Strategize: Great Ideas for Library Writing Programs

Limericks, rap, and sports journals are just a few ways to get students playing with words.
Illustration by Leigh Wells

Illustration by Leigh Wells

Kelly Menzel is never quite sure what to expect when the teens in her writing club at the North Tonawanda (NY) Public Library participate in a “round robin” writing activity. One time a story about Sherlock Holmes ended up with the fictional sleuth embarking on a date with Shrek along the French Riviera.

In due course, however, they pass their notebooks around and add to each other’s sentences, even the boys who originally showed up at the gatherings for the free food are contributing to the final product.

“I would give them snacks and tell them they had to write something—it didn’t even have to make sense,” says Menzel, the adult and teen services librarian at the branch, near Buffalo, NY.

For these students, however, crafting nonsense plot lines was a step toward writing a collection of short stories, which will eventually be published through Amazon and added to the library’s shelves. “They can show people [and say,] ‘Hey, I wrote a book,’ ” Menzel notes.

When public and school librarians provide environments where students can write what they choose, they are likely to try different genres and find inspiration—outside of their school curriculum.

“Writing with my library friends is so different from writing in school,” says 15-year-old Nichole Van Hise, who is in Menzel’s group. “With writing club, the story can be as short or long as you want it, and can be as weird as you want.”

Amy Koester, the youth and family programs coordinator for the Skokie Public Library outside Chicago, says that when children write in the library, they don’t feel the pressure of being graded or even having to finish what they’ve started.

“When a child writes in the library, there is no formal assessment that is going to follow,” Koester says. “From my perspective, what the library can offer to aspiring and reluctant writers alike is the opportunity to pursue a project without limits.”

Even so, with the Common Core State Standards’ emphasis on writing and responding to what they read, the additional opportunities students find outside the classroom can only support their growth as writers.

Start out loud

When she worked at the St. Charles City-County (MO) Library District, Koester collaborated with school librarians and learned about what students were expected to do in the area of language arts. She began integrating some informal writing activities into a monthly LEGO club, starting with asking the students to tell her “the story of their creation.”

“Storytelling out loud can be a strong first step toward writing on paper, as it allows the teller to work through the feelings of messiness that tend to come with first drafts,” Koester says. “The telling of the story out loud can also be a powerful motivator for writing—once a kid has told an amazing story out loud, they usually want to capture their narrative permanently so they can continue to refine it.”

Andrea Ellis, the digital youth engagement manager at the Kansas City (MO) Public Library, incorporated writing into her work with the teens participating in Team Digital. The Team Digital teenagers apply and are chosen to work in the Kansas City Digital Media Lab and help others learn about the equipment as well. Ellis says that while the young adults might have a knack for technology, they can struggle with being able to describe what they know and can do.

“We would engage in fairly lengthy discussions about why it was important for them to learn how to tell the story of who they are, what they love, and what they’re good at,” Ellis says, adding that while writing was not originally part of the position, written and verbal reflection will now be required.

Writing club participants enjoy snacks at the North Tonawanda (NY) Public Library. Photo courtesy of Kelly Menzel/North Tonawanda Public Library

Writing club participants enjoy snacks at the North Tonawanda (NY) Public Library.
Photo courtesy of Kelly Menzel/North Tonawanda Public Library

Building the habit

Connecting writing to children’s interests is often an effective strategy—even for students who might not think they enjoy writing or feel they’re not strong writers.

At Woodland Hills Jr./Sr. High School in Pittsburgh, PA, instructional coach Lauren Baier is fostering writing among the school’s athletes by implementing athletic journals, an approach developed by Richard Kent, a professor of English and literacy education at the University of Maine and author of Writing on the Bus (Peter Lang, 2011).

Baier was initially skeptical about the idea, thinking that the students would only write in their journals to please their coaches, but then she realized that it could be “a foot in the proverbial door with student athletes,” she says.

“I started thinking about athletic journals as a way to build the habit of writing for students who may not consider writing as anything more than a chore to be ignored in class,” she adds.

Last fall, Baier, also assistant coach of the girls’ tennis team, implemented a post-season reflection sheet, which the girls used to record personal thoughts on their season, where they had improved, and what else they planned to work on during the off season. This spring, athletic journals will be used with the boys’ tennis team and the eighth grade boys’ baseball team.

“Our hope is that some of the athletes grab onto the idea of journaling and begin to use it even when not prompted by a teacher or coach to reflect and work on the mental aspects of the game,” Baier says. “If we can build that habit, their writing will improve over time, thus helping their academics as well.”

Platforms and zines

With opportunities for self-publishing increasing, students have a real-world forum in which to share their voices. The girls in Menzel’s club write fan fiction—sometimes starring a favorite musician, book character, or even a popular teacher—and publish it on Their work is also posted on the library’s tumblr page.

