing Our Lives Fall Kick-Off Workshop, which organizers say provides an opportunity for middle- and high-school students to jumpstart an interest in writing.

Alison Ryan, 22, left, a graduate student in SU’s School of Education, works on critical thinking questions during the Writing Our Lives Fall Kick-Off Workshop — along with Nadia Joe, 12, and Craelle Hinds, 14. | Dominique Hildebrand

Alison Ryan, 22, left, a graduate student in SU’s School of Education, works on critical thinking questions during the Writing Our Lives Fall Kick-Off Workshop — along with Nadia Joe, 12, and Craelle Hinds, 14. | Dominique Hildebrand

Meetings take place Sunday afternoons with discussion, brainstorming and self-reflection activities. Twelve students from various Syracuse schools recently gathered at the South Side Communication Center on South Salina Street to participate in the free interactive writing workshop, which promotes a wide range of skills — poetry, comics and illustration, digital composing, storytelling, college writing and fiction writing.

Students ranged from sixth-graders to high-school sophomores. Adult volunteers and students from the Syracuse University School of Education worked at the event, inspired by Marcelle Haddix, the program’s founder and director. Haddix, an associate professor at Syracuse University, organizes the event each fall to raise awareness for the program’s upcoming workshops.

“As a community member and a parent myself, I’ve been attending a bunch of events and programs, and I talked a lot about different opportunities for children in this community,” Haddix said. “There was a sense that children aren’t receiving the best education in terms of literacy, and being a professor of literacy with an area of expertise in writing, I wanted to give something back to the community.”

Haddix started the Writing Our Lives program in 2009, a year after moving to Syracuse. The program isn’t about teaching writing skills, she said, but rather exposing students to different genres of writing and showing how writing can relate to many different career paths and opportunities. In essence, the program allows students to write about their lives in authentic ways that are not so formal as they can be in the school system.

“This program means a lot to this community,” said Charles Pierce-El, president of the Southside Community Coalition. He also serves on the board of directors for The Stand. “To see young people coming out here to learn on a Sunday means someone is doing right,” he said. “We’re empowering our young people.”

Zion Edwards, 11, left, and Tahlib Thomas, 8, listen closely to Writing Our Lives instructor Phil Haddix as he discusses their similar interest in video games. | Dominique Hildebrand,

Zion Edwards, 11, left, and Tahlib Thomas, 8, listen closely to Writing Our Lives instructor Phil Haddix as he discusses their similar interest in video games. | Dominique Hildebrand,

The program is linked with a course Haddix teaches at Syracuse University called “Teaching 21st Century Writers, In and Out of the Classroom.” She said the course helps facilitate an after-school program at William Nottingham High School every Monday afternoon. Outside the classroom, there is also a community aspect of the program, rooted on the South Side; it runs every Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. at the South Side Communication Center.

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-10-18-59-amWriting Our Lives also hosts an annual conference, its biggest event of the year, Haddix said. The all-day writing event will take place Saturday, Nov. 12, at Nottingham High School.

“I’ve always liked writing stories and stuff, so this wasn’t the first one I attended,” said Craelle Hinds, a freshman at West Genesee High School. “It was good to get to know things about other people, and I think it was good to get some of the younger students who were looking up to us older ones involved and started with writing.”

Hinds said she liked that each activity began with a personal reflection and writing activity, then transitioned into an opportunity to learn about the other 11 students seated in a circle around the cluster of tables. In one activity, the students wrote different things they liked and disliked about themselves, their families and their neighborhood before being encouraged to jot down and present a solution to those problems.

In its eighth year, the program is established and recognized throughout the community, Haddix said. It’s easier for the program to accomplish its goals of encouraging young writers because more students attend, and it has become easier to bring in engaging, knowledgeable moderators to help out, she said.

Haddix said she believes that her program isn’t much different from others around the country. But the work it does in helping challenge stereotypes, fight injustices in the education system and inspire students make it invaluable, she said.

Hinds added: “The program’s a great way to expand our horizons and see just how much we can do.”

 

 

— Article by Liam Sullivan, Urban Affairs reporter