WBS featured in Johns Hopkins News-Letter Magazine

Writers in Baltimore Schools was featured in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, the school’s student-run newspaper.

Text of the article below, as the article is not yet available online.

Writers in Baltimore Program allows JHU students to be teachers
By Florence Lau
Your Weekend Editor

When Patrice Hutton graduated from Hopkins in 2008, unlike many of her classmates, she was not looking forward to medical school or law school. Instead, she was busy pursuing funding options and setting up Writers in Baltimore Schools (WBS), a program dedicated to proving low-income middle school students with initiatives for literary development and engaging them in workshops and creative writing classes, both during the school year and over the summer.

“Middle school is a time when something that needs to be happening is not happening,” Hutton said. “Students were not engaged with reading. [WBS] was founded on the idea of coming in middle school, getting students interested, and letting them write about what they wanted to write about and read what they wanted to read.”

The roots for this program began when Hutton was a student at Hopkins, where she studied creative writing. She also volunteered at six or seven different public schools. The contrast between Hopkins and the surrounding community, especially the lower-income public schools, appalled her.

She found that the number of students who passed their reading assessment in Baltimore dropped 22 percent between the fifth and eighth grades. This inspired her and a friend to talk during their senior year about workshops for middle school students; WBS was a way Hutton could make a difference and renew the students’ love of literature by the time they enter high school. She believed that the reason she went into creative writing was due to the encouragement of her own elementary and middle school teachers, who liberally assigned her creative writing projects.

Now, Hutton seeks to extend that same opportunity to other students in the Baltimore area. “The program focuses on creative writing because oftentimes, writing in school is associated with essays and papers. WBS wants to encourage kids to write and show them that writing can be more than just a tedious homework assignment. It can be a fun way of expressing oneself,” Hutton said.

The program began at Margaret Brent Elementary school in February 2008 and expanded from there, especially after WBS received the Baltimore Community Fellowship from the Open Society Institute, which funded the program for eighteen months. Since December 2008, Hutton has been working full-time for the program. She has also received a lot of support from other sources, like Hopkins.

“Hopkins has just gives us so much support in so many ways,” Hutton said. “For example, the Center of Social Concern has donated office space, and the writing seminars department has sent out emails when we need tutors.”
WBS runs through the support of many other individuals and groups, including The Wachovia Wells Fargo Foundation and the Maryland State Arts Council. Other companies sponsor the students’ literary magazine, such as the Charles Village Barnes and Noble and Maxie’s Pizza Bar Grille.

Hutton founded WBS on the idea of workshops, and she has maintained that model. Workshops generally meet during or after school once or twice per week for an hour at a time, during which students are challenged to draft, revise, and edit their pieces.

As well as writing, students in WBS read shorter and longer pieces of fiction and poetry, from flash fiction to historical fiction. Students have read everything from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven to cartoon writing in the form of Garfield, Peanuts, and Spider-Man. The main focus, though, is always fiction and creativity.

WBS also runs two free summer programs – Creative Writing Camp and Summer Writing Studio – that will continue to serve the students they work with during the school year. Finally, a student anthology comprising of the students’ works is published biannually.

Although Hutton is in charge of the administrative aspects of WBS, she still tutors students as well.

“It really gives me a better idea of what the program needs,” she said.

However, WBS doesn’t just benefit the kids. Ask Zoey Friedman, who graduated in 2010 with a double major in writing seminars and English. She has been involved in WBS since her junior year, when Hutton sent an email to the writing seminars majors asking for volunteers. Friedman was given a workshop, and now, two years later, she is still volunteering and teaching one workshop to 8th graders per week.

Volunteering and teaching the workshops benefitted Friedman in the long run, she believes. “It was extremely influential for me [in that] I realized whether I had the aptitude to be a teacher and if I wanted to be part of education. The strength of the program just throws you into teaching,” she said.

Friedman has just been accepted to the Teach for America program, another organization that seeks to lessen the inequality in education in the United States, and being part of WBS definitely helped her on that road.

“You get assigned a workshop and then you design your own curriculum and lesson plans,” Friedman explained. “It’s daunting and you make a lot of mistakes, but it’s taught me a lot of lessons about how to teach and how to work with kids, so it prepared me for teaching in the classroom.”

In fact, she did not even want to work with middle schools in the first place, because she initially believed that they were the toughest group of students to work with.

“They’re at the age when you can’t teach them simple things. They’re crossing over to analytical thinking, and they’re at a weird place developmentally, hormonally,” she admitted.

Like Hutton, Friedman loves the program because of the kids.

“They force you to be the best you can be,” she said.

“They know when you don’t have your stuff together…if you’re not on top of everything, things will become a nightmare.”

Much is going on to improve the program beyond simple story-crafting. The Theatre Club was formed to let students study acting and playwriting by writing and producing their own original play over the course of a year. Recently, WBS has formed a partnership with Parallel Octave, a Baltimore based improvising chorus run by Dara Weinburg. There is also an inaugural program for WBS alumni, students who are now in high school, in the works.

Edward P. Jones, a Pulitzer Prize author, is planning to conduct a workshop and speak to students about his experiences in the literary field. WBS is constantly looking to grow and transform into something that will really make an impact on the Baltimore community.

Friedman had advice for anyone who wants to become part of the program.

“Don’t lower your expectations for the kids. Challenge them and don’t try and bring in age-appropriate or infantile works of literature. Once you stop challenging them, they realize that and they underachieve. Go in with an open mind, be flexible, and challenge yourself and challenge the kids,” she said.

WBS truly helps students reach their full potential.

Just look at 9th graders Robtrea Brown and Terrell Kellam, both of who won the 2010 Words on Wheels poetry contest last year. Their poems will be displayed on Baltimore City busses and trains for a year.

Hutton summed up her project and her goals simply.

“There’s so much that needs to happen to make education great for people in Baltimore, and this is just a really tiny piece,” she said.

“I should do my part in getting kids invested in reading at a critical age. Middle school kids have an amazing imagination, and we’re just giving them a space to pursue that through writing. Just spending time with the kids is amazing, because they teach me so much more. It’s so nice to be learning from them.”

WBS is also hosting an event on Wednesday, April 20th on the Homewood campus. Six Baltimore authors will be reading alongside WBS students.