Literacy is a gift that lasts a lifetime. Writers in the Schools (WITS) welcomes your support this #GivingTuesday (December 3, 2019).
Literacy is a gift that lasts a lifetime. Writers in the Schools (WITS) welcomes your support this #GivingTuesday (December 3, 2019).
WITS Writer Marcia Chamberlain shares this blessing: a 2nd grader wrote this beautiful poem for Mr. Sanchez, the custodian at Oak Forest Elementary.
May you always walk with pride.
May you always dream of brooms and mops.
May your friends have respect for you.
May the wind push you on.
May you never feel you don’t belong.
May the universe support you.
May your house be full of ideas.
And finally, may you have a Merry Christmas.
by Galeairy, 2nd grade
#blessings #inspiredbyjasonmraz #haveitall #wits
I was in Beeville for a five-day stay in May to cast the WITS magic in the sleepy south Texas town. Driving down the main drag, you become familiar with the population count (approximately 13,000), clearly marked as you enter then leave the city limits.
Along with writers Autumn Hayes, Matty Glasgow, and Dinorah Pérez-Rementería, I was assigned a micro-residency for the last week of school. I was placed in the fourth-grade classrooms of RA Hall Elementary, one of six schools in the school district, while my fellow writers were assigned to lower elementary and middle schools. The week before, two other writers brought WITS to the high school. In a minute way, we had magnificently spellbound the district.
Most schools are mayhem during the last week of school, but not RA Hall. Upon entering the classroom, I found the students quickly harnessed the energy inherent in the final weeks of school into creativity. Fresh off the constraints of state testing, they were keen to push the boundaries of the expected and dive into the playfulness of poetics. They constructed persona poems, authored odes and wandered among campus greenspace to create nature poems.
One classroom, filled with forty-five students, listened intently to the mini-lesson, then silently took pen to paper to let their imaginations soar. A student whose sleepy head initially rested on his desk sprang into action to praise the ordinary yet awesome nail. Others found the voices of baseballs and bananas, iPhones and fans, tapping into their objects’ innermost desires and greatest fears. They were unstoppable and inspiring. They were writers on fire.
Thanks to the Joe Barnhart Foundation for bringing WITS to Beeville!
Gretchen Cion holds a B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis and a M.A. in Education from Hunter College in New York City. While teaching in NYC, she was involved with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which ignited her love of creative writing. Thanks to her profession as an educator and literacy specialist, she has written countless stories to help teach the craft of writing. Currently, she is working on a collection of essays and an umpteenth revision of her screenplay, Good Liar. When she is not writing, she can be found compiling the perfect mix for her rise-and-shine dance parties. She lives in Houston with her artist husband Ian and their two wildly cool boys.
Each year, the WITS Alliance travels to a different city to highlight the importance of creative writing in the classroom and in civic life at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, a gathering of over 12,000 literary professionals. From March 7 – 10, the WITS Alliance sponsored six panels, one meeting, and a booth to build opportunities for writers to find support, discover resources, and foster community.
Here are a few highlights from the conference:
Executive Director, Robin Reagler, closing out the AWP Gala, where poet Erin Belieu was presented with the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature.
“The work that I do at the Dodge Poetry Festival is to try to create environments where people can engage with poetry through a personal connection with no judgment.” – Martin Farawell
Moderator Meggie Monahan from Writers in the School Houston leading a conversation on “Poetry in Public Places” with Scott Cunningham of O, Miami Festival, Martin Farawell of Dodge Poetry Fesival, Laurin Macios of Mass Poetry, and Tyler Meier of the University of Arizona Poetry Center.
“I’m happy when people are reading poetry because it is a form of resistance.” – Kaveh Akbar
Moderator Analicia Sotelo of Writers in the Schools Houston with “Literary Twitterati” panelists Kaveh Akbar, Eve Ewing, Dorothea Lasky of Astro Poets, alongside WITS Executive Director, Robin Reagler.
“It’s important to be vulnerable, to remind students that we should be playful and silly.” – Karyna McGlynn
Moderate Jack McBride from Writers in the Schools Houston alongside current and former WITS writers, Ramon Isao, Nicky Beer, Karyna McGlynn, and Niki Herd at the “WITS Alumni Reading: The Unfiltered Imagination” panel. Each speaker shared student work, read from their own writing, and offered funny and thoughtful stories about being in the classroom and how teaching young students brings playfulness into their own work.
