“He told me that his teachers don’t read what he writes. They just check to see that he has put words down on a page.” This is what one parent told me when she enrolled her son in my creative writing camp for Latino middle school students last week.
The students were not shy in admitting that they did not like to write. For the first writing activity, several students wrote only a couple of sentences, and one did not touch his pencil to the paper.
Unlike camps I’ve done with other populations, my waking hours during this camp were spent working out last minute glitches in transportation logistics and grocery shopping for healthy but teen-friendly lunches. So it wasn’t until I awoke panicked in the middle of the night each night that I had time to modify the lesson plans I’d prepared into something that would work for these kids.
Each day, I gave them simpler writing structures to work within and became more adept at finding topics that interested them. They wrote stories of cowboys being followed by aliens through Las Vegas and of big hairy monsters driven away from the local pool for clogging it with hair.
They wrote poems of where they were from. “I am from soccer balls that roll through the grass.” “I am from tacos de lengua and sopa de marchan.” “I am from a family that laughs and jokes together.”
On the last day, they wrote letters to President Obama. When I offered to actually send them, one girl screamed in excitement and asked if she could write to a senator too. She needed to tell them the importance of the Dream Act.
Another girl, who confessed that spelling was her main reason for refusing to write, dictated to me a detailed and emotional story of her house being broken into. The boy who had written nothing the first day narrated a long letter about bullying in schools and what actions should be taken to stop it.
For their final writing prompt, one choice was to write about a time when you did something you thought you couldn’t do. One boy was reluctant to let me read his. He had written about camp. Before coming, he had thought that he couldn’t write well. He was one of my strongest writers.
All but one of the students stood up to read in front of their parents, something most of them had never done before. According to their evaluations, every one of them had a more positive attitude about writing and their abilities by the end of the week. Their average rating of the statement “Writing is fun” increased by over 100%.
Sure, I am tooting my own horn. But I also wanted to share how writing can impact lives. As a writer, it is easy for me to acknowledge that writing is important. I am biased. To see a group of teenagers with no interest in writing change their attitudes in one week is drastically more meaningful. What changed it? They wrote what they wanted to write about. And people were going to read it. Suddenly, writing was not just filling a page with words.