Casey and the Missing Teacher” is the tale of a little girl in kindergarten who must solve the mystery of why her teacher disappeared. Worried Casey looks everywhere for her teacher – the library, the park, the store. Spoiler: Casey finally discovers her teacher at home taking care of her new baby. The author of this story is my own daughter at age 5, who, like Casey, grapples with confusion and sadness with the fact that her teacher has gone on maternity leave. The little booklet of folded 8 1/2 x 11 pages was carefully illustrated in crayon and written in the adorable scratchy penmanship and spelling of someone just learning how to write. But more than being something to cherish as a parent, “Casey” is an example of how even the youngest child can use creative writing to process emotions and anxieties, find solutions, and express themselves.
“Every kid is unique and has meaningful things to tell us,” says Léna Roy, the New York Metro North Regional Manager of Writopia Lab, a national not-for-profit creative writing program with Westchester-based locations in Bedford and Hartsdale. “Through creative writing, children can express their innermost thoughts, learn compassion and empathy as they explore why their characters do what they do, and build confidence and critical thinking skills.”
Roy should know. An author herself, she recently published the middle school-age biography Becoming Madeleine (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), with her sister Charlotte Jones Voiklis, about their grandmother Madeleine L’Engle, author of the classic novel A Wrinkle In Time (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962).
Anything counts as creative writing – memoirs, poetry, short stories, plays, songs, essays – the key is finding the freedom and confidence to self-express. Writing programs offer a place of encouragement and guidance. Full disclosure: my daughter, the aforementioned author of “Casey and the Missing Teacher,” was a Writopia student herself from 6th grade through 11th grade. Now a graduating high school senior, she continues to be an avid writer. Through that program she gained confidence in her ability and discovered the unending possibilities for self-expression through writing.
“It takes a lot of creative energy to craft a piece you are satisfied with and that not only has a beginning, middle and end, but a compelling story arc,” says Roy. “The process is empowering and the finished product is something to celebrate.”
Finding Your Voice
High school senior Caleb Klein of Chappaqua described his 12-year-old self as a little bored and uninspired by schoolwork. But he also had a vivid imagination and on his own time began filling a composition notebook with character descriptions. His mother enrolled him in Writopia as a way to explore this creative energy. Now, Caleb is 11 chapters into an expansive Tolkien-esque fantasy novel based on those original notebook ideas. Caleb credits Writopia and the community of young people he engaged with through many years in the program as being integral to giving him the skills and outlet to find his voice.
“Without Writopia I wouldn’t have had a place to learn how to write a novel,” says Caleb. “They showed me how to take a step back and see where I was trying to go and gave my ideas legitimacy.”
Roy believes that even children without experience writing outside of school can surprise themselves.
“I believe that creative writing unlocks your unadulterated voice,” says Roy. “Your subconscious knows more than you do and suddenly there’s an aha moment when you make a discovery about a character or resolve a plot issue, and say wow, where did that come from? For kids this is empowering. No adult told them what to create, they’ve done it themselves.”
Similarly, the Kids Short Story Connection (KSSC) in Greenburgh is designed to help children build an ability for self-expression through writing. Founded nearly 25 years ago by Sarah Bracey White, Executive Director of Arts and Culture for the Town of Greenburgh, the program offers children age 9 to 12 the opportunity to learn basic principles of crafting a story with a goal of eventually publishing their work.
“I designed the program just as I wish I had as a child,” says Bracey White. “I don’t expect children to have a preconceived notion of what they write, just that it is important to find an outlet for self-expression and through that gain confidence.” Bracey White is the author of Primary Lessons (CavanKerry Press, 2013), a memoir of her childhood struggles under Jim Crow segregation.
Building a Foundation
Children as young as kindergarteners can be storytellers using emerging writing skills and drawings, and elementary school literacy programs are critical to building the base for them to grow as writers and communicators. Having the freedom to create characters and invent worlds through creative writing becomes more satisfying after a child understands basic fundamentals of grammar, spelling, vocabulary and syntax, followed by more advanced concepts like thoughtful word choice and an ability to express yourself in a variety of genres. It is a cumulative process that begins in kindergarten and continues to evolve through high school.
“Finding your voice as a writer is like a mosaic, there are so many different elements that come together,” says Laurie Pastore, Elementary Literacy Coach, Mamaroneck Union Free School District. “The strongest writer is one who is multi-faceted. To tell a story, either real or imagined, requires the writer to command an understanding of genre and have enough tools in the toolbox to skillfully persuade, entertain or inform their reader.”
Inasmuch as it is critical for a writer to have a firm grasp of the fundamentals, creative writing has the potential to enhance a child’s school-related work. Writopia Founder and Executive Director Rebecca Wallace-Segall says, “Traditionally, writing in schools is based on assignments and a grading rubric, which immediately means you are writing for someone else. Many kids become detached from their writing. Demystifying the writing process and encouraging an intrinsic love of inquiry encourages kids to connect all the excitement they feel about creative writing to essays and school-based narratives. Writing should feel good.”
Finding a Writing Community
From a very young age, children are encouraged to participate in group activities like athletics, theater, dance, music, martial arts and scouting. All of these activities can promote confidence and encourage camaraderie. A writing community is no different.
“A creative writing program offers a level playing field to the child who likes to write, much like theater for the child who wants to act,” says Bracey White of KSSC. “Reading work aloud, peer responses, positive encouragement establishes a place of safety and grounding for a child. I know my community building is working when my 9 and 10-year-olds, from a variety of cultures, languages and ethnic backgrounds, gather during break time and write a group poem.”
“The most important part is the peers,” says Caleb Klein. “It is inspirational to be in the room with other kids who want to write, to read other people’s writing, and who support and share their impressions of my work.”
Corinne L. Zola is a founder and board member of the Westchester Children’s Museum. She lives in Mamaroneck with her husband, son and daughter (all of whom are creative writers!).
These local writing programs encourage children to explore creative writing outside the classroom.
Hudson Valley Rising Writers-Creative Writing Camp
A multi-genre creative writing course for 6th-8th graders. Contact them for fall registration dates.
Kids Short Story Connection Greenburgh
For ages 9-18, up to nine participants per workshop led by published authors. Kids advance through seven two-hour beginner, intermediate or advanced level workshops, offered fall and spring. The program is open to all with a love of writing and prior completion of at least two short stories.
locations in Bedford, Hartsdale, Nanuet, Stamford
For kids ages 7-18, three to seven participants per workshop under guidance of published authors. They hold trimester-long creative writing workshops, as well as half-day events or full-day camps. Summer programs are available. Students prompted by writing games and exercises, work with peers on the process of composition, workshop and polishing their writing.
Youth Writing Workshop at The Writing Institute
Sarah Lawrence College
Offering a five-session creative writing workshop for middle schoolers every fall and spring. Classes meet once a week for two hours, and work on story structure through creative exercises, workshops and writing prompts.