Art & Culture

  • Write On banner

Write On: What Teaching Creative Writing Taught Me

  • Write On thumbnail
Next Story Previous Story

Write On: What Teaching Creative Writing Taught Me

By Alina Grabowski.

The only activity I have been involved with for the entirety of my Penn career is Write On. Write On, which meets in the Kelly Writers House, is an after-school creative-writing mentoring program for middle-school students from the Henry C. Lea School, a school located only a few blocks from Penn on 47th and Locust. As a freshman I was a Write On coach (the term we use for the Penn undergrads that work with the Lea students on their writing). As a sophomore I became a head coach (the point-person for a group of Lea students I was assigned to with three other coaches), and as a junior, I became a coordinator for the program, helping plan and execute Write On’s weekly sessions. My upcoming senior year will be my second year as a coordinator, and my fourth and final year with Write On.

Write On is not only my longest-running involvement at Penn, but also my favorite. As a freshman, I was intimidated by the students, who I felt completely underqualified to teach anything to (I admit that this feeling has not completely subsided). I would timidly peek over a student’s shoulder as they showed me their journal, nodding and suggesting why don’t you expand here? or could you describe this a little bit more? In other words, general and largely unhelpful advice. As a writer myself, I should have known that it’s easy to identify what’s weak—it’s more difficult to identify how to make it stronger. I doled out this advice to all students in my group, regardless of what they were working on. My first semester of Write On, I felt anxious and out of place, too nervous to really engage with the kids lest they realize my inadequacy. The kids were—and continue to be—confident, loud, outspoken. Basically, they were the opposite of my own insecure freshman self, who was learning how to navigate a school of ten thousand after coming from a high school of one hundred and fifty.

But I stuck it out, because even though I was unsure about what I could add to Write On, the program itself seemed something special. It was just us in the Writers House on Friday afternoons, save a few staff members kind enough to make us snacks. There was something magical in the way Write On overtook the Victorian house, kids and coaches running up and down the stairs, journals and pens strewn over tables and chairs. I loved to listen to the kids share at the end of the session, their friends whooping for them when they took the podium at the front of the room, the bolder ones giving lengthy introductions, the shyer ones dipping their heads as they opened their notebooks. There is a certain energy to Write On that permeates every session—often chaotic, sometimes disorganized, but always palpable. A certain restlessness and striving that lends itself to creativity.

I look forward to my Friday every week not because it signals the weekend, but because it means that I get to spend a few hours contemplating what would happen in the sequel to Frozen, learning about what went down in this week’s episode of Empire, and dancing to Beyoncé. Write On is about writing, yes. But even more so, it’s about mentoring. When you’re thirteen, it’s easy to be shrugged off as a teenager—your opinions and feelings can be dismissed merely because of your age (how many times are we told you’re too young to understand or you’ll get it when you’re older). It’s okay if a student writes one poem but tells you all about her grandmother’s birthday or the flaws of Drake’s latest single or her dance performance last week. Writing is all about finding your voice, and you can’t find it if you’re not convinced it’s a voice worth listening to.

I have learned more from the students and coaches that participate in Write On than any teacher at Penn. Our kids are giving up their Friday afternoons to hunch over marbled composition notebooks. Our coaches are giving up their Friday afternoons to help our kids fill up their marbled composition notebooks. It is a special student, whether from Lea or from Penn, that chooses to come to Write On.

    • Write On 4
    • Write On 21
    • Write On 9
    • Write On 2
    • Write On 3
    • Write On 24
    • Write On 6
    • Write on 7
    • Write On 8
    • Write On 10
    • Write On 11
    • Write On 12
    • Write On 13
    • Write On 14
    • Write On 15
    • Write On 16
    • Write On 17
    • Write On 18
    • Write On 19
    • Write On 23
    • Write On 22
    • Write On 20

There is one word for our students: fierce. They are unapologetically themselves, some bolder than others, but even in the quieter ones there’s a soft confidence. Sharing at the end of the two hours is still my favorite part of the session. It’s a voluntary process, and there are always the regulars we can rely on to read. But there are also those that need a little urging, a little nudging, to go up there and read. Sometimes they prefer that one of the coaches read their work, and will stand next to them, listening to their written words vocalized. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, they read their own writing. I have seen few things braver than a hesitant reader getting up in front of thirty people to read their work. We do not write about things that we do not find interesting, that we do not care about. It is scary to share these things with others. Our students remind me how to be brave.

And then there are our coaches. I watch their determined patience as they help a page stretch into pages, a poem into poems. They are thoughtful and sharp and always alert. Perhaps that last adjective makes them sound too much like watchdogs, but it is a special skill, coaching writing. Different kids need different encouragement—prodding for some, space for others. It is remarkably easy to work with students and consider yourself before you consider them, as I did when I started with Write On, more aware of my own anxiety than my students’ needs. Self-centeredness can allow for response without requiring engagement. None of our coaches are like that. They are thoughtful and big-hearted, and most importantly, empathetic. They do not project or assume; instead, they meet our students halfway. Because, after all, we are only college kids—how much more do we know than our students?           

I’m already anxious about having only one year left with Write On. I’ve always seen it as a large part of my Penn experience. But the more time I spend doing Write On, the more I realize how it’s shaped both the person I am and the person I want to be. I want the unselfconscious ferocity of the students. I want the generosity of our coaches. I want to go into the world as someone who listens, someone who engages. Not just someone who responds. 

Edited by Kenna O'Rourke. 

Images courtesy of Kelly Writers House (Flickr).

Alina Grabowski is a rising senior from Scituate, Massachusetts studying English. She is currently an Emerging Writer in Residence at Grin City Collective in Grinnell, Iowa.