Friday, November 30, 2007

Was it worth it?

Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall

Over the months last fall, one of my 8th graders worked arduously on her first screenplay. She brainstormed, wrote & rewrote, enthusiastically showed up for regular meetings with me, and then sent it in to the Scholastic Art & Writing event with the hopes of being awarded with a regional or national award. The previous fall, she had won a regional award from Scholastic for a short story and was feeling confident about her new endeavor.

But by March the news came in: She was our only 8th grader who hadn't been recognized by Scholastic last year. I asked her (out of sheer curiosity) if she thought she'd wasted her time since she hadn't been recognized. "What?" she retorted in shock. "Now I know I want to be either a screenwriter or a director!" With that, we promptly began working on a play that she entered into Stephen Sondeim's Young Playwrights competition. She won third place and we had a ball at the award ceremony.

She is currently working on her third script--she will be sending it into Scholastic this January.

I wish I had included an aspect of this anecdote in the Wall Street Journal piece. There is so much joy that is involved with creative writing projects. It really isn't just about winning or losing. Read more!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wall Street Journal Op-Ed

Monday: the Wall Street Journal emailed me, letting me know that they accepted an op-ed I wrote for publication. Tuesday: an editor called me to let me know it would run Wednesday (wow, that was fast). Wednesday: as the op-ed hit the stands, I was suddenly hit with dozens of details and thoughts I wish I had included... So I will post some of those thoughts tomorrow. For now, here is the piece that ran on Wednesday.

In Praise of 'Thought Competition'

November 28, 2007; Page A23

Monday: After a long day at his New York City private school, Ben, 16, heads to my creative writing lab to work on his heartfelt memoir about his parents' bitter divorce. Tuesday: Alison, 15, rushes from her elite private school in the Bronx to work on her short screenplay about a gifted, mean and eccentric boy. Lily, 13, pops in whenever she can to polish her hilarious short story narrated by an insomniac owl.

Ben, Alison and Lily, along with another few dozen who attend my afterschool writing program, also attend top-notch New York private schools that cost upwards of $25,000 a year. So why, one might wonder, do these kids need an extracurricular creative writing coach? The answer is simple, though twisted: Their schools -- while touting well-known athletic teams -- are offshoots of the "progressive education" movement and uphold a categorical belief that "thought competition" is treacherous.

Administrators of these schools will not support their students in literary, science or math competitions, including the most prestigious creative writing event in the country: the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. So we at Writopia Lab help these kids to join the 10,000 young literati from across the country who are hurrying to meet the event's January deadline, as well as deadlines for other competitions.

For decades now, psychology and pedagogy researchers have been debating the impact of competition on young people's self-esteem, with those wary of thought competition taking the lead. Most New York parents of public or private school students have felt the awkward reverberations of this trend -- which avoids naming winners -- when Johnny takes home a certificate for "participation" in the school's science fair. (Do you hang that one up on the wall?)

But some, and ironically those who attend some of the most desirable schools in the region, feel the reverberations in deeper, more painful ways. "Two years after my son left a school that prohibited him from entering a national math competition," says one mother, "he still writes angry essays about why the jocks in his former school were allowed to compete throughout the city while he wasn't allowed to win the same honors for his gifts." Sam, her son, felt uncool in the eyes of his peers, and undervalued (and sometimes even resented) by the administration.

"We don't want kids to compete individually, put themselves in vulnerable positions as individuals," explains a leading administrator. "They can compete within teams," explains another. "So the focus is on community building rather than on personal value."

But what about Sam's sense of personal value? Aren't human beings fabulously varied in their gifts and sensibilities? Excellent teamwork can be important, but is it the only admirable achievement? Should any school in the United States prevent broader acknowledgment of a young, creative mathematician?

