PEN America Writers in the Schools Committee
The next Writers in the Schools Committee meeting will be announced soon.
Now entering its fifth year, Writers in the Schools places PEN America Members in New York City schools that serve students from under-resourced communities. At a time of rising anti-intellectualism, when all the arts are under attack, the goal of the Writers in the Schools Committee is to help nurture a love of reading and writing among New York students. The committee is currently chaired by James Traub.
Volunteers work with students and teachers to build skills, conduct creative writing workshops and writing clubs, and oversee the publication of literary magazines and school newspapers. Tutors adapt to schedules of individual teachers, schools, and volunteers. Your commitment, as a rule, will be to volunteer at a school for an hour or so weekly.
To volunteer, or for more information about the Writers in the Schools Committee, please contact us at: [email protected]
“Over many years writing about the schools in The New York Times Magazine and elsewhere, I had discovered that even very bright students who did well in math and science often wrote very poorly. Many grow up without books and with few opportunities to enrich their language skills. I thought that professional writers might be able to work with teachers to help those students learn to express themselves in writing. PEN America offered just such a pool of writers. In the fall of 2013, volunteers from PEN America, and teachers and administrators in New York City public high schools, came together to create a tutoring program.
Since that time we have operated in a dozen or so schools, in every borough save Staten Island, sometimes working alongside a teacher in class, at others coming after the school day to tutor individual students or to advise newspapers or literary clubs. We work in big, classic public high schools and in smaller and more unorthodox charter schools. Virtually all of our students come from working-class or impoverished backgrounds. The work has been hard, sometimes frustrating, but often inspiring. We have found that students are eager to listen and learn—and often fascinated to hear about what it means to be a writer. Our goal is to expand our pool of volunteers and of schools.”
Current School Programs
BCS is a charter school based on the Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound model and serving students in grades 6 to 12. PEN Writers has two volunteers working alongside an extraordinarily gifted and enthusiastic English teacher in 12th-grade classes. Another volunteer is just beginning to work with BCS’s college guidance counselor to help seniors with their college essays. Check out what Andrew Boorstin, a teacher at Brooklyn Collaborative, says about the impact PEN America Members have had in the school.
Renaissance is a PreK–12 school largely organized and run by the school’s own teachers. PEN America has one volunteer there tutoring students after class. We will soon begin to work with a start-up school newspaper.
MESA is a five-year-old school serving the most disadvantaged students in a largely disadvantaged neighborhood—yet it graduates over 90 percent of its incoming 9th-grade students. In the past, three PEN America volunteers helped establish an after-school literary club. This year we will have a volunteer working alongside a teacher in a 12th-grade English AP class.
Townsend Harris is the descendant of the storied institution that for generations served as the feeder school for City College. Today it serves the same population of immigrant strivers, but from the campus of Queens College. We will have a volunteer working with the award-winning school newspaper, The Classic.
MCSM is a public high school that serves students who score in the upper half of the distribution in standardized science and math tests. MSCM was the first school with which PEN America began working. At the outset, volunteers worked with teachers in 9th-grade writing classes. Now we have two volunteers working in an after-school tutoring program, one working with students on college essays, and another who serves as the advisor to the school newspaper, RamPage.
“World problems can be so overwhelming. How to even begin to pitch in? This is what I love about volunteering in public schools right here where we live. Students need help writing personal essays for college, book reports, poetry or articles for school publications. Their teachers, no matter how attentive, don’t have time to sit with them to draw them out and help them organize their thoughts. I’m thrilled to step in once a week to teach what comes so easily to me. But I learn too—about teenagers and about lives with family dynamics and socioeconomic situations far from my own. I see students articulating insights about literature and listening to each other, often in very crowded classrooms—and it makes me hopeful. And there’s nothing like watching a focused English teacher working to inspire the quiet thinking that comes from reading and writing.”
—Bob Morris, Volunteer Tutor at the Brooklyn Collaborative
“Five years ago, I began working with students to create an online newspaper, the MCSM RamPage. Our monthly issues included an advice column, a science and consumer tech column, music and movie reviews, political editorials, poetry, short stories, interviews, sports pieces, and school event reporting. Today, RamPage is still going strong. I have found working with these students, the newspaper, and the teaching staff of MCSM extremely rewarding. Sharing my 30+ years of experience as a freelance journalist with New York City teenagers has taught me a great deal about the concerns and abilities of 21st-century urban teens and their boundless enthusiasm for self-expression. Many of our students are multilingual and are first- or second-generation immigrants. I teach them how to use writing as a tool to persuade, explain, and explore. They make time to participate in the Newspaper Club (as our group is called) despite all the many other commitments they have at school and home and have taught me at least as much as I hope I have taught them. On a personal note, I must add that as a female journalist of color, it has been particularly gratifying for me to be able to pass along my hard-won knowledge to other young men and women of color through this program.”
—Carol Cooper, Volunteer Tutor at Manhattan Center for Science and Math
“Here’s the great thing about working with the student tutors in the peer-run Writing Center at Renaissance: Because the peer tutors have to help others—which they are amazingly happy to do—all sorts of questions about writing that might otherwise seem laborious or just abstract naturally become urgent, and the students genuinely want to figure out how to avoid a dangling construction or to fashion an efficient thesis or to make artful sentences. The peer tutors not only develop a vivid enthusiasm for writing but also get to be recognized as the go-to people if you want to improve your writing.”
—Igor Webb, Volunteer Tutor at Renaissance Charter School