When Serendipity Strikes: The Birth of a School Writing Club
The atmosphere of a school library is sometimes seen as boring and monotonous. However, as a librarian, I am open to new ideas, and this is how I came to dream, organize, and create the Warriors Writing Club.
While reflecting on the process, I realized it was a serendipitous discovery. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of serendipity is “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for." The creation of the club happened by chancealong with a little inspiration and openness to trying new things.
Three years ago, one of my students politely asked if I could review his personal statement for his college application. We sat down and discussed the prompt, as well as his vision for the final writing piece. Through a series of questions, I helped him unpack his ideas, and he went on to write a solid essay. That same essay was an important factor in the application process, and as a result, he was accepted into his top three school choices.
In going through the writing process with me, he learned several important lessons. First, he understood that he had some unique experiences, both positive and not so positive, that contributed to his life choices. Second, he gained the confidence to recognize that his narrative was a valuable one that could creatively capture the attention of readers. In essence, he learned how to stand out in a sea of applicants. Lastly, he was able to identify and write about an influential mentor in his life who guided him both academically and socially.
This opportunity to reflect and grow is something most students don’t think about when they write. Instead, punitive measures (mostly implemented under state standards and mandates) can cause writing to be an unpleasant experience that students want to avoid. He recognized this was something different!
The Value of Storytelling
The most exciting part of the process and exchange of ideas for me was teaching him that nonfiction writing doesn’t have to be stuffy; it can be exciting and interesting. An additional bonus was that it gave me another teaching tool to meet the needs of students. Soon word traveled throughout the student body that I was available to tutor and provide writing consultation for students. The experience also rekindled my own passion for writing, something that was sparked as a past participant in the Columbus, Ohio, Area Writing Project, an affiliate of the National Writing Project for teachers.
I was determined to gather resources and organize a venue to informally teach and promote creative nonfiction writing among students. I wanted to witness students evolve into more confident writers who wanted and needed to know the value of telling their personal stories.
Here are the steps I took to establish the Warriors Writing Club. First, I enlisted the assistance of the co-director for the Columbus Area Writing Project who connected me to the Ohio Writers Guild. This is an organization of exemplary graduate writing students who are committed to community service. Using their ideas and experiences, they were able to expose our students to thinking about the writing process as a strategy for academic and social-emotional growth. Together, we led safe, non-judgmental sessions where writing was viewed as a gift students shared with others.
Second, because I was inviting community members into the school environment, a partnership had to be formally established through our district’s Business and Community Partnership application process. The goals were in alignment with the core goals of the school district.
Third, I explained the purpose and goals of the writing club to interested students, and each participant needed to complete a parental permission form in order to release student information ( i.e. photos, audio, video, and original works). Fourth, although I initially intended to target junior and senior students who would be applying to colleges, I thought it would be a great idea to recruit freshmen students because they too would need strong writing skills to tell their rich and powerful stories. I was also interested in changing their perspectives on writing early on. Lastly, we located a small and private space available for writing sessions and easily accessible through the library.
During the first year, the writing club enrolled seven students, one male and six female students. This was not surprising to me as I expected female students to respond more favorably to writing than male students. In addition to myself, there were three writing consultants who specialized in creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and prose. During our sessions we utilized free writes, nature writings, sensory writings, social and political commentaries, “how to” writings, as well as personal essays about moments of sorrow and mishaps. We also introduced students to new ways of looking at familiar genres, like traditional fables, folktales, and fairy tales, by having them rewrite them with unpredictable endings. Some of the students’ evaluations of the club included:
“This is different than classroom writing.”
“I am able to let out my frustrations when I come here.”
“Some of the students have some good ideas for writing.”
“This is helping me to think about writing in a different way.”
During our second year, with three different writing consultants, we enrolled 14 students, four female students and 10 male students. Of course, this changed the dynamics of the sessions, but it also gave some reluctant male students a forum to talk about their writings. After several sessions, one student remarked, “Hey, I was thinking, this is kinda nice. ... You can actually major in writing like this in college. I’m thinking about that.” Imagine how surprised we were to witness that “aha” moment with him.
Because of its initial success, we will continue to grow the club each year and examine more carefully how to collaborate with classroom teachers. Students should not view writing as a separate entity outside of the classroom. Instead they should utilize the skills and experiences they have learned within these writing sessions to increase their overall writing proficiency. Eventually, I would love to see a writing center emerge from the school library to promote the academic and social emotional benefits of writing for students. I’m so thankful for that moment of serendipity that opened the door to new experiences, new opportunities, and new perspectives for students and teachers.