Celebration reading highlights the work of young writers

They've polished their prose and published their poems, so now the young authors are ready to share their writing publicly at the Celebration Reading. This event is the annual culmination of the Creative Writing in the Schools program, which places University of California, Santa Cruz, students, trained to teach creative writing workshops, in local secondary schools. The Celebration Reading will be held on May 26 from 2 to 5 p.m. in Room 105, Oakes College, UC Santa Cruz. It is free and open to the public.

"The most important goal of Creative Writing in the Schools is to shift the attitude of young students from writing as a chore to writing as an expression of what matters to them," said Charles Atkinson, a lecturer in creative writing at UC Santa Cruz who has led the Creative Writing in the Schools program for two years. "And it works. If you give undergraduates a chance to share their own passion for writing with younger students, that passion is infectious."

More than 3,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students have participated in the Creative Writing in the Schools program since it began at UCSC six years ago under the leadership of Tom Marshall, English instructor at Cabrillo College, who at that time was a lecturer in literature at UCSC. He has launched a Creative Writing in the Schools program at Cabrillo as well. This year the combined programs will serve about 850 students in more than 30 classrooms across three counties.

As Marshall gradually expanded Creative Writing in the Schools, he secured funding from UCSC's Educational Partnership Center to target schools serving low-income, at-risk student populations. Schools that do not offer a creative writing class are a top priority for the program.

"I've learned how challenging it is to establish a program," said Marshall. "But if I step back and look back at the whole picture, it's wonderful what Cabrillo and UCSC have been able to do."

When Atkinson took over as faculty director for the program at UCSC, he built on Marshall's experience. The program begins during the fall quarter, when Atkinson screens prospective participants through an application process. "I look particularly for students who demonstrate the potential to be good teachers," said Atkinson. "They don't have to be creative writing majors, though many are, and most are juniors and seniors." This year 18 students were chosen for UCSC's program.

The selected students take a winter-quarter class with Atkinson, learning to design and present creative writing lessons, practice teaching with their classmates, and provide feedback to each other. The students, now dubbed interns to distinguish them from the middle and high school students they will teach, begin their school placements in spring quarter.

"The day before the first time I taught, I was very nervous," said Brent Hagen, a creative writing intern who is a junior majoring in literature with a minor in education. "But once I was in there, the kids were awesome."

Interns ordinarily teach two workshops a week, always in the presence of the classroom teacher. Atkinson observes the interns at least twice during the quarter, and they meet as a class weekly to debrief and share what they are learning. By the end of the quarter, each intern's classes will have completed an anthology of writings, from which selected students will share at the Celebration Reading.

"It's really great to see the kids have a new relationship with writing," said Hagen. "I was pretty sure I wanted to be a teacher, but being in the Creative Writing in the Schools program has solidified that decision for me." Approximately a quarter of the interns who participated in the program last year are now teaching in public schools.

"We get these middle and high school students to share their lives on paper, and it's moving to see the candor and wisdom that comes through in their writing," said Atkinson. "This program can be life changing for both sets of students."

For more information on the Celebration Reading, call (831) 459-2155.