PEN’s Writers in the Schools program kicked off its second year in September, bringing PEN members to schools around New York: from Flushing, Queens, to Bushwick, Brooklyn. Over the course of the year, these volunteers will work with students to hone their writing skills, unleash their creativity, and more. We will be providing monthly updates from the program, the first of which is below. 

World-champion gymnast, author, and volunteer Dan Millman began his class by doing a handstand on a desk (with the teachers’ permission!) to get the students’ attention at the Science Skills Center in Brooklyn. For Dan, “this visit was the first time I’d returned to any high school since my own H.S. graduation decades past. I found the same aromas from the cafeteria, the sound of hallway lockers, and the animation and energy of youth filling the hallways and classrooms.”

His presentation, based on a book co-written with his daughter, focused on illuminating a universal, step-by-step creative process, and was interrupted—or perhaps enhanced—by a fire drill right in the middle of it. “We filed out of the building, then filed back in, and I continued my endeavor to shed some light on the creative process.”

At the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, author and journalist Jesse Kornbluth got down to the fundamentals of PEN’s Writers in the Schools program. “I teach 10 very smart 9th graders, all 14 years old. In the last year, how many have read a book they weren’t assigned? Zero. How many have written 200 words that weren’t assigned? None. So we start with the fundamentals. And by that I emphatically don’t mean “writing.”I do mean: forgetting we’re in a classroom, getting comfortable with saying what you think, then finding words to communicate that thought.”

After the fundamentals had been explained, Jesse shared the assignments he has planned for the students. “They read the assignments aloud in class. I do the assignments too. Sometimes mine show them more possibilities. Sometimes theirs are better. We all love it when that happens.”

In the upcoming month, the students will read an excerpt from Ursula Le Guin’s Those Who Walk Away From Omelas, and then complete the assignment: Be the child. Write a letter begging for freedom. Be a citizen. Write a letter to the child, explaining why he must remain in his cell.

Jesse’s students will also read stanzas from early Motown songs, and his own biography of Michael Jordan, and then will write 5 sentences as true and obvious as, “You broke my heart.” and about A time when they didn’t get what they wantedor did.

Writers in the Schools coordinator James Traub also teaches at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, where every ninth-grade student is mandated to take a daily writing class in their first semester. He writes, “In recent weeks we’ve read several passages from Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. At first the kids said, ‘boring,’ which I was hoping was short-hand for ‘too unfamiliar’ or maybe ‘too much work.’ And after a while, they began looking more closely, and seeing how Junger used words and images and cadences, how he strategically placed lulls in the action and so on.”

Speaking of action, James’ students may end up a lot closer to it than they originally realized: “They got very excited when I asked if they’d like me to bring him to class,” Jim wrote, “especially because I promised that we’d read War, which has a lot of profanity and gore.”