If you teach a student how to appreciate writing by making it personal rather than compulsory, then they might learn to enjoy it. Enjoying writing could lead kids into a habit of reading. Once they don’t immediately shy away from either side of that Pythagorean literary equation, things like test scores and academic achievement start to improve.
In those terms, fixing the education system sounds relatively simple, but the staff from Deep, a local non–profit organization, makes it look a lot easier than it is.
“We try to set up respect and prove to them that we’re here, we’re consistent, we’re gonna be here every time, and we’re not going to give up even if you’re rude to us,” says Catherine Killingsworth, Deep’s Executive Director. “The first couple classes are just doing that.”
For the last two and a half years, Killingsworth and a staff of part timers, volunteers and friends have developed a writing workshop curriculum that is now in use in more than a dozen schools in the county. This year, they hosted programs in every middle school in the system except for two, and by the start of the next school year, Killingsworth hopes there will be no exceptions.
“At first it was almost impossible to get the schools to let us in. We were new and young,” she says over coffee last week. “Now it’s a lot easier. We have the statistics to prove it works.”
At Hubert Middle School, where Deep volunteers worked with 90 students, the pass rate for the state’s writing test improved 55 percent over the previous year.
“We can’t take all the credit for that, the school did a lot of work, but we were part of the equation,” says Killingsworth.
On Saturday, June 11, Deep will celebrate the release of seven anthologies of student writing, compilations of the best work from the past school year. Participants will give readings of their work, which ranges from poems to short fiction, and pick up a copy of their first published writing.
While the book release party will be a moment to celebrate for students and staff alike, the process of getting there wasn’t always easy.
“A middle school student on any given day, no matter how much they love you, or like writing, or have invested in the class, might have just had their heart broken, or may have just failed their CRCT,” explains Killingsworth. “When you have 12 of these kids and they all have these variables, sometimes there are these days when there’s a perfect storm.”
Ongoing behavior issues or a conviction on criminal charges, those are two of the ways students end up at the Scott Alternative Learning Center, a large, foreboding structure in Garden City that is part of the Savannah–Chatham Public School System. The front doors lock automatically and there are bars the windows.
Most people don’t mention Scott and “really fun,” in the same sentence, but Killingsworth is an exception to the rule. She seems terminally upbeat about spending the past year with several volunteers teaching writing to the group of troubled teenage males.
“The writing that came out of that class just blew my mind,” she says. “It’s better than most of the adult writing I’ve read this year.”
The biggest lesson isn’t feeding these kids something to say, it’s letting them know that it’s ok to say it, think it or feel it – that self expression is not akin to weakness.
“They have a lot to talk about,” says Killingsworth. “They don’t usually get a chance to because the cultural norm for a lot of the guys is stone faced, ‘I can take anything. I’m so cool.’ They can and they are, but they don’t have to. Being in the class, they realize they don’t have to.”
The kids who participate in Deep’s workshops aren’t the only ones learning either. Many of the organization’s volunteers are local college students who glean classroom experience and additional training from their time spent with Deep. Last semester, several volunteers were so inspired they decided to pursue full–time work in education.
“I’ve learned more in eight weeks of working with Deep than I have in the rest of my certification program combined,” wrote Jessica McIntyre, a former volunteer, in a testimonial about the organization.
Once Deep has made its way into every middle school in the district, Killingsworth hopes to see the program spread into elementary schools next. If the plan succeeds, kids would be engaged in creative writing from the time they learned to write, and the challenges of growing up might find their way onto empty notebook pages rather than into fights.
Deep Book Release Party
When: Saturday, June 11, 7 p.m.
Where: S.P.A.C.E. Building, 9 W. Henry St.
Cost: Free and open to the public
A taste of talent
Here are excerpts of some of the student writing from the Deep workshops:
"I'm from a place where if you hesitate / you might get decapitated / Where all the things around you are dilapidated. / Where people are afraid to sleep / Like Elm Street when Freddy came / Where my mind is a weapon / of mass destruction / Like my dad is Saddam Hussein / Where the word "Clap" / does not mean applause / Where in life you can't afford many flaws."
From "Where I'm From" by Nijel Batiste, Scott Alternative Learning Center
"We were best friends / in second grade / we played and laughed everyday / We were just like sisters / Inseparable / I felt I could conquer the world / Until she didn't come in / I thought she would come in / But one week went by / Then two weeks / Then a woman came into our classroom / And told us / My best friend has died / My heart dropped and it was hard to take it all in / It is still hard to this day."
From "The Loss of a Friend" by Danyelle Kammeraad, Coastal Middle School
"Curling up with a book and some hot chocolate / Reading until your eyes feel like heavy lead weights / words blurred together / Your fifth cup of hot chocolate is / Gone"
From "Untitled" by Bryan Knauff, Oglethorpe Charter School