Writing program encourages young people to take action, express themselves with words
Nearly 100 middle school and high school students turned out on a recent Saturday for a free writing class — the latest effort by Marcelle Haddix, an education professor who has led youth-centered writing programs for the past five years at the Beauchamp Library and the Dunbar Community Center.
The event, called “Writing Our Lives,” took place at Nottingham High School on Nov. 3, a larger version of the free events Haddix will hold for young people during the coming months at Beauchamp.
“Writing is an area of interest for me,” said Haddix, an assistant professor at Syracuse University’s School of Education. “When I moved here five years ago, it was something that my neighborhood folks were talking about — how the kids were not really having the opportunity to engage in effective literacy teaching and learning.”
Haddix started offering small writing workshops at Beauchamp Library, 2111 S. Salina St., and volunteering in the community, which led to creating the conference. She held the first Writing Our Lives conference in 2009 at the Dunbar Center on South State Street.
“It is successful because kids come, parents come, faculty members and community members who volunteer their time,” Haddix said. This year there were more volunteers than before, including Nottingham High School teachers, and the Nottingham student group Spotlighting Justice, which hosted the event.
The event started with a free breakfast of granola bars, fruit and juice at 9:30 a.m. Students were given notebooks and pencils, and they attended two 50-minute writing sessions on varying topics or genres of writing. The program included writing action letters, writing poetry, comics and illustration, and digital composing. The workshops were taught by people who donated their time to be there: SU professors, community members and SU students.
“We want to make sure the students don’t have to pay for things,” said Sally Sayles-Hannon, a volunteer at the event who is also a doctoral student at SU. “And they also get to have those writing materials to take home afterwards to encourage them to continue writing.”
Partnership for Better Education, which assists Syracuse City School District students in graduating and pursuing higher education, donated notebooks and pencils as well as funded part of lunch and breakfast, Sayles-Hannon said.
Josanique Everson and Anttyesha Crutchfield, eighth-graders at Danforth Middle School, discussed social injustice and the need for change within schools. They attended an action writing workshop where they drafted a letter to the Syracuse City School Board explaining what they needed to improve their education, and how equality was important in order to achieve that.
The conference’s theme was free writing and youth writing for change.
“We really wanted to get youths discovering their voice and thinking about how they can change the world,” Sayles-Hannon said. “Often in schools, they do not help the students become creative thinkers about how they have a voice, or utilize their writing skills or creativity in that way.”
After the sessions, students ate their lunches in the Nottingham cafeteria while Verbal Blend and Underground Poetry Spot, two spoken word groups from SU, performed. The cafeteria buzzed with chatter and, at times, the students offered rounds of applause.
Haddix said it is a misconception that students are not writing. She said students are writing at home and on their own, but they are not getting the opportunity in schools to write the way they would like. “I think it is more structured in school because of various national and state standards and requirements that teachers feel a lot of pressure to follow, and there is only so much time in the day,” she said. “And so a lot of the type of writing they are doing this Saturday is the type that they are doing outside of school or in their own time.”
Bridget Lawson, a doctoral student at SU who volunteered at the event, said she hoped the conference would give students confidence. “The most important thing is that students realize that they have a voice, and that what they have to say is important,” she said.
Conference volunteers tried to advertise and connect with students more this year by creating Facebook events, using Twitter, and emailing a digital flier designed by Jennifer Russo, director of marketing and events at SU, for free.
“I hope students get a respect for writing, a love for writing, courage to share their voice, courage to dream, and permission to dream,” Russo said. “The idea is that they will look ahead, and higher education is not this pie in the sky, but that it is accessible and attainable. It really bridges the gap between high school and college.”
Haddix said these activities need to be sustained for the students’ benefit. She intends to hold more free workshops at Beauchamp Library.
“One thing we are looking for in the future is more community involvement to keep this running,” she said. “This year we sought out donations greatly and didn’t receive them. We really had no luck.”
Haddix keeps her focus on the students. “I want them to come away from this seeing themselves as writers, having a positive attitude about who they are, about their writing, about having a voice,” Haddix said. “I want them to feel like they are confident in what they have to say and their ability to express it.”