PEN’s Writers in the Schools program is back in session, and volunteers are hard at work in classrooms across New York City. 

At University Prep High School in the Bronx, Michael Saur spent his first day as a PEN volunteer in a 12th grade class discussing essay-writing: “The theme of the proposed essay was: ‘Is prison supposed to rehabilitate or punish?’ No small matter for any essay.”

The teacher Michael worked with put half the class “in my trust. My clumsiness was soon smoothed out by the students’ lively approaches to the subject. They were engaged by the philosophical and practical aspects of the questions, and they were either oblivious to, or just generous with my lack of structure.”

It is important that Writers in the Schools provides learning experiences for both students and volunteers. When the teacher in the class he worked with “handed out a reading assignment: Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find,’” she also handed Michael a copy, “since I hadn’t [read it]—I felt like one of her students, a little embarrassed, but eager not to disappoint.”

Writers in the Schools coordinator Jim Traub remembers his last meeting of the year with his ninth-grade writing class at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics. He left “feeling very proud. The students had prepared a first draft of an argumentative essay. The subjects they had chosen were big policy questions: abortion, illegal immigration, animal testing. Each had done serious research. Each had made a good faith effort to consider the opposite view, and then sought to rebut it.”

(Click here to read an essay written by one of Jim’s ninth-grade students, Jazatte Dalisay.)

At the close of the semester, he writes, “it gave me tremendous pleasure to have played some part in their growth.”

Volunteer Maggie Paley writes that “the ninth-graders I’m tutoring are bright, engaged, and of various ethnicities (one is a Sherpa, one recently arrived from Saudi Arabia, etc.).” As the students were working on Common Core informational essays, Maggie suggested an interview project, to enliven their work: “For their assignment they were to interview someone with whom they felt comfortable, or to explore a subject that interested them.”

As we move into a new year and a new semester, we’d like to take a moment to thank all of the PEN Members volunteering their time, energy, and love of literature!