“Writer in the Schools” helps children share thoughts and learn about the world.
“I love my job,” says Carmen Erma Jacobson, a Bay Area pre-kindergarten teacher who is also a writer. Five years ago, she began working with Writers in the Schools (WITS),
a Houston educational non-profit that places professional writers in classrooms across the region, where they collaborate with teachers on curriculum and projects designed to enhance students understanding of the written word. “We help students think outside the box and writing allows them to look at things from another perspective.”
Founded in 1983, WITS has always operated on the idea that reading and writing wake the imagination and can engage children in that powerful process. While the group traditionally sends its writers to inner-city locales, it also operates camps and workshops at museums, churches and college campuses.
“We want our students to analyze what they see and what it makes them feel,” says WITS Executive Director Robin Reagler. “We’re showing them how to solve problems, and our emphasis is on the bigger picture.”
Some in education feel that bigger picture is being lost because of the current climate of emphasizing scholastic aptitude test scores and putting a premium on tangible results, as opposed to the less-tangible goals gained by creative problem solving. Add to that climate one of punishing budget cuts to school districts, affecting everything from the number of teachers in the classroom to the number of extracurricular activities offered, and it can paint a grim picture of public education.
WITS is working to change that by creating, what Reagler calls, a win-win situation. Many writers work as freelancers, and writing doesn’t always pay well. WITS contracts writers on a project-to-project basis, depending on the needs of a school or classroom teacher, pays them a competitive hourly rate and lets them bring their real-world know-how into the classroom. Each writer works with a teacher to determine what lessons should be taught and how they should be approached.
“One day, the teacher and I built a tent in the classroom,” says Jacobson. “And every day for a week, we made the space something different. One day it was a museum. The next day, it was a time machine. And we asked the kids to think about what they’d find in a museum, where they would go if they went back in time. They wrote about those experiences.”
Writers in the Schools is based, in part, on a New York City program called the Teachers/Writers Collaborative, where working writers also collaborate with school teachers to share the joy of writing. In Houston, WITS reaches nearly 20,000 students a year with its programs, across 150 schools.
“Teachers are in a tough spot,” concedes Reagler. “They’re working so hard to do more with less. Our goal is to support them in their classroom efforts to teach language arts.”
WITS also offers professional development sessions for teachers and provides its writers with materials for developing lesson plans and finding new ways to engage students. Its summer camps take students on trips to art museums and other locales, where the writers encourage participants to take notes on what they see and how they’re feeling. During one camp session on the campus of Rice University, a teacher walked students through the Rice Gallery, where they walked in awe through Yasuaki Onishi’s reverse of volume RG exhibit, a diaphanous, hovering installation of silver and white. The teacher gave the campers prompts, asking them what they felt like as they explored the space.
“Does it feel like you’re on a moonscape, maybe on another planet?” she asked. “What would the air feel like there, what would it taste like?”
The campers looked and pondered…and wrote.
“Writing is a way to process the world around us,” says van Garrett, a Houston writer and teacher. He spends his summers working with WITS camps, and says that writing is an important way for students to think about themselves and their lives. “For a lot of my students, writing helps them deal with the things in their lives in positive ways. Writing gives them a place where they can just be themselves and learn about who they are.”
“Some kids may not be great about verbalizing how they feel, but when they write, they find they’re able to communicate better,” she says. “There’s such a freedom in being able to put things on paper, then to go in and fix it and really make it into what you want it to be.”
That process of finding a germ of an idea, writing it down and working to perfect it is another important component to WITS’ programming.
“We teach revision,” says Reagler. “Not just editing.”
In the classroom, kids are encouraged not only to write, but to share their work with classmates by reading aloud.
“It’s the opportunity to tell your story in front of people and to have them ask you questions,” says Reagler. “And that level of engagement, having someone take an interest in your work, is so gratifying.”
And the participants in WITS programs get a tangible take-away from working with WITS writers. Nearly every programming session—some may last a semester, some six weeks; each is customized for the needs of a particular teacher or school—ends with a spoken performance, where students share the work they’ve created. They’re also presented with literary journals of their work to keep, and family and friends are invited to the performance.
More than that, Reagler says that students who participate in WITS programming often become better students, more engaged in the classroom, even doing better on those standardized tests.
“For some of our students, English is a second, sometimes a third language,” she says. “And writing is an invitation to use that language to tell your story.”
“Writing has the power to influence others,” says Jacobson. “And it’s permanent. It’s a way you can make your mark on something that won’t be lost to time. It’s a lesson in self-discovery, in leadership and in self-esteem.”
WITS understands that writing and language help students broaden their intellectual reach and offers a way to channel curiosity into discovery. But Reagler says it does something else, too.
“One of the things we hear over and over again from our writers is, books and writing saved my life. Now, they want to share that with students.”
For more information on Writers in the Schools classroom programs or to apply as a writing teacher, visit www.witshouston.org.