Mel Levine, a professor at the University of North Carolina and one of the foremost authorities in the country on how children learn, believes the impact of the collaborative education movement has been devastating to an entire generation. When students are rewarded for participation rather than achievement, Dr. Levine suggests, they don't have a strong sense of what they are good at and what they're not. Thus older members of Generation Y might be in for quite a shock when they show up for work at their first jobs. "They expect to be immediate heroes and heroines. They expect a lot of feedback on a daily basis. They expect grade inflation, they expect to be told what a wonderful job they're doing," says Dr. Levine.

What is most surprising about the brand of educational progressivism that denies creative and innovative teens the right to compete for public acknowledgment is the seeming lack of interest in distinguishing between positive or negative competitions. Positive competitions award a good number of entries with a range of awards, and, in some cases, send constructive comments back with the manuscripts. Negative competitions, on the other hand, may charge high fees to enter or award only the top three entries.

Last January, 28 of my students rigorously workshopped, edited and entered 45 submissions to the Scholastic event, and 28 pieces won recognition on the regional level and another five on the national level. In April, 24 of these students went to New York University to have honors bestowed upon them by famous writers, and another five went to Carnegie Hall to receive national awards.

Still, students would quietly ask me over the following year why one of their pieces was or wasn't recognized. We would compare how much time they put into one piece over another, the risks they took in one, the original elements of another, and how new a genre was to them. But most importantly, the conversation turned to a defining aspect of an artist's world: the reign of arbitrary judgment. My students know that they don't each share the same response to their peers' work, and they proudly tout individually refined sensibilities. So the real questions they should be asking themselves are: Did they try their best? Have they learned in the process? Are they excited to try again?

The goal of positive competitions is to help young people identify their strengths, overcome their limitations to the best of their ability, and process their disappointments. Luckily, there is an extraordinary range of projects -- both collaborative and competitive -- that inspire kids to produce their best work, bond with their peers and prepare fully for adulthood.

Ms. Wallace-Segall is a New York-based writer.
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Monday, November 26, 2007

Creatively Deprived

By Nico G.

Rebecca wrote a wonderful post about the lack of creative writing in schools. While it is true that some private schools and well-funded public schools choose to not emphasize creative writing and to not celebrate their student writers, most public schools don't have a choice in the matter for two reasons: they don't have the funding to set up substantial writing programs from the city and state, and creative writing is not part of the school's required curriculum. Therefore, there is little creative writing in these schools. It is not always a purposeful decision to deprive students as much as it is out of the school's reach to offer this to their students.

Furthermore, some schools simply don't have teachers capable of helping students with their creative writing and cannot afford to hire anyone. Understandably, the English teachers at these schools try as best they can to teach students what they need to know for the gobs of standardized testing students must endure. If creative writing were ever to emerge as a major leg of public education, changes would have to be made on a state level, to make sure schools are required to emphasize it. Otherwise, it will not be done in a substantial way.

Sadly, caught in the middle are students already introduced to and/or interested in creative writing. To these kids, I urge lots of reading, and even more writing. If your school does not offer you the opportunity to creatively express yourself, and you do not have access to a program such as WritopiaLab, consult your English teacher privately, and discuss your predicament with them, or you can do what many writers have done throughout history and teach yourself how to craft stories with the help of already published works. Just because you're deprived of a creative writing program doesn't mean you're deprived of sharing your voice with the world.
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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lessons from the Newest Generation of Writers (& Thinkers)

By Rebecca Wallace-Segall

The teens leave. Once again I sit here in a charged silence--reflecting. Reflecting, this time, on the two shy but suddenly irreverent 15-year-olds who were exploring the emotional and creative boundaries of the boy's memoir and the girl's short story. Their comments were confident and rich--they have changed so much since they first started coming to workshop in July. The silence is broken when the 8th graders arrive, two girls with short stories, two boys with memoirs in tow. The girls dazzle us with the elegant complexity of each of their main characters. The boys show us that, in the right setting, they, too, can think, speak, and write about the emotional themes of their lives. They leave, and I reflect:

Most people have low expectations of young people's creative writing--and often, it is one-dimensional, confusing, and unengaging. But that, it turns out, is only because few bother to allot time to cultivate it--to teach it. And it is such a shame because young people derive so much pleasure from it. My students complain about the stress of hours and hours of homework but then stay up late at night happily typing away at their creative writing pieces. And it is only good for their brains: they learn to apply linear themes, abstract concepts, and technical writing skills to their fantasy worlds. What makes for better, fuller, more enjoyable learning than that?

