PEN America Writers in the Schools Committee
Now entering its seventh 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.
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. 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. During the summer, there will be additional opportunities to volunteer for a two-week writing workshop that met for the first time earlier this year.
To volunteer, or for more information about the Writers in the Schools Committee, please contact us at: WritersInSchools@pen.org.
“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.”
The Writers in the Schools program held its second summer workshop in July-August 2020. The coronavirus posed a unique set of problems, though also offered unique opportunities. Our program was wholly virtual, but this allowed us to accommodate more students. We had 19 students from eight schools, many of them new to the program. In addition to our five core tutors, we had five additional volunteers who worked with students in one-on-one sessions. The class met three times a week for four weeks and covered a range of literary genres–journalism, editorials, fiction, poetry. We were able to attract extraordinary speakers, including PEN president and novelist Jennifer Egan and Pulitzer-Prize-wining poet Vijay Seshadri, who spoke to us from their living rooms. Our students, who included four alumnae from 2019, spent long weeks working on final projects, which we have, once again, compiled into a handsome magazine, titled “The Moody New Yorker vol. 2: #pandemicsummer.”
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.
MESA is a seven-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.
Ascend is part of a large network of Brooklyn charter schools. The neighborhood is one of the most impoverished in New York City, and in the course of the past year a volunteer has worked there with students in an English AP class preparing for their AP exam.
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. Over the last two years, a PEN volunteer has worked with a class whose students decided to collectively write a book about the social history of candy stores in NYC. They presented their work at the PEN World Voices Festival last spring.
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 over the last six years has serves as the advisor to the school 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. This past year a volunteer worked in a classroom where students were reading memoirs and writing memoirs of their own.
Legacy is a combined middle and high school in the South Bronx. Two PEN volunteers work with middle school students on creative writing–one in a classroom setting, the other in an after-school club.
FDA III is the newest branch of a highly regarded school in Central Harlem. Starting this year, a PEN volunteer worked with students in a writing class, brought them to the local library to introduce them to new resources, and made a start on creating a school newspaper.
“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
PEN America Young Writers Summer Academy
In the course of the 2018-9 year, a number of volunteers proposed a “summer boot-camp” for rising seniors eager to work on their college application essay. When we went to the schools to look for students, we found that most were not rising seniors, and all cared much more about becoming better writers than about the utilitarian work of producing a college essay. The five instructors then put together a two-week curriculum whose unifying theme was New York City; we mixed reading, writing exercises, visits from writers and trips to Times Square, Coney Island and elsewhere. Our nine students–all young women–met every weekday from 9 to 1 during the last two weeks of July. The experience was thrilling for them as well as for us–most asked if they could come back next year, including a senior who would then be preparing for college. During the second week they worked furiously on their final project, whether an essay or short story. We think the outcome is remarkable. Here is The Moody New Yorker, as they titled the book we published with their work.
From one of our young writers, Kelsey Zhen:
During spring of my junior year, there was a buzz going around the school about how everyone’s summer looked. It was either some thousand dollar program at a university or a standard nine to five job from Monday to Friday. I wanted to try something new that wouldn’t keep me stuck indoors for an entire month. With all this in mind, I definitely don’t regret signing up for the program at PEN. Starting from day one, I felt like I was pulled out of my comfort zone when we went around sharing our personal writings. After a while though, it was nice to hear different styles of writing that students from all boroughs of New York City had. Of course, we also got plenty of chances to get to know each other during snack time or whenever we went exploring. Going through the city was probably my favorite part about this program since we actually got to experience NYC culture by physically being there. Being at the NYU building gave us this opportunity with the deep history in its surrounding neighborhood. Whether it was reviewing the food at a nearby Italian pastry shop, eavesdropping at Washington Square Park, interviewing in the subway, or spending the day at Coney Island, I felt like a tourist in a city I’ve been living in for 17 years. It definitely gives me a good story to tell when I return to school in September.
From an instructor, Jill Eisenstadt:
Teaching alongside four other writers from a variety of disciplines —fiction, journalism, filmmaking – was an extraordinary experience. By taking turns leading the group and participating in all activities (i.e writing exercises, close readings, note taking, outings, interviews etc), it felt as if we were discovering a new model for the writing workshop. The teens, who came from every borough (but one) immediately took to and offered fresh perspectives on our NYC. From our classroom at NYU, we quickly adopted Washington Square Park as a place to observe through the lenses of history, culture, dogs, tourists and fountains. In Times Square we grilled the maitre’d at Sardi’s about his day and a theatre manager about architecture. Other outings included Pasticceria Rocco and Coney Island. The students produced poetry, short stories, food reviews and articles. I felt schooled by them daily and in the best way.