Woodbridge High School students recently swept the top awards of the Virginia Writers Club’s statewide Teen Golden Nib contest, continuing an impressive run of accolades for the school’s creative writing program.
Eight of the 10 students who earned recognition in this year’s Teen Golden Nib contest were from Woodbridge, including the winners in each category — poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Bristow resident Renee Ordoobadi, the winner of the poetry competition, also received the annual scholarship awarded by the writers club at an awards presentation in late August.
Led by English teacher Cathy Hailey, Woodbridge’s creative writing program has served as a springboard for alumni who continue to find success as writers in college and their careers. Woodbridge students frequently rank among the leaders in statewide writing competitions.
Woodbridge consistently places among the top schools in the Virginia High School League’s annual writing championships, and Eddas, the school’s arts and literary magazine, received the league’s highest honor — the trophy award — this year. It has claimed that honor in 15 of the past 20 years.
The students come and go, moving on to college and careers, but Hailey, 56, is one constant in the program. She has been teaching at the school for 30 years and in the county for 36.
“One of the things I feel great about . . . is that colleges are starting to recognize that the students who come from here have something that most high school students don’t have,” she said. “One of the reasons is [that] they’ve spent four years writing — and not only just writing, but writing with ownership of their own writing.”
The creative writing program is part of Prince William County schools’ Center for the Fine and Performing Arts, housed at Woodbridge, which attracts students from across the county. Freshmen are admitted to the program after a selective screening process that includes submitting a writing portfolio, Hailey said.
“Some really hard-core writers come from the farthest areas [of the county], and they have to put up with an hour ride to school in the morning and [back] in the afternoon,” Hailey said. “But some of the best students come from those far places because they want it badly enough that they’re willing to endure that.”
The students also have to commit to having nearly all of their electives be creative writing classes, she said.
Freshmen are introduced to several genres: fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry and scriptwriting, Hailey said. Sophomores begin to narrow their focus, pairing fiction classes with scriptwriting or poetry with nonfiction, as they discover which genres they prefer. The students take advanced classes in their preferred genres during their junior and senior years, leading to their senior showcase, where they read their work to family members and friends.
Students also read from their works at the school’s monthly “coffee house,” which includes a mix of poetry, script readings, visual art, music and, occasionally, stand-up comedy.
As the Woodbridge students find their voices as writers, they also learn to critique one another’s writing. Hailey said she wants them to grow into a community of writers who are always positive and able to take criticism.
“It takes some growing up,” she said.
For the past five years, Hailey has taught students at every grade level of the school. Last year’s seniors were the first class Hailey taught for all four years. “It was very difficult to let go of those kids,” she said.
Maria Schleh, a member of last year’s senior class, began working on her first novel at Woodbridge and completed it shortly after starting college. Now a student at the University of Mary Washington, Schleh said the creative writing program at Woodbridge gave her an advantage over students from other schools.
“The critiques that I’ve done in Ms. Hailey’s class have really helped me listen to comments on how to improve my own work, and how to help others improve theirs and offer good feedback to them,” Schleh said.
Sarah Crossland, a 2007 graduate of the creative writing program, agreed.
“Every writer needs a ‘first reader’: someone who helps you find your inspiration, who tells you — even through the awful first drafts — to keep going, to take risks, to write what you need to write,” said Crossland, whose honors include the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, the August Derleth Prize and the Boston Review Poetry Prize.
“Every day at Woodbridge, I found first readers not only in my teachers but in each of my classmates,” Crossland said.
Another of Hailey’s former students is her daughter Zan Hailey, an English major at Virginia Commonwealth University who was recently named one of Prince William’s first two poets laureate.
Roxanne French, an English teacher at Woodbridge, called Cathy Hailey “an inspirational teacher.”
“Her students are continually winning prizes for not only creative writing but also essay and nonfiction writing,” French said. “They tell the story of who she is as a teacher.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.