Doing the write thing to boost literacy

Philadelphia Daily News
July 27, 2009

Write Thing

Writing coach Eric Carlan (second from left) oversees workshop at Mighty Writers.

Photo by David Maialetti/Philadelphia Daily News

A movement is taking shape at 15th and Christian streets. Armed with pens, notebooks and creative minds, 60 young writers are daring to leave their comfort zones and TVs behind this summer to become great writers.

Mighty Writers is a new nonprofit Philadelphia writing center dedicated to promoting writing among urban youth.

Tim Whitaker, who edited the Philadelphia Weekly for 14 years until he left last year, began the group in April with charter-school remedial English teacher Rachel Loeper. Both say that they were concerned with a lack of emphasis on writing in schools.

They hope to open free writing centers throughout the city, with the next ones planned for West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia.

"Literacy in the city is in a critical state right now," Whitaker said. "Fifty-two percent of working Philadelphians lack necessary work-literacy skills. There's a crisis in this city and that's really what Mighty Writers is all about. Our programs and workshops are all built to ignite excitement about writing."

The first center, at 1501 Christian St., opened July 9 and now runs 12 workshops with 24 instructors serving 60 to 70 children a week. All workshops are free thanks to funding from the Lenfest Foundation and fundraising efforts.

Workshops are available for ages 7 to 18, and range in topic from "Girl Power Poetry" to "Write Change," editorial writing on pertinent social issues.

Instructors are professional writers of all ages and experiences. In the fall, Mighty Writers will offer one-on-one tutoring and homework help.

The center is sparsely decorated but inviting, with a bookshelf and two tables piled high with dictionaries. The words SPLAT! BAM! and KAPOW! surround a big red MW logo on the wall.

Eric Karlan, 21, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the spring, teaches a workshop called "Neighborhood Non-Fiction" in which his six students work on and critique each other's long-form, literary-journalism pieces.

"Nothing is more exciting than when I read a flash of brilliance," Karlan said, "When I see a sentence or a paragraph that could have been written by a professional writer."

Karlan said that the program's strength is its focus on the workshop over the class model. Fostering a community is important because it makes kids comfortable and gets the creative juices flowing, he said.

Even in his small group, that community is present. Talk of football practices, upcoming trips to the shore and the newest "Transformers" movie drown out Karlan's requests for work on the given assignment. But once the banter dies down, a peaceful quiet falls on the table of six as heads rest on hands and pencils move rapidly across pages.

"I like writing because I read a lot of books," said Nyeerah Britt, 11, who's writing about the history of the Christian Street YMCA across the street. "When you write, you can write about anything you want. You can be as creative as you want."

"There's so much to write about - mysterious stuff or just what happened today," said Zakaria Barnes, 11, whose article will focus on a nearby playground.

The topic of the day's lesson was interviewing - and when Karlan told his kids that they could pick someone to interview in the room, they picked the Daily News reporter and photographer.

"I want Mister Photographer Man!"

"Let's all think of good questions to ask Mister Photographer Man before we interview him," Karlan said.

"What might be some good questions about Mister Photographer Man's job, or his life?"

"How about, 'What's your real name?' " Britt said.

"Smart kids," Karlan laughed.

Kalee Kennedy 12, and her sister Kendya, 9, travel from the Wilmington area once a week for the workshop, which they had heard about from their guidance counselor at school.

"It's about a thirty-minute drive, but I like writing and this teaches me how to get better and how to continue it," Kalee said.

Whitaker attributes the interest and high enrollment numbers to the unique workshops. A workshop called "The Michael Jackson Legacy in Words" is scheduled for today through Thursday, and fall programming will include a tribute to Nelson Mandela and a study of Japan: "Are Ninjas for Real?"

"It's a way of getting kids excited about writing," Whitaker said. "The last thing we're going to do is create a sense that we're back at school again.

"We're reminding ourselves all the time that we're dealing with a crisis in the city, but at the same time we're not creating a crisis mentality around the center itself. This is where we write and have fun."