UPenn Writers House reaches out to Philly students

The Notebook
March 29, 2011

The other night, I sat, coffee in hand, with two friends in the rooftop lounge of our dorm doing homework. My companions were reading chapter two of Terry Eagleton's "How to Read a Poem," entitled What is Poetry? As an employee of the KWH, it was a question that I hear more often than you might expect. To me, the question of what is poetry? is misplaced. Perhaps in academia it has its place, but I spend more time at University City High School than in my own classes. At the KWH I don't plan the talks by notable writers, I organize community outreach. For me, the questions that arise are somewhat different:

Questions like these are why I took the position as outreach coordinator at the KWH.

There is a contradiction to be sure when a space dominated by conversations of Baudelaire and readings by Susan Howe exists five blocks from a school where less than 15 percent of students are proficient in reading and writing. I know that my powers are limited to address this contradiction, and that it is only part of the larger contradiction of an Ivy League school neighboring Promise Academies.

However, I do hope that through my efforts I can discover small ways to make the KWH not only a haven that draws in writers and creativity, but a force that pushes out and promotes writing and creative pursuits. The first step in this process has been to establish The Blacktop, an online literary space for Philadelphia public and charter school students in grades 1-12.

Through The Blacktop, the KWH hopes to encourage students of every level to write, to affirm that what they have to say matters, and to celebrate their accomplishments. The Blacktop accepts writing of all forms from classroom essays to name acrostics. We hope to establish a virtual writing community showcasing student writing from all over Philly that can be shared with friends, family, and teachers.

We want The Blacktop to find its way into homes and classrooms, spreading the message that writing, self expression, and creativity belong in schools and the lives of our students. This April, student writers featured on The Blacktop will be invited to participate in workshops and a reading at the KWH. At that time, four cash prizes will be awarded to young writers.

To be sure, there is writing in our schools, but all too often it comes with formulas and test prep demands. Many of the students I work with resent writing, and a five paragraph essay assignment is inevitably followed by a groan. Yet, the ability to write, I believe, is the strongest tool a student can possess. There are the obvious reasons: you can write your way into college, into a job, into a scholarship. But more than that, writing is a tool for self discovery, development, reflection, creation, and empowerment.

If reading is the process by which learners take in information and access new worlds, writing is the process by which they process and expand that information to create their own worlds. Writing is the academic's action. Writing is a form of agency – and what our students need is to be empowered as active participants and creators of their education, not to be merely receptacles for information or experts at filling in bubble sheets.

If our children cannot create, how will they invent life-changing technology? How will they transform societal problems? How will they take ownership over themselves, and help those around them?

If we give our students the power of writing, if we allow them agency, then they will no doubt achieve.