“Most people prefer a linear path. I firmly believe that if you see your career as an exploration, you really get a great opportunity to craft your own narrative, even if it’s not the one you imagined.” – Giuseppe Taurino
Led by Community-Word Project’s Michele Kolter, panelists Thomas Calder (journalist at Mountain Xpress), Martin Rock (Associate Director at Exploratorium), Giuseppe Taurino (Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston), and Abby Travis (Editor at Milkweed Editions) discussed their journeys to their current jobs with helpful tips and thoughtful stories at the “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” panel.
“Have a plan and surround yourself with people that see your dream.” – Kima Jones
Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Alicia Craven discussed diversity, inclusion and changing the literary landscape with “Small Experiments with Radical Intent” panelists Janine Joseph of UndocuPoets, Kima Jones of Jack Jones Literary Agency, Ramiza Koya of Literary Arts, and Desiree Dallagiacomo of Forward Arts in Baton Rouge.
“I find empathy to be infectious, and it’s amazing to see how much people in your own community can accomplish. Your community is your greatest resource.” – Erin Belieu
Britt Udesen (Executive Director of The Loft Literary Center), Amalia Kruszel (Arts Action Fund Program Manager at Americans for the Arts), moderator Tina Cane (Executive Director of Writers-in-the-Schools, Rhode Island and Rhode Island Poet Laureate), Erin Belieu (co-founder of VIDA and Writers Resist), and Diane Luby Lane (Executive Director of Get Lit) revealed their thoughts on literary activism, social change, and community building at our “Loud Because We Have to Be” panel.
Robin Reagler helped close out the conference by introducing Jen Benka at the Academy of American Poets event featuring Layli Long Soldier, Khaled Mattawa, and Mark Doty.
Our WITS booth is where we talked with emerging writers and educators about the alliance. WITS Houston writers Paige Quinones and Dan Chu discuss opportunities for writers to engage with their community through Writers in the School programs.
Our booth was a popular space! We held daily raffles and gave away swag. Poet Danez Smith gets a “Because Writing is Revolutionary” temporary tattoo from Mohamed Sheriff.
Cultivating relationships with writers at AWP is essential to ensuring that we continue to place writers in the classroom and work toward our mission of giving every child the opportunity to tell their story.
With fun and interactive writing activities to spark the imagination, the Young Writers Workshop helps children develop their language and creativity skills. Each workshop features two WITS writers. Each participant receives one-on-one interaction and feedback.
Held Saturdays at the Houston Public Library Express location at Discovery Green from 10:30 AM – 11:30 AM, the workshop is FREE. Space is first-come, first serve and limited to the first 25 students.
Meet the WITS Writers
Dottie Price taught for more than thirty years and was a literacy coach in the Houston Independent School District. She is ESL and GT certified, with extensive training and experience in writers and readers workshop and the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. Dottie created the Elders Songwriting Project, a 20- year collaboration between elementary school students and retirement home residents in which students have written 246 tribute songs for Elder interviewees. She enjoys writing songs, as well as articles that share stories and ideas from the classroom and beyond.
James Hershberger is an award-winning writer, comedian, musician, slam poet, and actor. He graduated with honors from Texas Tech University with degrees in Creative Writing and Political Science. He has performed live all over the U.S. as well as in Europe and Asia. In 2013, he was a member of the Houston V.I.P. Slam Team, winning 2nd place in Group Piece Finals at the National Poetry Slam in Boston. James is a volunteer teacher of a weekly creative writing workshop for the homeless.
K.C. Sinclair is a fellow in Fiction and Screenwriting at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. Her short works have appeared in the Texas Observer and the New Guard Literary Journal. She has been a finalist for the Master’s Review New Writers’ Competition, the Glimmer Train New Fiction Prize, and New Letter’s Short Story Award. Before her MFA, she was an elementary school teacher and vice principal for ten years. She left that beloved career to pursue a lifelong dream to write. Now, she lives in a Mont Belvieu with her husband, adorable dog, and self-absorbed kitty, and is working on a novel set in Houston about a group of four friends who have dreams of becoming astronauts. K.C. also teaches writing at Lee College in Baytown.
Congratulations to Writers in the Schools writer, Elizabeth Keel, for her feature in Arts & Culture Magazine. She talks acting, directing, grad school and why she loves teaching with WITS!
“Nobody’s worried about grades. Instead, we give the kids the time they need to interact with language and build their confidence. It is so important to me that my students see that it is safe and feasible to make changes.”
