Words That Matter: Teaching Creative Writing to Kids in Hyde Park

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By Michael Lipkowitz, Class of 2012

Twelve kids get on the wrong school bus. First the bus takes them to different places in Chicago--Lincoln Park Zoo, the Loop, the middle of Lake Michigan.  Suddenly the bus swerves westward and speeds them across the country to California. The kids get out to enjoy the sunshine, only to discover a moment later that the bus is revving up to speed them to New York City.  They hop in with glee as they speed across the wide-open deserts of Nevada.


This is not the latest story ripped from the headlines; rather, it is a creative piece written by a group of twelve 3rd-to-6th graders in an elementary school on Chicago's South Side.  They are part of Southside Scribblers, an after-school creative writing program run by University of Chicago undergraduates. Scribblers is a Community Service Recognized Student Organization that has been around since 1994, starting out its life as Student Teachers.

The program helps kids express themselves creatively with words. Volunteers engage the kids in writing exercises: writing from the point of a view of a specific character, crafting an acrostic poem, or constructing a graphic novel with a partner.  They strive to create a positive environment where kids can express themselves, become passionate about storytelling, and become confident about their own work.

"[Eventually] they sort of will start suggesting things to write about on their own," says fourth-year Houston Small, Scribblers director and volunteer.  "It's exciting when, after doing one thing, they're so excited [that] they come up with their own ideas about what to do next."

Some kids become more devoted to the craft than others. At times, they may start out hesitant to participate in activities, or too shy to make new friends.  Fourth-year Alicia Sanchez, another Scribblers volunteer, explains that in spite of this, the kids usually open up to the enriching, laid-back environment created by the volunteers.

"It's always good when they--this always happens with the boys--they deny they like writing, and little by little you can coax them into the story, and they seem to really actually enjoy it, and then they're laughing with me," remarks Sanchez.  "Making friends with the kids is always the best part. ... They laugh and they have fun."

Most undergraduate volunteers bring an interest in creative writing and a love of working with kids.  "I was taking a lot of creative writing classes and I wanted to do some kind of community service," says Small.  "I thought it'd be an interesting way to think about writing.  But I also like it just for being with the kids."

The writing isn't just fun; it also gives the kids an opportunity to work through the stress that they are going through during school and at home:  "One girl [pretended] she was a monster," Small recounts.  "She had all these tentacles and she slept on a tentacle and her arm fell asleep but then she used that to talk about how her mom took care of her. [After that,] she went to the hospital and all of her relatives came and asked about how she was doing.  She seemed to use that story to talk about her family coming together and her being OK in the end. ... Even if it doesn't come out in their writing they do end up talking about [personal] things like that in some way."

Sanchez remembers another girl who "wrote about being bullied at a previous school and being really unhappy there, and going to this new school and having found friends and feeling more at ease.  But she wrote about it in the third person as if she were interviewing herself. ... It's in their minds, they let you in that way. They show you what they're worried about."

Scribblers runs in three schools in Hyde Park and relies on 30 volunteers, not including the seven devoted volunteer student directors.  The volunteers are not paid--at most, their efforts are rewarded with a pizza party twice a year. However, Scribblers' volunteers get the benefits of working in a small organization: their voice, their opinions matter.  Their contributions are recognized by other members and volunteers get strong encouragement to experiment with new ideas.

New leadership comes from among the volunteers themselves.  They step up to run activities, help out with fundraisers, or assist in planning Presentation Day at the end of every year, which functions as a culmination of all the kids' efforts.

But it's not just for the kids--Sanchez finds that it often helps her unwind after a tiring week of classes.  "My favorite part is getting an entire hour a week where I can just sit with kids and have fun and concentrate on them and on their words.  [It's a way of] relaxing--of detaching from stress."

Mike Lipkowitz is a fourth year in the College and an active volunteer with Southside Scribblers.

A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Alicia Sanchez' name as Alicia Reyes. We apologize for the error.



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Samantha Lee said:

Thank you for featuring Southside Scribblers on this blog, UCSC and Mike!

Margaret Marion said:

Sweet Mike!

Wow, Really I never knew anybody would be trying such a creative and thoughtful way to teach kids. It's better in a way than rudiment, orthodox teaching style of schools in our community.

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