Writing Workshop Changes Students

By Moira E. McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008

"Georgetown Day School, eight poems. . . . National Cathedral has two." Nancy Schwalb listed the schools and poems in the Parkmont Poetry Festival's 2007 25th anniversary book. "Edmund Burke has four," she said. "The Parkmont School has eight."

The book is a compilation of Parkmont Poetry Festival award winners since the festival's inception. The contest is open to District students in grades 6 through 12.

The kids from Schwalb's D.C. Creative Writing Workshop -- a mix of students from Hart Middle School, Ballou Senior High, Simon Elementary and other area schools -- had nine poems in the book. The compilation, "To Be in a Song," was named after a 2006 winning poem written by Creative Writing Workshop student James Saunders.

Her kids, Schwalb figured, have won more writing awards than students at any of the private schools. "If you just look at who's won the Parkmont and the Larry Neal and you just count up the numbers, over the years, on average, I think those numbers are representative. We did have more poems in the 25th anniversary book than the other, private schools."

For 12 years, students from her workshop have been entering competitions for both the Parkmont Poetry Festival and the Larry Neal Writers' Awards, a contest open to D.C. students ages 8 to 18. This year, they won 12 awards in the two contests. Last year, they won 21; the year before, seven; and the year before that, 10. In the past eight years, Schwalb estimated, the Creative Writing Workshop has produced more than 100 contest winners. (That's including other contests they entered over the years.)

Schwalb's 13-year-old students have often beaten the 18-year-olds in the Larry Neal contest, which puts students ages 13 to 18 in the same category.

"I think our kids have plenty to say," Schwalb said as students swirled in and out of her Hart classroom, talking loudly and running around the small space. As she struggled to control the class, yelling for one student to get back in the classroom and another to leave, for one student to sit down and another to stop, she paused to say, "Obviously, they're not easy to work with. But there's so much pent-up emotion. They have a tremendous amount to say."

Schwalb, who has a master's degree in creative writing from George Mason University, started the Creative Writing Workshop 14 years ago. Because of her tough experiences as a student at Sligo Junior High in Silver Spring, she was inspired to work with students that age.

"They really need someone to listen to them," she said. "I learned from my own English teacher how much learning to write could do for you."

Take Monae Smith, a ninth-grader at Marriott Hospitality Public Charter School. When Smith started coming to the workshop in 2005, she would "act out in anger," Schwalb said. "She was a handful." Now, Smith has matured, and the anger she still might feel comes out in her writing instead.

Smith has won the annual Parkmont award twice. Her writing, Smith said, allows her to "shout out loud without getting into trouble."

Or take 11-year-old Stelita Better, who writes poems with titles such as "The Darkness," "My Feeling" and "My Life." Schwalb calls the poetry "unbelievable. Stelita is a really good example [of a kid learning] to express angry feelings in writing instead of physically."

Schwalb started the program for Hart students, but in 2004 she expanded it to include nearby Ballou and Simon, plus any other kids in third through 12th grade who wanted to come. Kids can attend the 90-minute after-school workshop as often as four days a week all year.

About 500 students participate. The figure includes in-school instruction for Hart kids three days a week, and one day a week for Ballou and Simon kids. All the workshops are taught by six writers in residence, some of whom have had books published. The professional writers work part time and are paid for participating. And three times a year, the students publish a literary magazine. "This is our big incentive," Schwalb said. "The opportunity to speak makes them inspired to be writers."

Schwalb works full time for the workshop, which is an independent nonprofit organization funded through a foundation and with corporate and individual donations.

Most of the students in the workshop are dealing with challenges outside of school, Schwalb said. One of last year's winners, Joseph Heath, wrote "Just how it is" about the death of his mother. Saunders, now a senior at Ballou and a paid "young writer in residence," wrote a poem about his relationship with his father called "Ode to Failure." It won both the Parkmont and the Larry Neal in 2002.

James Tindle, a sophomore at Ballou, likes to write short adventure stories. But two years ago, he won the Parkmont and the Larry Neal for his poem titled, "Blue Shadow." He was 13.

"I was going through a stage," Tindle said as he fidgeted with his hands in front of his chest and stared off into the distance. "I felt like no one cared for me. Sometimes your emotions help to inspire your words, so I used my emotions as an inspiration to my poems."

Tindle started coming to the workshop three years ago. Schwalb, he said, "made me interested in how words mean more than what people see on paper. A word can be a story. She said a lot of stuff that made me want to be a writer."

Tindle found solace in his words and in Schwalb's. "Miss Nancy is someone you can always come to, no matter what. She's more than amazing. She's an inspiration to me."

The kids start by learning writing mechanics, working on vocabulary and writing exercises. Finally, they get to write.

After a snack at a recent workshop, the students settled down in the Hart auditorium to work on their play "For Better or Worse," their adaptation of Aristophanes' "Clouds." They performed it May 22 at Hart under the direction of local professional actor Scott Sedar.

Schwalb said her program is unique because it is open to all kinds of students, not just the best and brightest. Her kids can be "impulsive," and they have a lot of repressed energy, she said. She teaches them about creative writing to give them a voice. "They respond to the written language. . . . Once they learn the basic mechanics and get words on paper, they can't stop," she said. "They just explode."

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