PEN America Writers in the Schools Committee
Now in its ninth year, Writers in the Schools places PEN America Members in New York City schools that serve students from under-resourced communities. Our goal is to help students gain the kind of mastery over the written word that writers treasure, but that is all too rare even for talented young people in big urban school systems. James Traub currently chairs the committee.
During the school year, 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. Some tutors work alongside teachers in class, while others work directly with students, usually after the school day. Tutors are expected to work an hour or so per week.
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. 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. We hope to expand our pool of volunteers and of schools.”
—James Traub, Founder of the Writers in the Schools Committee
In 2019, Writers in the Schools started a summer writers workshop to offer students the chance to work intensively with professional journalists, novelists and essayists. Due to the pandemic, we have met online for the last two years, though we also took field trips—to Grand Central Station and the Merchant’s House Museum- to inspire student work. We have been able to turn the remote setting to our advantage by attracting extraordinary guest teachers, including essayist Katie Roiphe and past PEN America president and novelist Jennifer Egan. The class met three times a week for four weeks and covered a range of literary genres–journalism, editorials, fiction, and even obituaries. In addition to our five core tutors, we had three additional volunteers who worked with students in one-on-one sessions. Our students, who included four alumnae from 2020, spent long weeks working on final projects, which we have, once again, compiled into a handsome magazine, The Moody New Yorker, Vol. 3: Heartbreak.
This summer, we expect to convene in person and remotely once again.
Current School Programs
BCS is a progressive and highly effective school serving students in grades six to 12. PEN Writers has three volunteers working alongside an extraordinarily gifted and enthusiastic English teacher in 12th-grade classes.
MESA is a seven-year-old school serving the most disadvantaged students in a largely disadvantaged neighborhood—yet it graduates over 90% 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. Students produce a very impressive newspaper as well as a magazine. Three volunteers work with students on the newspaper and magazine as well as on other extracurricular projects.
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. We now have four volunteers working in an after-school tutoring program, chiefly working with students on college essays and another who over the last six years has served as the advisor to the school’s award-winning newspaper, RamPage.
Urban Academy is a highly successful progressive high school that eschews standardized curriculum and testing in favor of multi-aged grouping and performance assessment. A volunteer works with students on essays written for Social Studies and English classes.
Legacy is a combined middle and high school in the South Bronx. A PEN volunteer works with middle school students on creative writing in an after-school club.
The iSchool is a small-scale progressive school in SoHo. PEN works with the college counselor to help students with college essays
A New Initiative
PEN has begun to work in collaborations with a non-profit, PressPass NYC, to help schools eager to start up newspapers. We have currently begun to work with two schools, with more to come.
“Our crew of five works at the Manhattan Center for Science and Math (MCSM) in East Harlem. Over the past few years, we have focused on helping seniors with their college application essays. For most of our tutees, the only writing they’d done before was for homework assignments—in essence, practice writing. Now, suddenly, they were facing the real thing: writing something that could have a huge direct effect on the rest of their lives. Some readjusted to this escalation in stakes, responsibility, and effort faster than others.
Often the student would start with a generic bio or “Why I Want to Become a Doctor” or the like. But with some gentle questioning, most of them realized this essay wasn’t a matter of spouting back what was expected, but that they needed to open up and show what sort of a person they are, something that was true for them and, from the point of view of the colleges, made them unique, deserving, and valuable. Many of the stories we read from these diverse kids from all over the world about their journeys and struggles were astounding and humbling. As well, often students had never before reflected on these situations or episodes nor realized what they’d learned from them and how that would affect their futures—some had even grown up taught to be ashamed of their backgrounds. Many of our tutees expressed their gratitude not only for the essay help but also for the deepened understandings about themselves, their lives, and how they thought and communicated about them. Here’s one sample, to PEN editor Natalie Standiford:
Thanks to the time you put into reviewing, editing, and improving my essays, I can proudly say I got accepted into 15 colleges, Boston University being among them. You played one of the most significant roles in my application process, and I could never be more grateful. I hope future students like me can get the opportunity to work with PEN writers like you because I know that with your help, they are guaranteed success. ~ N.O.”
“This year, before school even began, Townsend Harris High School’s student paper, The Classic, made national news when it broke the story that the HEPA filters the DOE had purchased for the city’s classrooms were not the ones the CDC had recommended for slowing the spread of Covid. This is when we, three lucky PEN tutors assigned to advise the enterprising students of Townsend Harris, stepped in—one of us worked with the paper’s faculty advisor to vet the story, and then publicize it when it was published. This is the role we often play; we are their editors, yes, helping them refine and execute their ambitious visions, but also publicists for their extraordinary endeavors. We marshal not only our experience as writers and journalists but also every connection we have to ensure that their hard work resonates far beyond the schools’ walls.
Around the same time, one sophomore came to the paper’s faculty advisor with an idea. He wanted to start a film reviewing podcast that would compete with the nation’s top critics. He felt that much film criticism was out of touch with young people’s opinions and views of the world. I was lucky enough to be matched up with the burgeoning podcast team even before the school year began. I met weekly with the team and organized a Q&A with two experienced podcast producers (one from The New Yorker, and the other from Gimlet). I also reached out to all the major film production companies and publicity firms and secured a meeting between Townsend Harris’ podcast team and a publicist at NBC/Universal, at which the students so wowed the studio folk that they received invitations to the studio’s advance screenings. Armed with advice from experienced podcast producers and press credentials from a major studio, the student producers selected three hosts—all women of color eager to break into the often white, male-dominated world of film criticism—to share their opinions weekly on the latest movies and tv shows. The result is a lively, often hilarious, professional-grade podcast that has released 23 episodes and earned 270 5-star reviews on Apple Podcasts.”
“During the first semester of each year at BCS, PEN writers work with high school seniors on personal essays. It’s wonderful to encounter a student who enjoys reading and writing outside of school and to help them polish an inspired essay, but it’s equally rewarding to work with less sure-footed students, who might take longer to develop an idea. Often those are the students who become the most excited when they discover that they do indeed have something important to say. After working at BCS for many years, I’m no longer startled by the ability of very young people to tell incredible stories, but those stories never cease to amaze me.
During the second semester, the students work on an analytic paper that caps their four years of English Language Arts. They practice using a theoretical lens to examine literary texts, from classics like Baldwin’s “Sonny Blues” to more recent work by Anna Zeigler, Justin Torres, and Walter Dean Myers. Often their responses to these works surprise or move me. BCS students have called me out on my own biases, and also have made me look at works of literature I thought I knew well from the perspective of someone born in another country or the (often less familiar) perspective of someone born in the 21st century.
It’s a cliché to say that teachers learn more from their students than the students do from them, but in my case it’s undeniable. When I started in the PEN writers-in-the-schools program, I was pregnant, and my students in the South Bronx used to insist on walking me to the subway if it was dark out. (This was sweet, if a little mortifying.) My oldest child is now starting high school herself, and this program is still one of the most gratifying and inspiring parts of my life. I’m thankful for the opportunity to work with these amazing kids and plan to continue with the program for as long as they’ll have me.”
“Six 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.”