What does it mean to live a life “filled with tenderness”? Is it opening a door for a stranger, sharing lunch, lighting a candle?
These grey winter days can feel overwhelming, as though we are being asked to do more than is humanly possible. And yet….
And yet I remember the days in Houston following the hurricane more clearly than yesterday. There was no time to ask why. We put aside our “to do” lists and did for our friends and neighbors what needed to be done.
At WITS we gathered at the convention center, where 10,000 evacuees waited for aid, and we connected with kids by reading, writing, and really listening to them. We used what gifts we had to help people begin to heal.
Here in Houston, everyone was giving. Friends and colleagues across the nation did whatever they could. Soon we were all wrapped up in the generosity surrounding us. It was as though our city became a WE in a powerful moment, linked together by an extreme need.
Today Houston continues to rebuild. WITS is providing creative writing programs for 52,000 children, including those in schools that were displaced by Harvey. A WITS education will feed these students’ curiosity, creativity, and desire to become active, articulate citizens. Please let us know if you can help us make a lifelong difference for these resilient kids.
All my best,
Robin Reagler, PhD
The Texas Teen Book Festival brings nationally known YA authors from across the nation for readings, writing workshops by WITS’ sister program Badgerdog, and even a literary costume contest. Participants in the FREE event will get to meet Renee Watson, Jason Reynolds, Marie Lu, Adam Silvera, Jennifer Mathieu, and many more.
Join us at the Texas Teen Book Festival in Austin, Texas, on October 7th, 2017. Yup, that’s this weekend, so I suggest that you get packing.
You will not want to miss this glorious occasion that The New York Times calls “life-changing and more fun than Wisconsin’s annual cheese-eating contest.”
(Editor’s note: The New York Times never said that and I’m pretty sure we’re going to be sued now.)
This festival features all your favorite YA authors! Some of them came willingly, and some of them we had to smoke out of their houses with firecrackers. We’re going to show these authors some Texas love, which means slathering them in barbecue sauce and putting them on a mechanical bull while they read opening lines from their books. Get ready for some fun!
In addition to lots of readings and book signings, there will be a literary costume contest and free writing workshops. The grand finale will be a Lord of the Flies inspired pig-hunting contest where the winner gets $10,000 cash!
(Editor’s note: This is why we shouldn’t let teens write for our blog. Seriously, I have no idea what this kid was thinking.)
By Pearl R
a perfect morning
letting the wind
wash over you
on the porch.
that the sweaty
days are over.
of cool breezes.
by Lila, 5th grade
Meggie with Armoney, age 6,
at George R. Brown Convention Center
Days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, WITS Program Manager, Meggie Monahan, volunteered at George R. Brown Convention Center, reading, writing, and playing with children who had been displaced by the storm and floodwaters. Meggie reflects on the power of imagination, the generosity of listening, and the resilience of children. Read an excerpt from “The Shelter of Imagination,” which originally aired on KPFT 90.1 FM’s “So, What’s Your Story?”.
When I was a child, our sticky Pennsylvania summers were filled with “make-believe” games. My siblings and I strung stage curtains out of old Sesame Street bed sheets. We wrote new & improved scripts for our favorite Disney movies, and we choreographed music videos for Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” album. Then one summer, our parents got a new refrigerator. And in the weeks to follow, that huge empty box in the garage became pure and total magic. It was our special hideout: a dark and cool refuge from parents and chores, an escape from mosquitoes, and a ticket to a bigger world.
I haven’t thought about that refrigerator box in a long time. But last week at the George R Brown Convention Center, I recognized it from across the room as Davion and Abu led me by the hand to their special fort. We snaked our way through a sea of cots and blankets and belongings, and there was this beautiful empty box— a space that could be anything at all, anything they wanted it to be. There, smack-dab in the middle of noise and need and exhaustion and loss, these boys had chosen to stand on the shoreline of their imaginations and create a new, more hopeful world.
I came to Houston to study creative writing, and I stayed in Houston because of Writers in the Schools, an organization that believes in the life-saving power of the imagination. We believe that every child has a voice, that every voice is valuable and deserves to be heard— and that the act of sharing our stories is what makes us human, and what connects us to each other. When talking about WITS, I like to say that “wherever kids are, that’s where we want to be,” and that includes inside a cardboard box in the middle of the 4th largest city in the nation.
