PEN’s Writers in the Schools program, a member-led initiative, has been working steadily throughout last semester in schools across New York City, and we are happy to share what our volunteers have been up to.

Writers in the Schools is a PEN program that pairs PEN members with under-resourced high schools in the five boroughs. Our volunteers work with students and teachers in class and after school, to help develop the next generation of readers, writers, and thinkers, and to pass on their love of literature.

Peter Gelfan, who volunteers in Harlem at the Manhattan Center for Science and Math, says that the “school’s main task is to teach the mechanics of writing” but that he focuses on helping his students “do the work needed before a writer starts writing, […] coming up with something fresh to say that interests the writer and might interest a reader, and figuring out what changes you want to bring about in the reader’s mind and heart.”

He has worked with students to craft college application essays that will help them stand out. He says that “almost always, a few questions and a short conversation bring out a terrific story, hidden talents, a passionate interest, or a courageous history, and suddenly, there’s the essay.”

Linda Hamalian, who volunteers with the same school in Harlem, writes that the students she’s worked with “are eager for comments and suggestions.” For example, she worked with one student who “had just started an essay about how the only place he felt at home was on the baseball field.” While working together towards a final draft, they “spent some time discussing what he meant by feeling at home” to help his audience visualize what the student was imagining.

Another student “felt stymied by a seemingly easy task—removing two words from a paragraph that was over its 50-word limit,” and Linda spoke with the student about the importance of “making each word count.”

Jeffrey Escoffier, volunteering with MESA Charter School in Bushwick, Brooklyn, is working with the school’s Writing Clinic, a center “open to any student who wanted help or was having trouble with a writing assignment.” He has worked with students across a diverse range of genres, as “projects ranged from poetry, personal essays, and expository pieces to opinion pieces.” Jeffrey’s years of experience as an editor and literary agent have allowed him to give his students a professional’s opinion on their homework.

In a different vein, journalist Jesse Kornbluth is volunteering as an advisor to the online student newspaper published at the Manhattan Center for Science and Math, the MCSM RamPage. Asked for an update on the busy student newsroom over the last semester, he wrote: “Copy comes in, corrected copy goes back, issues are published regularly—all is well.”

Farther uptown, volunteer Alice Gordon has taken on the mammoth task of teaching students grammar at Veritas Academy in Flushing. She writes that she “was able to take up five whole periods with subjects and predicates. I am not a teacher, but I have a passion for the subject, and I enjoyed engaging them with it, and so did the students.” The experience, though tiring, has been rewarding, and she writes that her “good work goes in the karma bank. One can always rest another time.”  

In Brooklyn, Daniel Bergner, Wesley Morris, and Bill Hogeland are working with a literary magazine club they’ve supported for a number of years. Daniel Bergner, writing about the work they’ve done with their students over the past semester says: “We’ve been reading Yeats and Jennifer Egan, and writing about places we love, about minor crimes we’ve committed, about the old people in our families, about people we’ve fallen in love with,” and, most importantly, “about why we write.”

The students the Writers in the Schools program works with come to our volunteers with questions about homework and college applications. They leave with a sense of the wider literary world, and the beginnings of an answer to the question of “why we write.”  

If you are interested in volunteering with Writers in the Schools, or know of a school that may be interested in bringing our program to their students, please write to Lily Philpott at [email protected]