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Hear a message about upcoming special events from Faculty Director Al Filreis.


Kelly Writers House team builds virtual experience to engage 25 high schoolers in annual Summer Workshop for Young Writers


by Amanda Silberling, a 2018 Penn graduate and the Van Doren Engagement Fellow at both the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Institute of Contemporary Art


If you try to picture a writer and see a brooding figure typing alone in a dark room, think again. When I think about what it means to be a writer, I remember all the conversations I’ve shared in the Kelly Writers House kitchen at the University Pennsylvania, debating what kind of cookies to bake with the same ferocity that we would bring to our literature seminars. Like many creative students, Writers House shaped my Penn undergraduate experience, teaching me that writers thrive in community with one another. 

When I returned to Penn this year as the Van Doren Fellow, supporting student engagement in the arts, I was excited to teach in the Summer Workshop for Young Writers; I wanted to welcome a group of talented high school students into our expansive, supportive community, just like I had been welcomed years ago as a frazzled college freshman. I imagined greeting teenagers with wide eyes and heavy duffel bags, watching them chatter with nervous excitement as they filed into a circle of creaky, mismatched chairs in the Arts Cafe. I wanted to witness as these students developed the trusting, supportive friendships that generate thoughtful writing and reading. Of course, our summer didn’t unfold as we planned. 

In its three previous years, the Summer Workshop for Young Writers has been a 10-day residential program – needless to say, with the threat of coronavirus, there would be no shared dorm rooms, and no journeys to the Philadelphia International Airport. The Kelly Writers House team dedicated to planning the Summer Workshop included Jamie-Lee Josselyn (C’05), David Marchino (C’16), Izzy Lopez (C’19), James Chang (C’22), and myself (C '18). When we decided to move the workshop online, we had doubts, but we still felt motivated to provide a space for teens from across the country to write together. 

Once we determined that our students had reliable internet access, we spent weeks grappling with the same questions that educators across the world are weighing: how do you replicate the intimacy of a small seminar on Zoom? Can students bear to spend hours upon hours staring at a computer screen? Is online education as worthwhile or effective as in-person instruction? 

Since the Summer Workshop for Young Writers specializes in memoir writing, it’s essential that our high school students trust their cohort enough to be vulnerable in their personal essay assignments. Even for the most experienced writers, getting workshopped can be nerve-wracking, and for some students, this program would be their first experience giving and receiving critique. To build a trusting classroom community via Zoom, you need to think outside the box – so, it’s a good thing that writers know a thing or two about creativity. 

The shared strangeness of participating in an online summer workshop became a bonding experience in itself: some students wore matching cowboy hats; others showed off their pets, or virtually cheers-ed with their cans of LaCroix. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of our Zoom classroom was the chat box – while some teachers might find this akin to texting in class, the Zoom chat opens up channels of communication that don’t exist in the traditional classroom. During discussions of assigned reading, in addition to communicating verbally, students could type in brief observations, witty jokes, questions to revisit, or quotes from fellow students – it functioned like a live broadcast of students’ immediate reactions to new concepts or texts. This deepened the students’ engagement, as well as their connections with one another. 

After three-hour memoir seminars in the morning, students would return after their break for a variety of craft sessions, topics ranging from comedy writing with Alina Graboswki (C’16) to literary collage with Professor Karen Rile (C’80). Over the course of our 10 days and many long hours on Zoom, our 25 students completed three new pieces of memoir writing, which they presented live on a YouTube broadcast

Inspired by the work of Joe Brainard, we asked the students to write “I remember” statements about their experience in our online workshop – I think their reflections speak for themselves. 

I remember cats walking across the keyboard, cats napping in the background, cats napping on the couch. 

I remember talking to my parents for hours on end about how much fun I was having. I finally found other teens who cared about writing just as much as I did. 

 I remember when Larry got a haircut and everyone went wild. 

 I remember wishing I could meet everyone in real life one day. 

I remember forcing myself not to be scared to ask to be included – and I think it’s paid off. 

I’ll state the obvious: teaching creative writing on Zoom isn’t ideal. But, the best teachers I’ve had have been ones who can adapt to challenging circumstances, and in turn, show us that it’s possible to mitigate conflict with creative solutions. For me, this is always what has made Writers House such a special place: it encourages students to explore their weirdest, wildest ideas, despite any limitations (Where else would you encounter a “meta chair”?). Though our 25 high school writers may not have been able to bake in the kitchen, nap on the beanbag, or marvel at our extensive collection of signed books, they still managed to build community despite the difficult circumstances.



A message from Al & Jessica

A message sent by Al Filreis & Jessica Lowenthal to the Writers House community:

We unequivocally support justice for those murdered and brutalized by police: Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and countless others. We unequivocally support justice for those lynched by civilians: Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop, and countless others.

Anything we might say in this time of rage, despair, and mourning would be inadequate and incommensurate as a response to these deaths, especially because so many members of our community are in pain and there is so much work to do. But we do want to state a few things simply and plainly:

We firmly now and always stand against racial injustice, inequality, and police brutality.

We resolutely affirm that Black lives matter.

And we are committed as always to amplifying the ideas and voices of our community, many of whom are engaged daily in the necessary work of change. That is what the Writers House was founded to do nearly 25 years ago and now more than ever we consciously intend to honor that mission.

We’re putting together a livestream event on Monday, June 15 at 6:00 PM that will feature some of our community members sharing thoughts, writing, and reflection. We’ll send more info soon. Meantime, please put that date and time in your calendar and we hope you’ll plan to participate.

And in the coming days, weeks, and months we plan to use outreach methods the Kelly Writers House has created and extended over the years — connecting a strong network of artists, writers, teachers, students, citizens — to share readings, writings, ideas, resources, and projects that provide urgently needed information, challenge racist assumptions and structures, might bring comfort, and are otherwise relevant to this extraordinarily difficult time. Here, for now, we share a few links, as recommended by some of our community members.

We hope you will join us in this effort by sending us links to and information about some of the projects, readings, ventures, stories, and work that you find important and relevant right now. We will share what we can with our networks via email and social media. Send your notes and suggestions to whresources@writing.upenn.edu .

Please click HERE for the full statement and the links posted on June 3.

hours:

Monday: 10 AM – 11 PM
Tuesday: 10 AM – 11 PM
Wednesday: 10 AM – 11 PM
Thursday: 10 AM – 11 PM
Friday: 10 AM – 5 PM
Saturday: noon – 5 PM
Sunday: 6 PM – 11 PM