Finally, I realize it is time to rename the blog(!): Lessons from the Newest Generation of Writers. I will call Andrea, our fabulous tech intern at Vassar, to request that the blog be updated accordingly.

Another Sunday workshop down.
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Friday, November 23, 2007

Three Thanksgiving Top Tens

Posted by Rebecca Wallace-Segall
(Photo: Jeff Segall)

Last night we were having so much fun at our Thanksgiving dinner (what with an Iraqi Muslim immigrant, a female Rabbi, an aging famous rock star, and a scattering of writers, artists, and professors) that we forgot to go around the table and each say what we are grateful for this year. So I will get it all out here...

Ten modern authors that I am grateful for:
Nicole Krauss, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, David Sedaris, Daphne Merkin, James Baldwin, Susan Faludi, Angela Davis, Hannah Arendt, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and... of course, J.K. Rowling...because she has inspired so many Writopia Lab writers. Also, I am incredibly grateful to all the new graphic novel memoirists--Satrapi, Bechel, David B, etc--for broadening the landscape of entertaining, meaningful prose.

Ten Writopia Lab experiences I am incredibly grateful for:
1 & 2) The enthusiasm and dedication of our tween and teen writers to their work and to Writopia Lab;
3 & 4) The individuals and organizations who have been supporting us with donations sans our 501c3 status;
5 & 6) Our talented and ultra-competent student interns, Nico Grant (Brooklyn Tech) and Andrea Listenberger (Vassar U.);
7) A colleague as prolific, committed, and funny (!) as Dan;
8)The pleasure at seeing the excitement among the Writopia Writers as they anticipated standing at the podium at Barnes & Noble;
9) And then hearing the crowd react (with laughter, gasps, applause, etc) to the writers' hard won prose;
10) Looking forward to going to work each day.

Ten writing exercises I am grateful for:
1) Multiple Narrator Group Story (thank you Ena, Jennan, Carmel, and Julia for developing that one with me. It is so much fun, and incredibly helpful in illustrating the difference between short story and short, short story.)

Character Discovery Scenes: Main character goes through a series of events:
2) Main character interacts with a supermarket cashier; and then 3) A fire breaks out
Alternative versions depending on what needs to be discovered:
4) Main character is at a family reunion; 5) or at a Bday party as a young child; 6) or at her wedding; 7) or at a funeral. (These very serious exercises were inspired, ironically, by improvisational comedy classes I took at the Upright Citizens Brigade)

New Character Find:
8) Writer begins a letter to someone fictional who passed away, who the fictional narrator has conflicting feelings about; or 9) Writer begins a letter to a fictional unborn child who the fictional narrator has conflicting feelings about. (Thank you Leslie... your story inspired these two great exercises!)
10)Is there someone you see all the time, who seems particularly interesting, appealing, weird, or mysterious? Write a scene with the person you chose shopping in a supermarket. There should be physical description of the character and of the contents of his or cart. There should also be some chit chat (or some kind of interaction) with the cashier.
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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Writopia Lab Featured

By Rebecca Wallace-Segall
(Photo: Mark Gimein)

Rebecca Honig Friedman, a cultural critic and well-known blogger, called me last week for an interview about Writopia Lab. She had originally found out about Writopia Lab last April when the Jewish Week ran a piece about the work I did at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, a progressive Jewish day school located in Manhattan. Friedman's often light-hearted, entertaining blog focuses on media, culture, gender and Judaism. The interview was just posted on her blog.

