Imagination Fuels Writing Labs for Kids

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What if you built a neighborhood writing center and kids flocked to it just for fun?

Not for laborious tutoring at term paper time, but for exploring subjects that fascinate them.

Look no further than Mighty Writers in Philadelphia. But there’s also Spells Writing Lab, also in Philly.

And both were inspired by 826 Valencia, the brainchild of novelist and screenwriter Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari.

Writing labs are on the road to becoming a trend.

In 2002,  Eggers and Calegari launched their lab with the mission of helping struggling schools by matching professional writers with children. The two rented in a San Francisco area zoned for retail so the space had to be recast as a store.

Voila! A pirate store was born. The front of the building sells eye patches, three-cornered hats and bottles of leeches  (don't ask). And in the back? Cozy writing spaces and big worktables where the imagination can run wild.

Which is a secret ingredient in all writing labs — letting imagination run wild.

At Spells Writing Lab, children recently created characters as they carved Halloween pumpkins, said programming director Elizabeth Encarnacion. They wrote a short story with the characters, then turned the story into a longer piece.

In addition to an afterschool program for kids in second through seventh grade, Spells holds weekend writing workshops. A recent workshop related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics focused on spooky science.

A latex glove came alive and a balloon made banshee noises when rubbed with a hexagonal-sided nut. The workshop leader talked about the science behind sound waves and the polymers in slime.

The kids noted the sights, smells and sounds and then wrote ghost stories that used sensory description.

Spells also does workshops in schools, often based on what Philadelphia teachers say they need. For example, teachers wanted help in getting kids to revise their work.

Spells used the “exquisite corpse” approach — in which each child contributes a line to create a story. Then the children shape the story to make sense of it.

Revision becomes part of the process rather than being seen as comment on a story’s imperfection.

“We’ve seen a dramatic improvement,” Encarnacion said. “It takes the stigma out of revision.”

Spells’ volunteers range from published authors, journalists and teachers in training to college students.

Mighty Writers, started in 2009 by Tim Whitaker and Rachel Loeper, offers mentoring, an afterschool program, a teen scholars program and workshops on evenings and weekends.

It’s like a clubhouse, she said.

“On the front end of the writing experience it’s really important to build community” among the staff, the volunteers and the kids, Loeper said. “In a subtle way, it prepares them for the writing experience.”

It’s important to find themes that resonate with kids, she said.

For example, creating comic books is an activity that fourth- and fifth-grade boys really like, she said. In a sense, they are exploring what it means to be Superman.

“All of it is wrapped up in identity,” Loeper said.

Kids are engaged when they explore how they see themselves and how they want to see themselves, she said.

The success of 826 Valencia in reaching and inspiring kids has created a new model of writing labs.

“They provided an incubator for these type of nonprofits ...  and have had a wide-reaching effect,” Encarnacion said.