In the aftermath of Harvey, I’ve had the opportunity to sit with some of our city’s children at the GRB and the NRG and listen to their voices. And it has reminded me and affirmed in me two things: one, that kids are kids wherever they go. And two, that playfulness, imagination, and creativity are trustworthy tools for healing. Even after being displaced by a hurricane, kids want to sit in your lap and wear your sunglasses. They want to pretend to be tigers and practice their super hero moves with you, cover you in stickers, and braid your hair. Most of all, when they believe you are truly listening, kids want to talk. They are natural storytellers, and they want to tell you about their pets and their best friends and their dream vacations, and what they want to be when they grow up. And at WITS, our most important job is to listen— to really listen— and to celebrate and encourage and elevate children’s words at every level.
And that’s what I love about WITS: that we as a community of writers are committed to excavating and elevating the stories of our young people, and emboldening them to use their words to create a more just and beautiful world. And one day these kiddos— the Davions and Abus and Tianas and Bobbies and Anthonys and Nathans and Christiannas and Zias— all of these children are going to tell stories to their children about what happened when it rained for days and days they needed to leave their homes and live in a new and unfamiliar place. And it’s my hope that peppered within their stories and their families’ stories, there might be some small, treasured moments of play, lightness, and getting to be a kid, even in the midst of tragedy.
There is an Irish saying that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live,” and I would expand upon that by saying, “It is in the stories of each other that the people live.” When we take the time to sit and listen to the story of another person, especially a child, they may not know where to start— but the act of listening is powerful and invites generosity and willingness in the speaker. And when children know they are being listened to, they can’t help but fill empty spaces— air and pages and cardboard boxes— with all kinds of magic. Their giggles bounce across poured concrete floors. Their litanies of favorite foods transform phrases like “shrimp with garlic butter” into prayerful syllables in a crowded convention hall. And their Red Ninja lava super powers are, somehow, enough to defeat the Blue Ninja’s endless waves of water.
Dear WITS Family,
Finally the rain has ended in Houston. The storm has affected each of us in some way, even those of us lucky enough to avoid flood waters.
After five days of mad precipitation, the deluge transformed into mist and disappeared. That’s when I noticed my Instagram feed was populated with hundreds of sky photos—not dramatic sunsets or hyperbolic clouds, just pale blue sky. Here in Houston, we have never appreciated blue sky as much as we have this week.
When we asked the WITS Writers if they wanted to volunteer to work with flood-affected families, all 30 spots filled in less than an hour. I am humbled to work with such talented, authentic, and generous poets and writers.
Thousands of evacuated families are living in the George R. Brown Convention Center. Although many of the children have experienced trauma, we are not asking them directly about their experience. Instead WITS Writers are bringing joy and playfulness to these kids, telling stories, building houses out of blocks, and pretending to be cars or frogs. As we’ve discovered in the classroom, the stories we most need to share come through, regardless of the subject matter. Humans are storytellers to the core. We connect with one another through language. Through poetry. That’s what makes WITS a powerful part of the healing process.
I have been moved beyond belief by the spirit of generosity demonstrated here in Houston this week. Our Democratic Mayor and our Republican County Commissioner are working as a dynamic duo. It seems as though everyone who remains unscathed is pitching in, helping to feed, clothe, and support those in need. Even the pop radio station that my cynical teens like best has been sharing tales of human kindness, ending with the refrain: “We are all neighbors. We are all family. We are #HoustonStrong.”
Nothing has brought our city together like this moment. It is truly inspiring. It makes me want to work harder than ever to bring the healing power of storytelling to every Houston child.
With younger children, this concrete activity called “Rubber Band Stretching” works well. Demonstrate how a rubber band starts out small and can be stretched much larger. Read a simple sentence out loud, and ask for suggestions about how to expand it. After a student successfully stretches a sentence by adding new words, hand her a rubber band ball. When a second student stretches the sentence further, the first student passes the ball to the second. The game continues until it is impossible to stretch the sentence anymore! Students then apply the lesson to a piece of their own writing.
With older students, the rubber band can be used to discuss sentence length in more complexity. Bring in a strong piece of writing that includes short, medium, and long sentences. Discuss the various effects. If you have a geo board, you can actually record or map out the sentences using rubber bands. Show how the rhythm of a piece changes depending on sentence lengths.
As a spinoff activity, ask students to map out sentence lengths in advance. Then, try to write a paragraph that fits, and notice how the paragraph sounds. For older students, it is empowering to see how they can control the rhythm of their piece just through sentence length.