~~Rebecca WS~~ Read more!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Schools: Celebrate Teen Writers

By Rebecca Wallace-Segall
(Photos: Jeff Segall)

The National Endowment for the Arts reported today a downward trend in fiction, poetry, and drama consumption by Americans--with the youngest group, ages 18-25, hit the hardest.

According to the study, the ubiquity of electronic media has made the difference. Certainly obsessive IMing and Facebook surfing takes us away from our books, but, as educators, we actually have control over the more perilous culprit: the fact that most school administrators don't do much to reinforce the notion that literature should take center stage at school.

Here's a way your school can help young people realize the pleasure and value of reading: fund a creative writing program that can support qualified creative writing teachers; celebrate your young creative writers as proudly as you celebrate athletes, actors, and general academics; plan readings during the school year held within the school's auditorium that place writers on stage under the spotlight.

Schools can play an active role undoing the marginalization of literature and literates in their schools. But will they?

The photos posted (above) were taken at Barnes & Noble during the Q & A session after each tween or teen writer read their own original short story, poem, or memoir, or helped read a play written by a workshop participant.

~~Rebecca WS

Read more:
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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Barnes and Noble Reading, an Experience

By Lily G.

Reading at Barnes and Noble this Monday was definitely an exciting, fun, and only slightly scary event. =). I read my humor piece about a yenta-ish, Star Wars-obsessed owl somewhere in the 4-6:00pm portion of the event, and I think it went reasonably well. In turn, all of the brilliant pieces I heard, ranging from short stories to memoirs, held a captivated audience that gasped, laughed, and clapped at all of the right moments. Well done!

I had been to a reading at Barnes and Noble last year in the same room, and I did not read half as well then as I did this time. LOL this time around I actually remembered to speak into the microphone. The people I heard projected very well, but the only problem for us young writers at these events if there ever are any is that we do not do our work justice by mumbling it. So let people appreciate your hard work, and articulate!

The question and answer session that I was included in was brief and laid back, but the audience asked good questions and were met with great answers! I could tell they appreciated being responded too, especially if they asked difficult questions that involved the writers of memoirs. I have only written one memoir, a piece of writing I felt was rather hard to put into words, and I imagine it would be all the harder to read it out loud. So a round of applause for all of the valiant memoir readers!

Anyway, that is my experience of the event, and two thumbs up overall. I know I was not present for the majority of the time, and different people have different perspectives. So if anyone who participated is hanging around the blog, why not reply with your feelings? Finally, in case I was not clear, I think the reading was a fabulous success, and hopefully there will be more that are just as memorable in the near future!
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Tuesday, November 6, 2007


By Rebecca WS
(Photo: Mark Gimein)


How important are titles of narrative, prose, and poetry anyway?

I spent hours online last night with my WritopiaLab writers as they frantically sought to name their prose, brainstorming everything from literal or blunt emotional declarations, to elusive metaphorical abstractions. Some wanted poignancy, others wanted straight-forward clarity, most wanted a hit of poetry and to go to bed.

Everyone's excited right now since we're preparing for the Barnes & Noble reading this Monday and for the Scholastic Writing Event in January. But is a title really worth an hour or more of rigorous story-analysis mixed with mind-numbing word play?

Well, for those of us who actually enjoy getting lost in the analytical ends of the creative process, the answer is clear: There are few challenges more fun than aspiring to combine literary thought or concepts with subtle allusion. But when it's late at night, or it's not really the thing that inspires you, or it just so happens that you are NOT in the mood, then what? When everything is said and done, aren't titles as ephemeral to readers as passing scenery on a highway?

Maybe sometimes, but not when they are good! When titles have reached their full potential, they are the all-important signs that guide us as we head down a new freaky, mysterious, craaaazy... or just unfamiliar road... And they do much more than just that.