Shannon McClintock Miller, a former teacher librarian now working as a consultant and blogger, finds that the wide variety of digital storytelling programs can also spark students’ creativity if they feel stuck in their writing. Storybird, for example, provides illustrations that students can use to begin writing a story. With Little Bird Tales, students can create stories, record them, and easily edit.

Wick Thomas, the teen librarian at the Kansas City (MO) Public Library, says that publishing material and knowing that other teens might be reading it—not just adults—are powerful incentives for those who might not otherwise be interested in writing.

Thomas worked with a group of teens to edit and format Unheard Voices, a teen literary and art zine featuring a wide range of submissions including book reviews, poetry, and a book chapter. Students in a juvenile corrections facility were also invited to submit material.

“Teens don’t get a lot of say in this world. We talk but we feel like no one is listening,” the teen editors wrote in an introduction to the zine. “Central library gives something that most places don’t: a chance for things to be different and to give teens a voice so they can tell their own words and their own opinions.”

Menzel’s teen club members are producing more than just narrative stories. One boy enjoys writing limericks. Another likes free-form poetry. When she tried to create a similar group for middle school students, it was hard to depend on parents to bring them consistently, she says. Teens, however, are more independent and come over from the high school next door. “[Their] parents are ecstatic that they’re in the library,” she adds.

One of her club’s favorite activities is when Menzel covers up the words in picture books and the teens come up with their own stories, or when they invent fractured fairy tales—taking a classic tale, reimagining the plot, and giving the characters different personalities.

Outside Chicago, fourth through sixth graders in the Arlington Heights Memorial Library’s (AHML) Tween Advisory Group (TAG) are also creating fractured fairy tales. Working with members of Inklings, the library’s writing club for teens, the younger students put their own spin on the classic stories—and saw their scenes performed by theater students at nearby Rolling Meadows High School.

“It was a frenzy of creativity, outlandish suggestions, and laughter,” AHML teen advisor Alice Son says about the collaboration between the TAG members and the teens. “By the end of the hour, each group had come up with a script that was hilarious, quirky, and all their own....[They] were excited by the prospect that theater students would actually put on a production that came from their heads.” Theater teacher Britnee Ruscitti said that her students also found the collaboration rewarding and challenging.

Tween writers at the Arlington Heights (IL) Memorial Library (left) create fractured fairy tales that are performed by high school students (center, right). Photos courtesy of Arlington Heights Memorial Library

Tween writers at the Arlington Heights (IL) Memorial Library (left) create fractured fairy tales
that are performed by high school students (center, right).
Photos courtesy of Arlington Heights Memorial Library

Rap and writing

Music is another powerful way to inspire and improve students’ literacy skills—and it can be especially effective if the music is part of kids’ daily lives. At Half Hollow Hills High School West, on Long Island, NY, teacher Lauren Kelly incorporates analysis of hip hop lyrics into her regular 10th grade English classes and teaches a separate half-year elective class on hip hop. While the students are studying hip hop and rap from a cultural and historical perspective, they’re also writing about the claims rappers are making in their lyrics and using evidence from the “text”—such as TLC’s “Waterfalls”—just as they would a news article or short story.

“There is so much more buy-in because it doesn’t feel like doing work,” Kelly says. “They get more excited about it because it’s something they genuinely care about.”

Several students in her hip hop class were already writing their own raps, and in March, some presented and performed works they wrote at a youth summit sponsored by the Institute for Minority and Urban Education at Teachers College Columbia University. Critiquing the lyrics in class has further allowed them to see themselves not just as rappers, but writers, Kelly says.

“They are able to go further and dig deeper and notice things that I might not even notice,” she says, adding that their writing has become much more advanced. “The hope is that when they do have to encounter texts that are less current, they are better equipped to do that.”

Menzel notes that writing can often take students to unexpected places. For example, one boy began writing his own version of fan fiction featuring My Little Pony, mostly to poke fun at the girls who were writing more dramatic scenes featuring their favorite characters. Now his parody has turned into an epic saga that he continues to develop.

“They might just be writing stories for fun, but they are looking into why they write what they do,” Menzel says. “I like to get them thinking about how a story is created and all that goes into making something work.”

Van Hise says participating in Menzel’s writing club has improved her ability to “write about anything on the spot” and to more quickly develop ideas and characters.

“Just write. No matter what,” she says. “You can write about your day or what happens at home. Write anything that is on your mind. Just pick up a pen and some paper. You might be able to make a story.”

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Richard Kent

This is an informative article with thoughtful activities. I appreciated the mention of the athletes' writing from Woodland Hills Jr./Sr. High School in Pittsburgh, PA, and the work literacy/instructional coach Lauren Baier has accomplished so far. I've enjoyed chatting with Lauren over the past year or two. For readers interested in Athletic Team Notebooks and Journals, you may enjoy listening to this 5-minute NPR/MPBN radio story from June 1, 2016: I'm happy to field questions. Linda, a practical and helpful article. Well done! Richard Kent

Posted : Jun 08, 2016 08:20



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