Back in 1995, we were mired in another boring in-service session, trying to look like we were fulfilling the mandate of the day. Then somebody—we’re not sure exactly who—wondered aloud about what it would be like to do something that actually made a difference. That question started the ball rolling, and soon we were talking about authentic writing and how to get students and teachers excited about it. What if we invited “real writers” to our school to share their work? What if we put a spotlight on the student writers at our school? What if faculty writers also presented their stories, poems, diaries, or letters?
Writers Week was born–this event that has become a phenomenon at our school and the focus of a great deal of attention once a year as we launch the largest, longest-running annual writing festival at any public high school in America.
But back to ’95. Luckily, we had a headliner literally in our backyard. Legendary science fiction writer Frederik Pohl lived on the same block as our suburban Chicago high school. (Along with Isaac Asimov, Pohl created the pulp science fiction genre in the 1950’s and continued his prolific publishing for decades.) He was excited to join us. We asked Burt Constable, the popular Daily Herald columnist, to visit our campus. A couple of our faculty members were well-connected to the poetry slam movement, so we asked Marc Smith, inventor of the poetry slam, to kick off Writers Week. We asked some of the students who considered themselves writers to present their pieces, and a few English teachers agreed to share their work also.
We took the idea to our principal and asked for his support. As a former English teacher who hadn’t turned completely to the dark side, he was enthusiastic. He gave us $250 and told us to go nuts. We bought a few supplies and then divided the rest of the money between our various guests. We gave Mr. Pohl the biggest chunk, which was still far below what he would receive at any college campus in America. The rest of the visiting writers received checks for fourteen dollars and a few odd cents, basically pizza money or a tank of 1995 gasoline. Those writers might have agreed to come for free, but we felt it was important and a point of honor to pay them. I think they appreciated our earnestness.
During that winter of 1995, we had a session in our auditorium during every lunch period. Teachers brought classes, and students wandered in from lunch to hear poetry and stories, writing advice, and life lessons. Everyone loved it, so Writers Week needed to grow.
Since then more than two hundred writers have visited our campus as part of Writers Week. Let me drop a few names: Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Rick Bragg, Jane Hamilton, Sharon Draper, Aimee Bender, Billy Collins, Patricia Smith, Harry Mark Petrakis, Chris Crutcher, Alex Kotlowitz, Beth Ann Fennelly, Ted Kooser, Miller Williams, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Karr. Perhaps more importantly, hundreds of students have also been given a platform to say, “I’m a writer. Here’s my work.” Dozens of faculty members—and not just English teachers—have also presented their writing.
Writers Week now runs for five eight-period days. Our auditorium seats 555, and it is almost always packed during Writers Week. Our budget has grown due to the generosity of our parent booster organization, individual donors, those who support our fund-raisers, and the visiting writers who frequently trek to our campus for far less than they command at other speaking engagements.
Writers Week is the central experience of some students’ high school years. Those students virtually camp out for an entire week in the auditorium. Some students even skip classes and then happily read their signed books in detention the next week. (Our administration has written specific attendance guidelines for Writers Week, but not every student follows them, and many of their parents support their decision to skip classes to attend Writers Week sessions.)
Student writers get about six minutes each to do their thing. After each student session, the stage is mobbed with well-wishers who hug their writer friends, congratulate them, and affirm them as writers. This is important. Before Writers Week started at our school, we had student writers, but they received almost no recognition, and they didn’t know how to find each other for support.
In 2007 some of my brilliant young colleagues dreamed up FANBOYS. How can I even begin to explain FANBOYS? The idea is that they were a legendary rock band that broke up to pursue careers as English teachers. They were all hired at our school, and then decided to get the band back together. They are all excellent musicians and singers, and their songs are parodies of well-known rock songs with new lyrics that only make sense at our school as they comment or celebrate various campus-centric phenomena, such as our cafeteria’s excellent, gigantic chocolate chip cookies. My favorite image from a FANBOYS presentation at Writers Week is 600 students standing, cheering their teachers, and singing “Don’t Stop Proofreading” to the tune of “Don’t Stop Believing.”
We’re proud to say that after talking about our Writers Week program at various national and state conferences, some other schools have now successfully launched their own versions of Writers Week. We used to take pride in saying that we were the only school with something like Writers Week. We now take a different kind of pride in welcoming on board the other schools who are bringing this experience to their students and communities.
This year we will host Writers Week XVII beginning on Monday with eleven writers from six states. More than ninety of our students will be featured. Teachers from the English, math, and social studies departments will read and talk about their work. And FANBOYS will rock out. We hope the annual magic will return for the seventeenth time.