Writers’ workshop builds student educational skills

Writers’ workshop builds student educational skills

(Penn.) One student grapples with the notion that she may be on the autism spectrum, but fears the idea of getting tested and the implications of knowing for sure. Another explores the difficulty of alcohol abuse in the family, and a third discusses the feelings of a parent never coming home.

While most children who participate in the Mighty Writers afterschool program typically write about lighter topics, the Philadelphia-based non-profit’s founder, Tim Whitaker, said boosting students’ ability to put those difficult thoughts to paper is his goal.

“The biggest success stories to me are those where the kids become comfortable writing about things that are hard for them to write about,” Whitaker said in an interview. “So many kids in Philly are really smart and have all the components to be really successful and become great writers, they just need exposure, which they aren’t always getting in the schools.”

Seven years ago, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said the city was facing a “serious literacy crisis”–a problem that continues to persist, and has aided in the community’s struggles with joblessness and poverty. Federal data from between 2013 and 2014 showed Philadelphia had the highest rate of deep poverty among America's 10 biggest cities, meaning household income is measured at 50 percent or less of the poverty rate. According to U.S. Census 2014 American Community Survey results, 60,000 of those in deep poverty are children.

And a 2009 Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board report found more than half of adults in the city don’t have the literacy and work skills necessary to compete in a knowledge-based economy with fewer manufacturing jobs, or to successfully complete a postsecondary degree.

Those poor literacy rates as well as city-wide dropout rates of approximately 40 percent are what Whitaker said his organization is aggressively trying to combat.

Since the non-profit opened its doors to students in 2009, it has expanded from teaching 250 students to more than 2,500 kids this school year across four centers located in some of the most underprivileged areas in Philadelphia. Of those children, 43 percent are K-5, 35 percent are in middle school and 22 percent are in high school.

The Mighty Writers after school program gives students time to get help on homework before breaking into workshops on writing prompts that Whitaker said may center around fiction, non-fiction, poetry or even how to write a resume. Other workshops may focus on sports writing or blogging, and the centers also provide mentorship and SAT preparation opportunities.

The most popular workshops often deal with issues including immigration, politics, peer pressure and other civic oriented or socially driven topics, according to Whitaker. He said that because volunteers spend so much time hearing the kids talk amongst themselves, they’re able to build workshops around what the kids are interested in.

Whitaker, who worked for years in journalism including as an editor for the Philadelphia Weekly, and had bylines in the New York Times, Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer, began his career as a fifth and six grade teacher in Philadelphia.

Approximately 80 percent of the students who have participated in his organization’s writing programs have scored proficient at writing for their grade level, compared to the recent citywide average of 32 percent, according to the non-profit’s data.

“I think one of the reasons we get these good results is that we really preach the importance of revision,” Whitaker said, noting that it isn’t uncommon for students to complete two or three revisions with one-on-one help from volunteers.

“You can’t write anything of value unless you’re thinking clearly first, so we’re always telling the kids to think clearly and write with clarity,” he said. “Most of these kids are not going to become professional writers, but being able to write a professional email or apply for a job or write an essay to get into college is vital for success.”

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