First of all publishing houses spend months debating titles of books. They consider: Will this title provoke people to buy the book? Does this title suggest something that the public has not known before? Does it rightfully convey the tone of the book? If the book has a lot of humor is the title playful enough? And, ultimately, does the title suggest the full breadth of the work?

Clearly, we are not trying to sell our short stories and poems to people as publishers are trying to do with books. But we do seek to convey a sense of originality, draw our readers in, and, ultimately, suggest a full literary experience. No big deal! (Hehe)

Well, kudos to Writopia Lab writers, because based on last night's brainstorming sessions, our titles so far sometimes intrigue our readers with a clear, albeit very short, statement regarding the heart-felt material they are about to explore; sometimes draw readers in with a bold, unexpected use of parentheses; and often win readers' trust with a poetic allusion. If we have done one or two of these things at least, our readers are on board from the start.

And, ideally, for the full literary experience, after a reader reaches the end of a story, she should be able to look at the title again and see a double-meaning, a reference to something she discovered only after reading the story.

If any WL writers are still having trouble titling their pieces, please email or call me today. Happy elections day!

~~Rebecca WS~~
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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Introducing "Write On!"

Creative writing has been known to not only be an expression of self, but an interpretation of other people, and the world at large. Of course, this wisdom is learned at some point throughout life. While younger writers understandably don’t know everything about life, through their writing, they can begin to understand their own lives and observe others’ lives. It’s important for young people to express themselves through a positive outlet, and there is perhaps no more interesting release than writing fictional short stories, plays, and memoirs. This is the foundation of the workshops at WritopiaLab, and the guiding force behind the upcoming newsletter.

Write On! is a monthly reminder of why young people write. Our goal is to share our perspective and the perspectives of young writers throughout New York City. This newsletter will keep the entire WritopiaLab family abreast of what’s going on within the program and in the lives of our alumni. Each month, Write On! will feature a student-written short story and poem, demonstrating the immense talent of the kids enrolled in our workshops. We will also feature student recommendations of the most intriguing cultural spots in New York, the most inspirational vistas in the City, and in every issue, a young guest columnist will take us through the methods of their writing process. Write On! is a celebration of WritopiaLab’s incomparable students and of New York. It will be a bright, informative newsletter that maintains our mission – to bridge gaps between young, urban writers, showing them the commonalities of their intellectual pursuits, and offering them an opportunity to express themselves in ways they might not be able to otherwise. Read more!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

When one boy plays video games... he finds inspiration

One of my students, Peter, a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School, has the coolest approach to writing:

As he plays a video game (I would imagine in 7 hour stints at least), something magical (or creative) happens: Within moments, characterological motives, personal histories, and superhuman powers begin to emerge in his mind, and before long he finds himself thoroughly immersed in the emotional ramifications of the game, and ultimately in front of a computer screen banging out his 86th sci-fi story of the year.

Peter's stories are dynamic, deep, and of course, action-packed. Since middle school, he has won multiple awards from Scholastic's Art & Writing event for his writing.

But of course Peter's experience raises some highly unpopular but interesting questions about the value of video game playing: Can some video games (violent ones included) sometimes play a positive role in inspiring the minds of youth? Can they transcend their insidious time-wasting, violence-encouraging, obesity-making, inclinations?

Based on Peter's experience, I think they can sometimes. And, then, his experience made me think of my own... back in the early 1980's...

I remember playing (um, 25 years ago) Atari's primitive Adventure game of dragons, swords, challises, and invisible mazes for hours on end. And I remember spending even more time afterwards hunting down huge pieces of paper throughout my apartment in order to map out my character's escape route through the game's mazes... Once I had my tools, I covered my entire living room floor with the blank canvass and began drawing. Finally, I remember triumphantly standing to view the final product.

While games may be culprit to untold social pathologies, let us acknowledge that games also seem to lend themselves to more interactive imaginative play than they are typically given credit for.

In any case, video game playing certainly has served Peter's writing much good. Not to mention my imaginative play time as a kid, too.

~~Rebecca WS~~
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