Bright Idea: Teaching Youth the Power of Words

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A young man speaking into a micophone.

Everybody has a story to tell. That’s the underlying philosophy of youth writing workshops: giving young people the opportunity to be heard and the confidence to express their thoughts. 

In particular, youth from underserved communities benefit from the chance to speak out, says Paige McBee, outreach coordinator for Streetside Stories, a San Francisco nonprofit that offers storytelling, creative writing and filmmaking workshops to middle school and high school students. “The underserved tend not to be represented in the larger conversation, culturally,” she says. Learning to write well enables young people to enter into public discussions, for instance by writing letters to the editor or to their members of Congress or by reading their poetry in front of an audience.

Writing can also be a therapeutic tool. The New York City division of Green Chimneys, a youth social services organization and Family and Youth Services Bureau grantee, uses workshops, in part, to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth come to terms with difficult experiences, says Theresa Nolan, director of the New York City division. LGBTQ youth “end up with a lot of pain which is hard to verbalize,” Nolan says, and writing workshops are supportive places to process their emotions.

Strong writing skills are also valuable tools for the future, whether youth are writing college essays or applying for jobs. “It’s not about poetry,” says Jonathan Tucker, a slam poet and freelance workshop facilitator in Washington, DC. “It’s about giving people what they need to deal with the world.”

When bringing a writing workshop to your program, here are some things to consider:

Make it fun. “I start workshops with theater, improv, word association—not writing. Writing is school,” Tucker says. “Every kid wants to have fun, so have fun playing with words.”

Create trust by sharing your own stories. On the first day of a storytelling workshop, Streetside Stories’ facilitators, who are professional writers and media artists, tell a story drawn from their own lives, McBee says. Young people will feel more comfortable committing their thoughts to paper and receiving feedback after they’ve heard facilitators reveal something about themselves.

Let youth set the tone. “Listen to the young people and how they want to utilize the program—what style of writing, how it will be shared, how to structure it,” Nolan says. “Don’t make it top down—start where the students are.”

Honor young people’s voices. Don’t censor youth. Instead, Tucker says, “Make sure they know ‘whatever you say has power.’ If they want to stand up and talk about how much they dislike a teacher—that’s expression.”

Work towards creating a finished project. Programs at Streetside Stories almost always end with a finished product, such as a newspaper, book or film, McBee says. This teaching model, known as project-based learning, encourages students to collaborate and make creative decisions, and gives them ownership over the learning process. Every youth has the opportunity to present or publish work, either at a year-end event, in a self-published booklet or in a bound anthology.

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