Tomorrow morning our school begins Writers Week XX, our annual celebration of writing. During every period of the day for an entire week our auditorium will be the setting for a session about what writing is and what it means to be a writer. This year we will learn from about 80 students, more than a dozen faculty members, and exciting professional writers from six states, including novelists, poets, journalists, a priest, and a songwriter.
We’ve been doing this since 1995. In 1995 we started small—lunch periods only, a handful of students, a couple of faculty writers, and some very generous local professionals, including science fiction master Frederik Pohl who lived a block away from our school. (When Mr. Pohl died last fall, we felt like we lost a friend.) More than two hundred authors have visited our campus since 1995, and we have featured more than a thousand student writers, as well as faculty members from every department in our school. I could go on and on about highlights from years past, as well as the value of this program.
Rather than dwell on Writers Week’s estimable past, I’d rather share some thoughts on how Writers Week XX looks a little different from the other nineteen “editions.” First of all, we have a slew of faculty members representing guidance, English, social studies, special education, physical education, administration, world languages, mathematics, and our media center. Each of these educators has plenty of other things to do, but each of them will take the time this week to say, “I’m a writer” and share their words with our school community.
Because twenty years seems kind of momentous, this week we are also featuring several alumni who have continued to produce significant writing since they were featured students at Writers Week at some point over the past twenty years. I wonder what role, if any, Writers Week played in forming their adult identities as writers.
Whether our current students participate in Writers Week XX by standing behind a microphone and speaking their truths, or whether they sit respectfully in the audience and soak in all the words, they will be learning important lessons. Some of those lessons involve writing, but a lot of life lessons flow from Writers Week too.
Writers Week XX is also special because it’s my last. At the end of the year, I’m leaving the school where I’ve worked since 1987. I’ve been told to expect some surprises this week, so I’m steeling myself for that. Although I will still care about and follow Writers Week, I don’t expect to be actively involved in any significant way. This program has been one of the primary focuses of my professional life for twenty years, and I’m happy and relieved to say that my energetic colleagues know how to carry on the traditions while looking for ways to improve. Writers Week is healthy and should be able to continue for many years.
One of the most gratifying things to come out of Writers Week in recent years is how other schools have successfully launched their own versions of it. (Here is a link to our 2013 NCTE presentation where we joined with colleagues from schools around the country to tell about Writers Week.) When teachers and administrators from other schools visit Writers Week and want to know how and why it works, we always try to say how simple it really is. Here are the principles that have evolved.
–Every school has student writers, and they are not always the kids who get As on papers. When we honor and respect young writers, good things happen.
–Teachers will collaborate when they have a shared mission and vision. Everything about Writers Week is voluntary.
–When we place authors on pedestals (or behind a microphone), students will read more and write more. Every class period of every day I see students reading books by authors who have visited our school.
Sometime this week a famous author will say something to a student that will change his or her life. Sometime this week a teacher will feel rejuvenated in the midst of a pretty rough winter. Sometime this week a student will be told by a complete stranger, “Hey, great job at Writers Week.” Sometime this week people at our school will be moved to write something new. Sometime this week students will realize that writing is more than something that is assigned. Sometime this week something will happen no one expects but delights everyone who experiences it.
So that’s it. Tomorrow we roll. You’re welcome to follow along. Information about Writers Week XX can be found here. The Twitter hashtag is #wwxx. Ustream will carry most of Writers Week XX live on this channel. Let’s go.