Project WRITE brings high school students to the Hume Center from East Palo Alto Academy, Eastside College Preparatory School, and East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy for writing workshops during winter quarter. Graduate student coordinator Elena Dancu and three undergraduate student leaders—Beatrice Garrard, Cristina Herrera, and Shannon Daniels--led this year’s Project, under the direction of Hume Center Associate Director Sarah Pittock. Committed to educational equity, the team worked to make Stanford’s experts and resources accessible to passionate young writers. Many students return to the program year after year.
In nine interactive workshops centered on this year’s theme “exploring worlds,” students were introduced to writing tools that transport a reader to another perspective or world, whether fantastical or grounded in reality. Participants learned to set a scene, craft a character, and focus a story. Through writing, they worked to illuminate new places and points of view--a childhood hiding place, the bottom of a tea cup, thoughts of a car--and addressed an array of issues, from the significance of an ant to tensions in U.S. race relations.
Stanford-affiliated experts joined the student team in leading writing workshops. Scott Hutchins, a Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing, introduced the concept of world building and the importance of setting. He asked students to work at all the classroom white boards, where they sketched alternate universes full of magic, high tech gadgets, wizards, and a talking giant squid. They then turned to their notebooks to craft written scenes set within these alternate universes. Another Jones Lecturer, Nina Schloesser, presented strategies of character building, asking students to render visually and in writing an invented or real person’s manner of speech, physical features, behavior and thought patterns before they narrated the character’s contribution to a new world. One of the examples used by the instructor, which also resonated with students, was taken from Sherman Alexie’s young-adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007).
Each workshop incorporated class and small group discussions, multimedia examples, interactive games and exercises, and at least half an hour of writing time. In the workshop on ekphrasis, for example, Project WRITE leaders facilitated writing based on art. The class walked to the Cantor Art Center and participated in a storytelling game related to Rodin’s Gates of Hell before moving onto the exhibit Missing Persons. Students explored the exhibit, sharing their thoughts on the art in a group discussion. They were then given a list of a half-dozen prompts as potential starting points and wrote about whatever artwork inspired them most. Reflecting on what it means to be invisible or unseen, students learned how to work within or extend the world the work of art represents.
Throughout the quarter, students were encouraged to make revision a part of their writing practice. They learned how to ask for, give, and receive feedback. They also revised extensively in response to individualized feedback provided by the leaders, producing polished final pieces. These were assembled into a beautifully designed final publication. The book evidences real growth: reluctant writers became passionate, experienced writers honed their craft, all recognized the value of producing writing in a supportive community.
The culmination of Project WRITE was a final reading that recognized students’ creativity and dedication. Students invited their families and teachers to a lunch celebration, where they shared their poems, short stories, and reflections on the year. Having practiced presenting their work with tutors from the Oral Communication Program, the students were prepared, poised, and compelling orators!
Project WRITE gives Stanford students interested in education a very real opportunity to design and deliver writing curriculum and to reflect on what works. Here’s what this year’s students taught us:
Writing has the power to make a reader inhabit another world, a new perspective. It helps us forgo differences and feel empathy for the other. This year’s project showed participants and leaders alike that writing helps us understand and imagine anew the world we inhabit.
Elena Dancu is a PhD candidate in the Comparative Literature department, writing a dissertation on the 19th and 20th century novel in Portuguese and Spanish. She is a dedicated educator with five years of experience teaching foreign languages in Romania, Scotland, China and at Stanford. She joined Project WRITE because she is a firm believer that educational opportunities need to be made available to talented students who might otherwise not be able to access them.
Shannon Daniels is a sophomore majoring in History and minoring in Education and Modern Languages. She writes poetry and nonfiction, particularly about culture and family. She spent a summer teaching literature at Breakthrough San Jose before beginning her first year teaching at Project WRITE. She is passionate about arts and humanities education because it is the best way for students to develop empathy and creativity. She is happy to be a part of a program that fosters these skills in high school students through creative writing, her favorite artistic medium.
Beatrice Garrard is a senior majoring in history. She writes historical and adventure fiction, and has always loved science fiction and fantasy. In her first year of Project WRITE, she saw the program as an opportunity to give young writers a place to be heard. She also hoped to gain teaching experience for a career in education. In the course of that year, the students’ talent and imagination impressed her beyond all expectations. She returned for her original reasons, but also because she had to see what they would come up with next.
Cristina Herrera Mezgravis is a senior majoring in English with Creative Writing Emphasis and minoring in Translation Studies and Modern Languages. She likes to write realistic fiction, her stories pertaining to the hardships faced in her home country, Venezuela. A firm believer in art’s ability to address current and timeless world issues while crafting more tolerant and open minds, Cristina saw working in Project WRITE as an excellent opportunity to share her passion for writing with others.
Sarah Pittock is a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. She loves being a part of Project WRITE because she learns from all involved: Director of Community Engaged Learning Paitra Houts, the teachers and administrators of East Palo Alto’s high schools, the student leaders, and the outstanding student participants.