Interview: Rebecca Wallace-Segall, Writopia Lab

A lot of the schemes we feature on Books and Adventures involve encouraging reluctant readers and promoting literacy in the family or wider community. Some, like Wales’ Young People’s Writing Squads, offer support and encouragement to those who already have a talent for writing and want to develop it.

New York’s Writopia Lab project is one of these schemes.

So why do Writopia kids want to write?

‘I just want to have fun writing for myself, and do it for the rest of my life.’

‘I watched my friend cry when she read my story – I want to make kids feel things.’

‘I like to read newspapers and magazines. I want to be part of the conversation that I hear going Rebecca Wallace-Segallon.’

That third “kid” was Rebecca Wallace-Segall, who grew up to found Writopia Lab in 2007. A journalist in New York, Rebecca spun off a residency at a private school into a non-profit organization giving children and young people the chance to hone their literary skills with professional writer-instructors.

Rebecca and I met earlier this year at her New York headquarters on the Upper West Side, a cosy place of pine floorboards, comfy sofas and beanbags, its walls decorated with images of books where the children can write the names and titles of their own work on the spines. These are the ‘library walls’ which provide a record of success for Writopia participants, but the available spaces are quickly filling up. ‘We’re going to end up having to go on the ceiling!’ says Rebecca.

She began by explaining to me how Writopia Lab’s mission differs from community literacy programmes which seek to engage reluctant readers and writers.

‘Some of our kids attend the top public and private schools across the city,’ says Rebecca. ‘They’re already reading the greats, and hungry for more. In fact they’ve gone beyond being awed by the greats…now they want to be the greats.’

Writopia students have a great prize-winning record in competitions like Scholastic’s annual writing awards. Rebecca chalks this up to a model which uses published authors as instructors, and allows students to develop their writing entirely on their own terms. Even for children and young people who have had less positive experiences with writing, Writopia offers an encouraging, supportive environment.

‘Our instructors are there to inspire, not intimidate. Many of them are young adult authors, and get to share in the imaginative worlds the kids are creating – and connect with their readership!’

‘We give the children literacy tools on their own terms. Instructors give constructive comments, offering the opportunity for the kids to revise their artistic choices.’

For Rebecca, the social value of Writopia’s self-conscious elitism is thWritopia Labat it allows talented young writers to focus on their real experiences: ‘When youth itself is made a factor of these kids’ writing, it has real meaning that no adult author, trying to cast their minds back, can reach. We’re giving voice to who these kids are and what they’re going through. ‘

This includes a policy of non-censorship, although Writopia Lab instructors keep what Rebecca calls ‘a caring eye’ on the content of the kids’ work.

‘Our kids can write deep dark stories and not worried about getting hauled in front of the guidance counselor. We support them, but they’re free. We’ve had stories with abduction, characters contemplating jumping off a roof, but the authors were exploring these dark issues in the imaginative, safe space of writing, so it wasn’t a cause for concern.’

‘Our middle and high school kids sometimes explore sex, drugs, and other darker themes and it’s fine. Profanity, among this age group, is fine if its true to the story. We have rules, but not they’re not arbitrary. They’re thought out and discussed with parents, teachers and with the kids and teens themselves.’

Often middle and high school participants’ end product is submitted to competitions such as the Scholastic Writing Awards, in which Writopia kids have excelled once more in 2011.

‘There’s no obligation to enter competitions,’ says Rebecca, ‘ but doing so creates deadlines, guidelines, and standards to be reached. It’s a process of maturation and professionalization – processing and eventually accepting and learning from rejection just as an adult writer would. This process brings the teachers and young writers even closer together as a group.’

‘We give space for students to take their time polishing their work. There’s a maturation process that can last as much as a year and a half – but as long as you take young writers seriously, they won’t feel defensive – and they’ll get there.’

While Writopia Lab is self-consciously driven towards excellence, there is also a policy of engagement with the widest possible community.

‘We believe in integration here – not a utopian project, but creating bridges between social and economic divides. We began approaching poorer families through non-profit organizations and schemes that already targeted talented kids from the inner city.

‘We run a pay what you can model, and we’re also supported by a Letterman grant that helps us stay true to our values. Funding is always an issue for non-profits who don’t want to work from the existing schools curriculum. We avoid the state standards for English Language Arts, for example – standardised tests suck the fun and potential power out of writing, and we’re about getting people to enjoy writing. Instead, we offer a student-centered, independent alternative.’

Beyond its workshops, Writopia Lab offers a range of additional literacy programmes, including international online coaching of young writers and  a language play scheme for preschoolers.

In every case, the Writopia mission remains the same – empowerment, and giving young people a voice.

‘We want all our participants, in every age group, to experience the same thing: to find the satisfaction in being heard and impacting others via writing – and thereby beginning to understand the potential power that comes with thinking deeply, writing with passion, humour, and rigour, and ultimately contributing their thoughts to our world.’

For more information on Writopia Lab, visit http://www.Writopia Lab.org/

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