-Marcia Chamberlain, WITS Houston
WITS Communications Strategist Analicia Sotelo will read from her new chapbook, Nonstop Godhead, on Friday 7pm at Brazos Bookstore. She will be joined by WITS Board Member Roberto Tejada and WITS Writer Beth Lyons. Nonstop Godhead recently won a fellowship award from the Poetry Society of America. It was selected by Rigoberto Gonzalez. Sotelo’s first full-length book, Virgin, will be published by Milkweed Editions in 2018. It is the winner of the Inaugural Jake Adam York Prize.
On the occasion of National Puppy Day, we thought we’d republish a letter from our Executive Director, Robin Reagler, celebrating all that we love and learn from our pets. It was originally published in the WITS newsletter, A New Leaf, in 2001.
My dog Jake is not a great writer, and yet he has managed to teach me a few important things about how to live my life.
Jake is a foundling. I found him in June on a Sunday afternoon. People were playing baseball in the park. He’d been hit by a car and was limping. He followed me for miles. Maybe I am the foundling. He did find me, in a sense. I was chosen.
That week I was sitting in a 3rd grade classroom in our summer camp. They were sharing news of the day and practicing description. I described (poorly, so as to receive some student assistance) my new puppy.
The next day I received a note from a student in that group, Chelsea, who wrote, “Dear Ms. Robin, Take good care of your puppy.” I have tried my utmost.
As a steadfast puppy observer (severely biased by parenthood) I have abstracted a few wisdoms that I suspect to be the guiding principles of Jake. But first, let me provide a few vital statistics:
Memorable features: polka dot eyebrows, floppy right ear flops, missing the right hind leg
Age: almost 3
Likes: peanut butter, bones, people food, treats, running like wind, swimming in the bayou, assisting in household chores as the sous chef in the kitchen, jr. gardener in the yard, laundry boy, etc.
Dislikes: taking a bath, his sister Moriah the cat
Nicknames by loved ones: Jacob, J-Chamber, Glow dog, Poco, Poky, Pokemon, Jakomon
Nicknames by strangers: Tripod, Troika, Lucky, Hopalong
And now, Life according to Jake:
So by the grace of a dog, I keep my eyes and ears open. I try to pay attention to the wonders on either side of my path. The classroom is everywhere.
All my best,
Join WITS on Saturday, July 9th, 2 pm as the Meta-Four Houston team gives their FREE farewell performance at the Live Oaks Meeting House on 26th Street in the Heights before jetting off to Washington, D.C. to perform at the Brave New Voices International Festival. Meta-Four Houston recently won first place in the state of Texas. Come check out these talented poets!
Spend an evening with WITS on Thursday, June 2nd, 6-10pm for Mid Main’s First Thursday event. There will be live music, performances, art shows, tasty drinks and appetizer specials. A $5 donation will give guests access to the Art Garden and drinks from Topo Chico, St. Arnold, and Deep Eddy. Proceeds will benefit WITS and help us bring the WITS creative writing program to more Houston children!
Location: 3700 Main Street 77002
Check out this interview with WITS Executive Director Robin Reagler in the May issue of Houston Family Magazine (pages 42-43).She talks about her passion for creative writing, storytelling, video game design, and education.
Congrats to WITS writer Jasminne Mendez for the publication of her new poem “Frijochuelas” in La Galeria Magazine. You can read it HERE.
Jasminne also has a creative non-fiction piece, “El Corte,” that was selected as honorable mention for the Barry Lopez Non Fiction Award through Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts. It will be published in their upcoming The Best of Cutthroat issue. Look for it at AWP!
Last but not least, Jasminne will be one of the featured performers/readers at Brazos Bookstore on March 5th at 2pm for an event called Speak!Poet. Come out and support poetry in the community!
Congratulations to poet Matthew Burgess, who read on our WITS panel at AWP in Minneapolis. His delightful children’s book Enormous Smallness chronicles the life of poet, painter, and playwright E.E. Cummings.
Brain Pickings named Burgess’s book, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo, as one of the 15 best children’s books of 2015. Very exciting!
Check out all the wonderful choices at Brain Pickings and order your copy today.
Mutablis Press is celebrating a new anthology of poems about the nature of Houston. The book, edited by Sandi Stromberg, is called Untameable City. Current WITS writers Maryann Gremillion and Sara Cooper are published in it, as well as former WITSers Sarah Cortez, Robin Davidson, Dede Fox, Angélique Jamail, Rebecca Spears, and Randall Watson.
The book launch is Friday, December 11th from 6-9 p.m. at the Jung Center. Reading begins at 6:30.