Aspiring Bridgeport teen writers find day of inspiration at Fairfield University


Image: K AlexanderMore than 115 Bridgeport students in grades 8 through 12 bolstered writing skills and considered life beyond high school at Writing Our Lives-Bridgeport, a May 21 workshop at Fairfield University organized by the campus-based Connecticut Writing Project-Fairfield (CWP).

The daylong event, which featured notable speakers from a wide variety of writing genres, was sponsored, in part, by Bank of America.

CWP Director Bryan Ripley Crandall, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Fairfield's Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions, organized theevent. "Students often want more opportunities to write in real-world ways," Crandall said, "but schools currently provide test-only instruction because of the demands of state assessments." He brought the program to Connecticut after collaborating with Marcelle Haddix, Ph.D., at Syracuse Universityto host similar conferences in Syracuse, N.Y. "Dr. Haddix and I wished to act on what young people were telling us and to give them more opportunities to have their voices heard."

The Writing Our Lives-Bridgeport conference offered students several chances to be in charge of their learning, said Azaria Drakeford, an academic advisor from Yale-Bridgeport GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) who brought students to campus. "We decided it was really important for them to come," she said. "It's not so much ‘this is an essay you have to write.' Instead, students chose sessions that interested them."

The day featured 11 breakout sessions with titles such as "On Mix Tapes and Poets," "Advertisements for Myself: Thinking and Writing about Consumer Culture," "Sports, Hope, & Literacy: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally" and "Skills for a Successful College Writer." Each workshop was designed to bring life and academic skills to students through writing.

Image: Teen writers 2013Bob Albert, one of the presenters was highly impressed with the teenagers from Bridgeport. "It was an inspiring experience to work with these kids," he said. "They were smart and arrived with great ideas. I wish I had gone to something like this when I was in school." Albert and artist Gordon Skinner worked with students on professional ways that artists use writing to promote their craft.

Emily, a junior at Bassick High School, said she signed up for the workshop because she is interested in writing. "I like to write about myself," she said. Asked what she plans after high school, she didn't skip a beat: "I want to go to college."

Bank of America representatives appreciated the college - and career-readiness that was emphasized in each session. "Students who attended the Writing Our Lives conference left equipped with valuable communications skills that will help them succeed in school and the workplace," said Bill Tommins, Southern Connecticut market president, Bank of America. "This conference was an excellent example of local schools, institutions of higher education, and the business community working together to create opportunities for the young people in the area."

Author Sonya Huber, Ph.D., assistant professor of English at Fairfield University, showed students how being aware of their surroundings would make them better writers. Huber's work of creative non-fiction "Opa Nobody" (2008) was shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize.

"Your first job in creative writing is to train yourself that you are constantly watching," she told a group of about 20 students. "You're looking for things - ideas - that you can put in your pocket to use later."

In a neighboring room, Connecticut journalist Brynn Mandel showed attendees how reporters organize stories, explaining how the headline grabs a reader and the first sentence in a story should be its most compelling. "You can use journalistic practices to make the reader want to continue reading," she said.

The highlight of the day, however, came from the keynote speaker Kwame Alexander, author of 14 books, including his young adult novel "He Said, She Said." Alexander, a poet and book publisher who founded Book-in-a-Day, a program that teaches teenagers to write and publish their own books, explained the secret to his roundabout route to success.

"My philosophy in life is to say yes - and then figure it out," he told the students.

Alexander began writing poetry at the age of 12 out of necessity, saying his first effort wasn't terribly memorable. "The only reason I wrote it was because it was Mother's Day and I didn't have any money for a present," he said.

Image: K AlexanderAlexander's can-do spirit led to an eclectic career, including a stint selling his own books in churches across the country, organizing a concert featuring the late rapper Tupac Shakur, creating a fellowship in Italy and writing the children's book "Acoustic Rooster & His Barnyard Band," which features Theolonious Monkey and Duck Ellington.

Alexander studied with master poet Nikki Giovanni at Virginia Tech and remembers well the advice she gave him. "Are you going to be able to say yes to the opportunities in your life?" he asked the room full of Bridgeport youth.

The students shouted back a rousing "Yes!"

"As the students left for the day, a young man came to me to state that Kwame Alexander was the best experience of his school year," said Crandall. "He said he was going home to write."

The Connecticut Writing Project-Fairfield is one of three National Writing Project locations in the state. Each year CWP sponsor summer institutes for teachers and offers youth programming with a mission to promote best practices for writing. Bank of America has lent support for two sessions of the 2013 Young Writers' Institute this summer for students in grades 6 to 12-July 8 through 19 and July 22 through August 2. There will also be a new Younger Writers' Institute for children in grades 3 to 5 from July 8 through 12. All sessions run Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. with lunch included. Bank of America will provide limited scholarships for high school applicants with financial need. Applications and more details are available at www.cwpfairfield.org.

For more information on CWP events and initiatives, contact Crandall at bcrandall@fairfield.edu.

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Media Contact: Meredith Guinness, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2950, mguinness@fairfield.edu

Posted on May 28, 2013

Vol. 45, No. 294